Sarah DeVries
AMLO with supporters AMLO with supporters in El Fuerte, Sinaloa in 2019.

I wouldn’t vote for AMLO again, but I can’t blame those who would

The president's opponents ignore the root causes of his appeal at their peril

As I was scrolling through the New York Times last night, I found an editorial by Mexican economist and sociologist Jorge Zepeda Patterson titled, “Despite it all López Obrador has my vote.”

Obviously, I had to read it. While Mexico’s president is someone I would have voted for all three times (when he ran for president in 2006, 2012 and won in 2018), though not a fourth, his behavior since becoming president is something that’s had me completely bewildered more than a few times.

But Zepeda made a great point: there are essentially “two Mexicos,” and the side that AMLO has made it clear that he’s on — despite the fact that many of the “have-nots” are not actually currently being helped by him — makes up a significantly larger population. Numerous social programs plus rhetoric aimed at reminding the underprivileged that he’s on their side maintain the popularity of both the man and the party that he leads.

The “two Mexicos” Zepeda referenced made me think back to the several years I spent teaching at an American high school in the city of Querétaro. It was my first exposure to “the other Mexico,” as before then, I’d only really hung around with what could best be described as middle-class Mexicans.

The campus itself was beautiful and well-kept, the students well-dressed and mostly light-skinned. It was regarded as one of the top schools in the state, and teachers were recruited both nationally and internationally to ensure the students’ consistent exposure to both languages.

This was my first exposure in Mexico — ever, really — to kids who had grown up having everything they needed and wanted. Most were the children of the city’s elites: business owners and politicians. Tuition for just one child was quite a bit more than would be affordable under Mexico’s minimum wage, and all the students’ families had servants employed in their homes.

Many students there also had their own (new) car as soon as they turned 16, and a few had bodyguards waiting for them right outside the school parking lot to escort them home. Some of them were “poor” by comparison to their more extremely wealthy classmates: maybe they drove an older car or went on less-elaborate vacations.

I was certainly poor compared to even the poorest ones — and I was not poor (not for Mexico, anyway).

The year I started teaching, 2006, was the year that López Obrador ran for president against Felipe Calderón. Those of you who were here, or who followed the news during that time, will remember that AMLO set up his “legitimate government” in Mexico City’s zócalo for several months, insisting that he had actually won the presidential election.

My students were mad about it. They weren’t so mad about the ideological issues but rather about the increased traffic problems from the ongoing protest that they encountered on their regular trips to Mexico City.

While there were a few sympathetic students (“To what length would you go if you believed that I had unfairly failed you and the administration refused to do anything about it,” I asked them), most made clear that they were not happy with the situation. Still, they were teenagers, a group in any social class not known for thinking of the greater good over their own convenience.

I taught mostly social science classes, so social class and stratification were topics we discussed quite a bit. To my surprise, many students told me that they considered themselves “middle class” when asked.

They were young, of course, and I suppose that if you were just basing it off American TV, then maybe they could see themselves living like some of those upper-middle-class families popular in sitcoms who are somehow always magically rich. They’d squint in puzzlement at charts that showed them to be in the top 5% richest families in Mexico.

Though the students were, for the most part, polite, intelligent and very decent people, teaching there was hard for me. In addition to realizing that I was simply too sensitive to be a teacher in the first place (one kid saying “this is boring” could ruin my day and send me home in tears), it was hard to see a kid who was rude and disrespectful in class and could barely write his own name drive up to school in a Jaguar day after day.

If that was rough for me, what might it have been like for the janitorial staff, the guards, the food service workers — who all got up extra early to catch the bus for their long shifts at the school?

It’s no surprise to me that AMLO and his party have become,  and stayed, so popular as the distance between the types of incomes my students’ families were used to and those that the workers who served them earned have expanded even more in recent years.

And the president constantly saying things like “No, we’re not going to help them; they don’t need any help, they’re the exploiters!” has yet to get old for most of his followers. While AMLO’s appeal isn’t just about “sticking it” to the rich guys, I do think that’s part of it.

The president speaks to the disconnect between the economic expectations and the realities of the majority of Mexicans.

Do you easily pay a 300-peso cover to go into a bar and then run an open tab — or do you know exactly the price of a kilo of tomatoes, of rice and of tortillas because every peso counts? For most Mexicans, the latter is the reality, and those are “his people.”

So whether the increasing number of poor are prospering under AMLO or not is almost irrelevant. The coronavirus has caused many formerly lower-middle-class Mexicans to fall downward into their ranks, but that is not part of the divisive conversation — you know, the one that the president controls via his “good vs. bad” rosters presented in his mañaneras (morning press conferences) every day.

For those struggling, it must just feel good to have someone say, “I’m not on the side of the people that you have to watch win over and over and over again; I’m on your side.”

So, while Morena lost its supermajority in Congress, which would have allowed López Obrador to change the constitution without consulting the opposition (thank goodness), the party’s popularity on the more local level has increased. Morena’s candidates won the majority of governorships up for grabs this election.

“The other Mexico” can certainly continue to ignore the plight of the increasing number of those left behind as inequality grows here, but unless they offer an alternative, they will do so at their own peril.

Sarah DeVries is a writer and translator based in Xalapa, Veracruz. She can be reached through her website, sdevrieswritingandtranslating.com and her Patreon page.

Reader forum

The forum is available to logged-in subscribers only.