Glen Olives Thompson Opinion
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Mexico, US, Canada: little understanding

The only hope is cooperation and dialogue to overcome North American parochialism

No, I’m not going to write about immigration or Donald Trump again, at least not directly. Rather, just a gnawing puzzlement about how little most Americans really know about the average Mexican, and how little most Mexicans knows about America.

And of course how, until we do, few mutual problems can be successfully addressed.

A stateside friend recently saw a photo of me with my students on Facebook and asked, “Are you still teaching in Mexico?”

“Yes,” I replied. “Why do you ask?”

“It’s just that your students seem so [insert hesitation for doubt of a politically correct term] white.”

I hadn’t really thought about it before, but in a group of 20 students there were only two could be said to be swarthy. In northern Mexico, particularly in Chihuahua and Sonora, light skinned, light or red-haired and tall Mexicans are ubiquitous.

Blue and green eyes are not anomalies worthy of special notice. Surnames like Bremer and Schmal and Arikado are almost as common as Sánchez and González. Other states have significant black-Mexican, Italian-Mexican, Arab-Mexican and Jewish-Mexican populations.

Aside from the obvious Spanish Conquistadores, Mexico, as it turns out, is a land of immigrants too.

But this brief exchange started me thinking about the persistent ignorance of each other we share, despite our common geography and intimately inter-tangled histories and economies. We more often than not get it wrong when thinking about each other.

Impressions and stereotypes run as deep as the tap root of an ugly backyard weed that keeps coming back no matter how many times you pull it.

But let’s first sift out where understanding is common. Wealthy Mexicans and wealthy Americans who do business together understand each other perfectly well – they celebrate contracts in New York and yacht together along the Riviera Maya.

Middle-class Mexicans who travel to the U.S. for business and holidays understand America well enough too. Border communities, like El Paso, Texas and Ciudad Juárez, have no problem getting along, and indeed the border has its very own language and culture, epitomized as “todo diferente” in Juan Gabriel’s pop classic La Frontera.

The million or so expatriates living and working in Mexico (and not barricaded by minds or walls inside foreign resort condos) also have an appreciation of what the “real” Mexico represents.

But that leaves about 300 million Americans and 30 million Canadians who don’t know much, if anything, about Mexico or Mexicans, and a significant segment of Mexico’s 120 million population who know the U.S. and Canada only by way of myths and generalizations.

This is not a criticism as such, just an observation of North American parochialism – equally applicable to ignorance of European societies and cultures. But America and Mexico don’t share borders with Estonia or France.

Most middle-class Americans’ contact with Mexicans is largely limited to poor laborers – maids, gardeners and the gaggle of ambitious but underemployed men outside Home Depot ready to install your tile floor, repair your roof or clear your lot.

When these same gringos vacation in Mexico at coastal resorts or colonial towns, they are again surrounded by equally poor gardeners and cooks and maids in the service industry. The widespread perception perpetuated in the media and by superficial experience from foreign visitors is that Mexico is a poor third world country, and it is all-too-often reinforced through limited personal experience.

The common image of America by the Mexican underclass is blurred as well. It is a land of plenty, of wealth, of leisure, of order and progress, if popular American TV programming is any guide – the visage being further reinforced when these same Mexicans come into contact with average American and Canadian vacationers, or immigrate to cut grass or wash cars in American middle-class neighborhoods.

The reality of our respective societies, taken as a whole, is slightly more complicated, and much more nuanced.

My 10th semester law students were recently shocked to learn that there are more than 50 tent cities in the U.S. for the homeless. They were even more shocked to learn that many of these homeless camps are not occupied by mentally ill alcoholics and drug addicts, but rather the full-time working poor who simply can’t afford rent in major metropolitan areas.

Although still oddly disputed by the brown-shirted, hard-core jingoists, the best demographic studies indicate that more Mexican laborers are returning to Mexico than trying to escape it. In fact, just last week the border patrol reported that for FY 2015, border apprehensions dropped to a half-century low.

Apparently for good reason. Despite Mexico’s prolific problems of bad governance, corruption and violence, the Mexican middle class is surging. The American middle class, by comparison, is in endemic decline. Accuse me of being a self-hating American or shill for the Mexican government if you like, but these facts are easily verifiable.

My current Mexican reality is common among American expatriates. We (wife and two children) live in a gated middle-class neighborhood, which is neither a resort nor a country club. I’m the only American.

Our neighbors are working professionals: doctors, lawyers, engineers, teachers, small business owners, artists and skilled tradesmen (and probably a drug dealer or two). The electricity is cheap and reliable (and subsidized), and the trash is collected three times a week.

When conflating the economic data with a life lived “in the field” as it were, it is exceedingly difficult to argue that Mexico is not on the rise and America is not slowly fading. Although I’m a direct beneficiary, I don’t necessarily wish this to be the case, and moreover this objective fact has little to do with the Mexican government’s policies, or often lack thereof. It is largely the result of globalization and implementation of neoliberal economic ideology.

Mexicans and Americans have more in common than either would like to perhaps admit. For different reasons, both of our governments are mostly feckless. The Mexican government has always exaggerated the meme of victimhood at the hands of the world’s hegemonic superpower to cover its own glaring faults. Meanwhile, successive American administrations have blamed Mexico for the outsourcing of American jobs while at the same time promoting domestic policies which encourage the very same – and if that were not enough – it relies on immigrant labor to keep the economy afloat while at the same time decrying illegal immigration for political purposes.

It’s complicated, I know. Geopolitics has become somewhat like soccer hooliganism – enjoy the game and then bludgeon the opposing fans bloody whether your team wins or loses.

But progress might be made (I am not hopeful) if we were to acknowledge our commonalities.

The working poor in Mexico are not all that different from the working poor in the U.S., except that few poor Mexicans are homeless. The super wealthy in both countries have successfully gamed the system, creating an illusion of democracy built upon the underlying invisible lattice of plutocracy.

I’ll end with two thoughts about law and public policy (if you’ve stayed with me so far without your eyes glazing over, please keep reading – I’m almost done).

The days when we elected the best and the brightest are a couple of hundred nautical miles behind us (if you doubt me, just read Gordon S. Wood’s Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different). The electorate doesn’t want the smart, the knowledgeable, the sophisticated.

Voters want leaders who think like they do (which is to say not much), and if you want to get elected you pander to stupidity. (“All politics is yokel,” as the late Christopher Hitchens once quipped.) Politicians embrace asinine aphorisms, slogans and memes which sooth the souls of hectoring hillbillies.

But then at some point you have to make policy by passing legislation putting these ideas into effect (if reelection is of any value to you). Data from the social sciences is of no value unless it can be cherry-picked and spun to support your spurious position. That’s how the sausage gets made, and bad public policy gets enacted through legislation. On both sides of the border.

The reality is that American economic prosperity does not mean Mexican poverty, or vice versa. It is not a binary, zero-sum game world, and it never has been. Our only hope is cooperation and dialogue. That is, if we want to have a sustainable western hemisphere, something remotely resembling a civilization.

Glen Olives Thompson is a professor of North American Law at La Salle University in Chihuahua, a specialist in law and public policy and a regular contributor to Mexico News Daily. Some of his other non-academic work can be viewed at glenolives.com

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