“Poor Mexico - so far from God, so close to the United States.”
That was a 19th century Mexican dictator named Porfirio Diaz, lamenting his homeland’s checkered history, and the numerous ways in which its giant neighbor to the North has meddled in its internal affairs. The quote came to mind for me thanks to recent events – Donald Trump’s demagoguing of Mexican immigrants and just about everything Mexican, and the escape of drug cartel leader Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman from a high security prison outside Mexico City, a source of major embarrassment to the Mexican government.
It’s been a really bad week for Mexico, and for those like myself who love the country and its people. I have a Master’s degree in Latin American history, studied at the National University in Mexico City for a semester, and have been traveling to Mexico since the late 1960s. I speak Spanish, have driven around a lot of the country, don’t stay in all-inclusive hotels and avoid tourist traps like Cancun.
And what I’ve seen over the years bears no resemblance at all to the popular image of a corrupt, violence-prone land with a few safe oases catering to tourists. Mexico is a poor country, but its people are warm and friendly, hard workers who enjoy a rich culture, a surprisingly complex cuisine (it’s not all burritos and tacos) and live in some of the most beautiful, colonial era cities on the planet.
Yet there’s no doubt that the country has many problems – in fact, it currently ranks 103rd out of 175 countries on Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index. But a lot of this has to do with the fact that the country never really had a chance. Rapacious and corrupt Spanish colonialism, invasions by America and the French, dictatorships, a violent 20th century revolution that killed over one million people and a one-party rule that lasted for 70 years. That’s Mexican history in a nutshell, and the United States, which has interfered with the country in numerous ways practically non-stop since independence was declared in 1821, hasn’t helped matters.
So if millions of Mexicans want to come here to better themselves, it’s understandable. And unless you’ve been blinded by prejudice, you’ll notice how hard-working and polite all those Mexican construction workers, gardeners, restaurant help, nannies, cleaning women, etc., are. Maybe a handful of them are rapists, murderers and drug mules, like Donald Trump claims, but several studies, like one by Northwestern University, have found that “there is essentially no correlation between immigrants and violent crime.” And a study by the University of California found that incarceration rates among young men are lowest for immigrants, and “this holds especially true for the Mexicans, Salvadorans and Guatemalans who make up the bulk of the undocumented population.”
Most of these folks are, in fact, way too busy working, taking care of their families and sending remittances back to their homeland to bother with criminal acts. So let’s cut the Mexicans a break, OK? You may not like how all those undocumented folks have gotten here, but they’re not creating havoc during their stay. And there’s this: If there were no demand for drugs, there would be no supply. So once again, the United States has had a hand in destabilizing our neighbor to the south.
Think about it the next time you want to give Trump props for speaking truth to power. Because he isn’t.
Lewis Beale is a journalist based in Raleigh.