North Carolina's ties to Mexico are strong. Let's make them stronger.

A seasonal farm worker dumps a bucket of freshly picked cucumbers into a bin at Jeremy Mitchell's farm on the Wake/Franklin County line June 25, 2015.
A seasonal farm worker dumps a bucket of freshly picked cucumbers into a bin at Jeremy Mitchell's farm on the Wake/Franklin County line June 25, 2015. cliddy@newsobserver.com

On Sunday, Mexico elected as president the left-leaning Andrés Manuel López Obrador. Known by his initials, AMLO was successful in his third run at the presidency. In the United States, AMLO has been described as Mexico’s leftist version of Donald Trump, a populist and nationalistic leader.

Given today’s polarized politics, it would be easy to let the two presidents’ reputations dominate U.S.-Mexico ties going forward. But North Carolinians have an interest in looking beyond these superficial comparisons to maintain our own positive relations with Mexicans.

I joined a team of Mexican and international observers of this year’s Mexican elections. Talking with Mexico’s farmers, shopkeepers, teachers, police officers, and housewives, I learned Mexicans are not that different from their U.S. counterparts. They want a respectful relationship that benefits both sides.

In light of Trump’s rhetoric about Mexicans, the people I spoke with doubted their new president would be able to engage in polite and constructive relations. Mexicans worry Trump isn’t interested in negotiation.

The relationship between AMLO and Trump will have consequences for North Carolina. Mexico is North Carolina’s second largest international trading partner. North Carolina agriculture, construction, and other economic sectors rely on Mexican immigrant labor, both documented and undocumented. Nine percent of North Carolina’s population considers itself Latino, of which half describe their heritage as Mexican. A new generation of Latinos, born in the United States yet for whom Mexico acts as a touchstone, is assuming leadership roles in communities across the state.

North Carolina’s ties to Mexico reach further still. I served as an electoral observer in the rural county of Calakmul, a part of the country I've visited for 25 years. Like the rural United States, people in this part of Mexico rely on government welfare programs. Abandoned by state officials who favor economic growth in cities, people from Calakmul have emigrated to the United States.

Although the vast majority of people in Calakmul have never set foot inside the United States, I spoke with one man who spent years building chicken coops in the Lumberton area. Another man I interviewed worked two years in a Henderson sawmill. Charlotte, Durham, and Raleigh are all familiar names in Calakmul.

Whether they had traveled to the United States or not, and regardless of who they wanted to be their president, people in Calakmul agreed on the ideal U.S.-Mexico relationship. Moises, a 24-year-old struggling to find a job that uses his education in industrial maintenance, hoped for “un trato digno y amble” (a dignified and friendly approach). Nelly, a 54-year-old accountant for a forestry concern, hoped for a relationship based on “igualdad, respeto, equidad” (equality, respect, and equity). Antonio, a 60-year-old peasant farmer sought “paz, nada de pleito” (peace, an end to the arguments).

Before the election, I asked Calakmul citizens whether they thought any of their presidential candidates could deliver on these hopes. Báltazar, who worked in the Henderson sawmill, was busy campaigning for one presidential candidate who ultimately lost. The 50-something shopkeeper and party stalwart was stumped for an answer: “Trump is difficult to work with. He’s capricious. His way of seeing things seems to be, ‘You are beneath me.’”

Báltazar said his preferred candidate had an excellent resume, including a doctorate in economics and decades of government experience. But given Trump’s disposition, this might not be enough. Báltazar viewed AMLO as "a little bellicose," kind of in the way Trump is. However, nobody in Calakmul wanted a belligerent U.S.-Mexico relationship.

AMLO is set to take office on December 1, after which we will learn whether Mexico-U.S. relations can be improved at the presidential level. In the meantime, North Carolinians can carry out our own diplomatic efforts through the ties we already have, including business relations, family bonds, and our state’s thriving Latino communities.

Despite their election of a new president and their hopes for a better U.S. relations, everyday Mexicans are not sure what steps their country can take next. They are looking for negotiating partners north of the border. Now is the time for North Carolina’s citizens, communities, and businesses to engage in citizen-based diplomacy.

Nora Haenn, PhD, is director of the graduate program in anthropology at N.C. State University.