Faraway: Get Out of Your World
So close, yet so far away
I met a friend for coffee one morning at the local cafe in our small town in Ohio. The conversation began with our plans for the day. Mine centered around preparation for my writing workshop later that morning. My friend told me that her first task that morning was to “order six Mexicans” for her landscape company.
“How do you order up six Mexicans?” I asked feeling a bit taken aback by the abruptness of her agenda.
“Oh, I’ve got a number I call. You just tell them how many you need, and they show up ready for work!”
Later, I couldn’t stop thinking about ordering up Mexicans. Like ordering lunch. The prompt I used that day for my writing workshop was, “Have it your way.”
While walking with a farmer one afternoon in Yolo County, California, I asked him how he gets enough workers to keep all 10,000 acres productive and profitable.
“Every spring I put out the same ad that my father and grandfather published.”
We stood looking across the well-tilled fields, and nicely-raked walnut orchard. I had been through both barns that morning. Mexican workers greeted me everywhere I went. I asked, “Who responds to your ad? Only Mexicans?”
“The last time a white guy answered the ad was back in ’82.”
Every morning I browse through the daily newsletter, “Stratfor. 20 Years of Global Intelligence.” I like to ponder different political perspectives to keep my views balanced. Stratfor is written by seasoned journalists and commentators from around the world. Last month Reva Goujon wrote a thoughtful piece entitled, “Mexico, on the Edge of Now.”
Goujon gives an insightful commentary on the culture and history of Mexico. She refers to Octavio Paz, the Nobel laureate, famous for his poetry and writings that reveal the Mexican soul. She quotes Paz from “The Labyrinth of Solitude”,
The Mexican, whether young or old, criollo or mestizo, general or laborer or lawyer, seems to me to be a person who shuts himself away to protect himself … he builds a wall of indifference and remoteness between reality and himself, a wall that is no less impenetrable for being invisible. The Mexican is always remote, from the world and from other people. And also from himself.
And she includes another passage from Paz, from an article he wrote for The New Yorker in 1979,
The Indian blends into the landscape until he is an indistinguishable part of the white wall against which he leans at twilight, of the dark earth on which he stretches out to rest at midday, of the silence that surrounds him… Nobody is the blankness in our looks, the pauses in our conversations, the reserve in our silences. He is the name we always and inevitably forget, the eternal absentee, the guest we never invite, the emptiness we can never fill. He is an omission, and yet he is forever present.
Then Goujon brings the story of Mexico to the present and targets her discussion on the relationship between the United States and Mexico:
Mexico and the United States have a shared geopolitical destiny. If the U.S. economy grows, Mexico’s economy is riding shotgun. If the U.S. economy sputters, Mexico’s economy tumbles. Nearly 80 percent of Mexico’s exports are destined for U.S. markets and half of those exports are higher value products like vehicles and electronic goods as parts of the country continue climbing up the value chain. Rising flows of U.S. natural gas to its southern neighbor provide Mexico with cheaper and cleaner fuel to expand the electric grid and support a growing manufacturing base. U.S. investment will at the same time be essential to Mexico’s ability to rehabilitate its energy industry over the next decade. As the United States improves its energy security and drives growth in advanced technologies like additive manufacturing and robotics, more capital and more jobs will return to North America and tighten up already well-integrated supply chains across the continent.
In the decades ahead, the U.S. economy will stand in a much stronger position relative to its peers in the developed world. But there will of course be bumps along the way with repercussions on both sides of the U.S.-Mexican border. The American middle class and blue-collar workers will not feel part of an economic recovery so long as their wages remain stagnant and living conditions remain difficult. The immigrant easily becomes the scapegoat for that economic frustration and Mexico once again becomes a punching bag in the United States. As Paz advised in the run-up to the 1996 U.S. presidential election, “Americans should not be that angry with Mexico, because we are condemned to live side by side.”
The fear that this wave of anti-immigrant sentiment will linger well beyond the U.S. election has been weighing heavily on the minds of many Mexican political and business elites. The idea of Washington cutting off remittances to Mexico unless Mexico pays for a wall to keep illegal immigrants out was easily dismissed as campaign rhetoric in Washington, but it struck a chord in Mexico City. In 2014, the United States sent out $54.2 billion every year in remittances, with $24 billion destined for Mexico. U.S. remittances to Mexico add up to only 2 percent of Mexico’s GDP, but cutting them would have a devastating effect on the country’s poorest regions, which would do whatever it takes to keep funds flowing underground. For Mexico, this would be tantamount to an act of war. To my surprise, the conversation around the dinner table in Mexico City even turned to what a potential military conflict between Mexico and the United States would look like in a 21st century setting.
The deep-seated paranoia Mexico harbors toward its northern neighbor is nothing new. Paz would say that this friction is what you get when you place side by side two versions of Western civilization, one grounded in Protestant reformism and the other in the ritualism of Catholic orthodoxy. From a geopolitical perspective, Mexico ineluctably resides in the shadow of a much larger, resource-abundant, capital-rich empire. Whether Mexico City tries to project power across the northern desert or across the Gulf of Mexico, the core of Mexico on the central high plateau and along the coast of Veracruz are inherently vulnerable to U.S. military preponderance. In other words, challenging the North American superpower is simply not an option for Mexico.
But that does not mean it makes sense for the United States to challenge its smaller southern neighbor, either. Demographics will shape North America’s destiny in the 21st century. By 2050, Europe, Japan, Russia and China will face existential questions over their economic models and the competitiveness of their militaries as the proportion of working-age population narrows sharply. The U.S. and Mexican population will be aging as well, but at a slower rate. With a wider base of working-age people, driven in large part by its immigrant population, the United States will have an easier time adapting to the coming demographic crunch. Even as immigration flows turned negative between 2009 and 2014 as more Mexicans returned home than came to the United States looking for work, the United States overall saw a quadrupling of the Hispanic share of the U.S. population from 1965 to 2015, according to Pew Research Center. The more Hispanics expand their share of the U.S. electorate (in 2016, 27.3 million mostly Millennial Hispanics will be eligible to vote) the more politically engaged they will be in American politics. By virtue of geography, a Mexican-American in the United States does not cease being Mexican when he or she settles north. Matters of the homeland will regularly spill across the border.
Have you ever wondered what life would be like in America if suddenly every Mexican disappeared? Farmers would have no one to work the land. Homeowners would have no one to landscape their yards. Vineyards would lay neglected with no one to pick the grapes. Restaurants would have no one to cook the food or clean the dishes. Hotels would have no one to scrub the toilets, change the linens, or vacuum the hallways.
How many white people in America would readily do all this work - and for the low wages that Mexicans are paid?
What is a neighbor? A neighbor is so much more than just someone who lives nearby. The idea of a neighbor involves reaching out to help one another. If my neighbor is sick I will bring them a pot of chicken soup.
Spurn your neighbor and you create hostility. Appreciate your neighbor and you create peace.