MEXICO CITY – Deep in the heart of Mexico City, the American Legion post serves as a home away from home for U.S. veteran expats and doubles as an unofficial center for people-to-people diplomacy.
The post’s members sponsor three schools here, including one whose students wear red, white and blue uniforms.
One of the world’s oldest American Legion posts, first chartered in 1920, it was recently renovated and formally reopened this month in the fashionable Condesa district in a building that houses upstairs an American-style bar and restaurant, as well as the city’s only second-hand English language bookstore.
The spot’s official name is “Alan Seeger Post II,” named after a young American poet who volunteered for the French Foreign Legion and was killed at the battle of the Somme in 1916.
“For me, what we do here is about American ‘soft power,’” said Grant Badger, using a term that denotes exerting influence by good example. The post’s commander, Luis Cotto-Vasallo, echoed the sentiment.
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“We can defuse some of the stereotypes of Americans seen in the movies” by reaching out to the Mexican community as good neighbors, he said.
Cotto-Vasallo, a retired Marine who served in the early 1970s, said that new members have often been gladly surprised to learn about its charity work.
“When they are aware of our commitment to the blind girls’ school, the girls’ orphanage or the primary school, they immediately want to help in trying to raise funds,” the commander said.
The primary school, built in 1957 by American World War II veterans living in Mexico, has about 1,500 students who don uniforms in the colors of the American flag.
While it is now under the Mexican educational system, the Legion continues to provide funds for maintenance and school supplies.
The post also supports Casa de la Rosa Torre, a school for the blind, and La Esperanza, a boarding school for abandoned, abused or orphaned girls.
“For folks living on fixed pensions, it’s not easy to give from their pockets,” said Cotto-Vasallo. “But they do and present the most positive side of our society.”
Taking care of communities in need, in the spirit of American generosity, also ranks high on the list of priorities for retired infantry officer Jay Van Heuven, a Vietnam veteran who served from 1967 to 1971.
He said the post hopes to attract Mexicans who will want to join the Americans' charity work. It is clearly appreciated by Mexicans familiar with the Legion’s activities.
“What they do is very good,” said Jesus Ramos, a Mexican who attended the post’s reopening. “Very few people do things for society in Mexico. But the people who come here (to the American legion) love Mexico and love living here with us.
Izcalotl Flores, another Mexican visitor, said the charities gave American veterans here a new sense of mission.
“They’ve been to rough places, Vietnam, Iraq, the Second World War. They’ve seen the roughest and now they want to help,” Flores said.
While the Legion post is miniscule in size compared to the gargantuan American embassy campus, one of the largest U.S. diplomatic outposts in the world, it has an advantage over the official mission — it is open to all. The embassy, about two miles away, resembles a fortress, complete with concrete barriers and armed guards.
Now that the veterans of Alan Seeger Post II have their premises renovated, they hope to attract new and younger members — veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq.
“Lots of young Americans really don’t know where we are,” said Richard Earley, a Vietnam veteran.
So they’re going to try to find them.
“We know that many younger veterans live in Mexico. What we don’t know is where. We cannot sit on our hands hoping they discover us.”
The veterans say they hope that friends at the embassy will help them get the word out. So far, the post has about 60 members and a small cadre of volunteers.
But its new outreach effort could pay off, judging from the turnout at the reopening event.
The place was packed. The dish most in demand: Hamburgers.
Not surprising, said the legionnaires — they’re the best in town.
Bernd Debusmann Jr. is a freelance journalist in Mexico City.