The November elections in the United States exposed the messy truth about what Americans think about each other, and the world. So be it.
It’s the world next door (Mexico) that matters most, and the accepting or rejecting of America’s relationship with Mexico and the mestizo masses of Central America. This issue impacts and flavors America’s future on just about every hot-button issue: public education, social services, national security, jobs, crime and a national debate about fear versus fairness.
Yet in many ways the acceptance has already happened. The ship has sailed. Our foreign yet familiar Mexico relations are underwritten by an unstoppable demographic destiny.
In his book Diversity Explosion writer William H. Frey statistically validates America’s most transformative reality: a multicultural (mostly Latino) population will overtake America’s historically Caucasian base majority. He foretells how in a single generation (by 2040), America’s historical white majority will be replaced by a basket of multiracial and Latino (mostly Mexican heritage) citizens. This is already foretold.
Most norteamericanos come to know the developing world and foreign lands via an engagement with Mexico and Mexicans; either on vacation, a blast across the border, or a chat with the guy who does the lawn. Or our coworkers who “look Mexican” or have a Latino surname, and yet couldn’t conjugate a Spanish verb with both hands.
So as the world watches America flail toward its future, experience with and opinions about Mexico will permeate and shape our binational challenges. But are we ready to face our mestizo future?
I’d argue yes. Not unlike America’s recent election, the prevailing view of a marginalized Mexico is ideological more than pragmatic. This prevailing view will no doubt change as Americans accept our foretold destiny.
The pragmatists (in this case people who have actually been to and spent time in Mexico) deserve a voice in defining the America we leave our children (and their probably Mexican mates).
I’ve spent most of my 40-year career learning about Mexico, contemplating its complexity and teaching American travel agents the ins and outs of our “distant neighbor.” It started in 1984, teaching full-day seminars on behalf of Mexicana Airlines.
A team of gringo “Mexico ambassador” instructors roamed North America, painting the softer-edged realities of Mexico travel to agents, many of whom harbored sincere doubts. Where is it? Is it clean, safe? Would my clients get sick? The engagement was based far more on curiosity than the rancor of today.
Born and raised in southern California I was surround by an alien yet familiar overlay of Mexican iconography: street names, city names, “taco night,” cactus, sombreros, a place called Olvera Street and an international border less than 100 miles from my Orange County home; memories laced with the scent of steaming, toasty bolillos from a weekend trip to Rosarito. It all had a romanticized, appealing glow.
We celebrated the lovely “Spanish” missions like San Juan Capistrano, a hallowed spot where migrating swallows would magically return each year, completing their annual sojourn from that country to the south.
At the same time, few of us growing up felt comfortable saying the word Mexican. We heard and mimicked our parents call all Latinos Spanish. Racist indeed, but in a sort of Orange County, 1960s innocence.
Fifty years later, few of us have romanticized, neutral views on Mexico. A 2012 consumer poll by Vianano and GSD&M laid bare what many Americans thought about both Canada and Mexico.
The results aren’t really that surprising. Most of us are pretty benign about our Canadian neighbors. Heck, the whole nation could sneak across America’s unguarded, northern border next week and we’d barely notice.
Mexico on the other hand did not fare so well. The graphic accompanying this piece tells how survey participants perceived Mexico:
Here too, not that surprising. Think for a moment about the imagery most of us grew up with: cartoon characters (Slowpoke Rodriguez), Hollywood movies (desert adobe Westerns), Spanish class in high school (something about la biblioteca), a border town visit.
Add our geography-challenged world view and media coverage about the less-than-savory, gritty truth about Mexico’s shortcomings. Then there’s the reality of how Mexicans are observed within the U.S.: often poor, huddled, indigenous ‘illegals;’ often cast as job-stealing and social service freeloaders.
Put it all together, and Mexico really never had a chance.
What was not reported about this 2012 survey was how two vastly divergent Mexico views coexist within American opinion. The “never been/been once” crowd 54% of the time cast Mexico as the “source of the problems” between our nations.
When pollsters tallied findings from people who had first-hand experience with Mexico, the Mexican people and the realities of being Mexico in the 21st century, the findings were virtually flipped: the “traveled frequently” respondents say, 50% of the time, that Mexico is a good neighbor.
So who’s right? The “never been/been once” ideologue naysayers? Or those who have at least been to the place, and can defend the more pragmatic path forward? The answer is no doubt somewhere in between, as America reconciles the messy truth about its neighbors, our demographically destined allies.
The writer lives in Ajijic, Jalisco.