From Rensselaer to the Revolution: José Amilcar Vidal Sánchez

As the new semester begins, I am working on my dissertation proposal and preparing for my general exams. I decided to take a break today to see if I could find any new names to add to my database of Mexican students in the United States.

I started by looking in Roderic Camp’s Mexican Political Biographies, 1884-1934Each entry includes information on an important public figure’s family, birthplace, jobs, and most importantly for me, educational background. I simply browsed until I found the case of José Amilcar Vidal Sánchez.

Vidal's portrait from the 1912 RPI Yearbook, p. 116.
Vidal’s portrait from the 1912 RPI Yearbook, p. 116.

Born in a small town in northern Chiapas in 1890, Vidal studied Civil Engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Some research on yielded results from the RPI yearbook. I learned that he was a member of the Unión Hispánica. He graduated in 1912.

Next to his portrait was a short biographical sketch, apparently written by the yearbook editors.

Biography of José Amilcar Vidal Sánchez, 1912 RPI Yearbook, 116.
Biography of José Amilcar Vidal Sánchez, 1912 RPI Yearbook, 116.

The yearbook editors drew upon already-old stereotypes of a short, lazy, siesta-prone Mexican to describe their classmate.

Notice in the final line that the editors’ valediction refers to the Mexican Revolution. In fact, upon returning to Mexico, Vidal aligned himself with the supporters of Venustiano Carranza and served as Chiapas’ delegate to the 1916 Constitutional Convention. As a civil engineer, he was appointed to several government positions in Mexico City in the 1920s and 1930s. Perhaps he was not as fond of sleeping as his classmates at RPI had believed.

I hope to find more information on Vidal in the archives. But in the meantime, his story confirms some of the patterns I’ve notice so far. One is that before 1920, many of the Mexican students in the U.S. were engineers, like Vidal. Also during this time period, most of the Mexican students who went to the U.S. were from places far from the center of the country, like Yucatán and the northern states. Chiapas, the southernmost state, might also be part of the student-sending periphery. But since Vidal is the first person from Chiapas whom I have found in my research, I will have to keep looking.


The first club for Mexican college students in the United States?

The banner for this website is a detail taken from the image below, showing the Mexican Club at Lincoln Memorial University in 1921. I found it using’s collection of digitized yearbooks. I’ve been using yearbooks in my work for several months, but this image really surprised me.

Lincoln Memorial University Yearbook, 1921, p. 193.
Lincoln Memorial University Yearbook, 1921, p. 193.

I should say that I didn’t exactly stumble upon this yearbook. Earlier this year, I consulted a directory of all the foreign students in the United States, published in 1919, which listed nine students from Mexico attending LMU. Some of them were still there a few years later, so when I searched their names on Ancestry, I found the image of the Mexican Club they belonged to in 1921.

But there is something remarkable about this image: it’s the earliest evidence I have found for a club specifically for Mexican students at a U.S. university.

When we think of the earliest waves of Mexican migration to the United States, we don’t usually think of Tennessee. But that’s where this club was founded, at a small university in in the town of Harrogate near the Cumberland Gap.

Who were these students, and how did they get to Tennessee?

On this blog, I’ll be writing about my search for information to answer these questions about Mexican students in Tennessee and elsewhere.