The massive misunderstandings that plague the relationship between the United States and Mexico.

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
April 14 2009 6:54 AM

Distant Neighbors

The massive misunderstandings that plague the relationship between the United States and Mexico.

The US-Mexico border in Nogales, Arizona. Click image to expand.
A Virginia National Guardsman patrols the U.S.-Mexico border

The other day, my 4-year-old son asked me what a border is. It was a simple question, and yet I found myself stammering until his eyes narrowed intently. He does that, as if to say, "Aha, it seems I have stumbled upon something juicy here." He might as well have been asking where babies come from. In fact, I was merely struggling to figure out whether to emphasize that borders are shared, thus bonding either side, or whether to emphasize that borders separate and divide, creating sides in the first place.

I have crossed it so many times. My life's been defined by the choice of which side of it I would end up on, and yet I still don't know quite what to make of la frontera. I showed Sebastian the U.S.-Mexico border on the map. We traced the straight eastward line from California—now diagonal, now horizontal—until it hits El Paso-Juárez, where all pretense of tidiness is surrendered to the vagaries of the Rio Grande and the integrity of the Texan republic.

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It's befuddling on the ground, too, perhaps no place more so than in Nogales, a town—or towns, thanks to the fence crawling across the jagged, barren hills, one in Arizona, one in Sonora state—begging to be forever preceded by the adjective Godforsaken. No offense, but if you have been there, you know what I mean. The border there, unlike in Juárez or Tijuana, seems to slice through one compact community, almost violently. It's reminiscent of Berlin and its wall that way, and as in Berlin in its day, the severity of the line drawn in the sand (literally, in the case of Nogales) serves to reinforce that each side of the same community belongs to entirely different worlds. To walk across to the Mexican side, you go through an old-fashioned turnstile of the kind you might find at a stadium or on the New York City subway, and then you're out, gone, in a separate reality. As if to underscore the arbitrariness of life, Mexico welcomes you with a small, pedestrian-size traffic light. Press the button: green, you're good to go; red, open your bags.

"Poor Mexico," an old saying in that country goes, "so close to the United States, so far from God." If Americans cared enough about Mexico to coin pithy sayings about the place, they might have an equally regretful formulation. The title of Alan Riding's book Distant Neighbors remains operative a quarter-century after it first appeared.

This week, Barack Obama is going to a Mexico that few Americans understand or appreciate. It is both remarkable and typical that neither the president nor anyone in his top tier of advisers, including his secretary of state, have shown much interest in our southern neighbor and its more than 100 million people or have much knowledge of them. A presidential trip to Burkina Faso would be only slightly more exotic to this crew.

On the Mexican side, of course, there is plenty of misunderstanding as well, but one borne not from neglect but from excessive rumination about the northern colossus. Mexican elites think they know the United States inside and out, but they invariably hold onto irreconcilable, overreaching stereotypes: As individuals, Americans are innocent, humorless, and bumbling, but in the aggregate, Americans somehow manage to form a ruthless, omnipotent hegemon.

Partly because half of what used to be Mexico now lies north of the border, Mexicans underestimate the ability of the United States to bumble. Seeing the United States as a nearly infallible superpower suits Mexico's cultural fatalism and provides Mexicans with an all-convenient scapegoat for their daily travails. But Mexico's exaggerated sense of awe about its northern neighbor is as corrosive and distortive to the bilateral relationship as is the utter contempt with which Americans regard Mexico.

On immigration, for instance, Mexicans can't entertain the possibility that perhaps the United States is incapable of policing its border with microscopic precision. Hence, in the Mexican narrative, millions of Mexicans have crossed "illegally" because Washington wanted them to do so since they needed their labor, a view reinforced by the ease with which they get hired. The fact that prospective employees are made to cross a desert as part of the application process, and forced to live in the shadows subject to arbitrary deportation, is just a sign of anti-Mexican prejudice, which preceding waves of immigrants from places like Ireland and Germany would never have been subjected to.

The headline-grabbing violence surrounding the drug trade, which has claimed more than 10,000 lives in the last three years, also exacerbates a sense among Mexicans that their fate is determined north of the border. American demand for illicit drugs is the root cause of the problem, and the trafficking cartels are becoming an ever larger cancer thanks to the billions in profits and the thousands of weapons that flow back into Mexico.

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