Donald Trump’s Mexico — And Mine

by Jonah Raskin, September 7, 2016

Mexico never seems to age, never appears to grow old, and never goes backward or forward in time, though it’s always in flux. “Poor Mexico, so far from God and so close to the U.S.,” Porfirio Diaz, the notorious president (and dictator) of Mexico, once observed. Were he alive today, he might say that Mexico is very far from God and awfully close to Donald Trump, which might add up to the same thing.

Mr. Trump crossed the U.S. Mexico border on the last day of August 2016. In the capital, he met briefly with Mexico’s current, and extremely unpopular President, Enrique Peña Nieto, whom he called “a friend.” The two men apparently discussed matters of trade and immigration. Then, Trump quickly crossed the border again, proving that he would and could do anything, including slumming south of the border, to gain media coverage, win a few votes and stoke his own immense ego.

Like a great many American politicians, and like scores of Hollywood directors, Trump annexed Mexico, albeit briefly, and turned it into a backdrop and prop in a farce, staring himself as the joker. And, like a great many Mexican statesman before him, Peña Nieto played the role of the fool in a farce that few of his fellow citizens found amusing.

Alas, I missed by less than 24 hours, the opportunity to observe first hand the meeting between the American joker and the Mexican fool. I departed from Mexico for the States on August 30, after an eight-day visit when I reconnected with expat friends, met muy sympatico Mexican artists and intellectuals and rubbed shoulders with a few members of the elite who seemed eager to show that they were as arrogant as Trump himself.

I also encountered school kids, cooks, waiters, taxi drivers, tienda owners, teenagers dressed up in costumes to perform a facsimile of Aztec dances, along with Mexicans who had lived and worked in the United States for decades and who had returned to the beloved land of their birth to spend the last months or years of their lives surrounded by friends and family. I did not get near the Presidential Palace, nor did I see the Mexico that Trump saw.

Moreover, I am certain that Trump did not see my Mexico, a place of great wealth and great poverty, peasants and billionaires, modern buildings and ancient ruins, hovels and skyscrapers, tequila, mescal, beer and Coca Cola, the national drink, that poisons children and adults alike, kills hunger, and that’s more readily available in every barrio than cocaine, amphetamines or any other dangerous drug that’s exported from the U.S.A. But almost no one complains about sugary soft drinks, certain not the millions and millions of Mexican Coca Cola addicts themselves who freely lift bottles and cans to their mouths and pour the stuff down their gullets.

But don’t get me wrong. While I hate Coke, I love Mexico and Mexicans, peccadillos and all. I have loved the country and its citizens ever since 1975 when I lived in the capital — the “D.F.,” as it’s called — for a year, worked as a reporter and journalist and witnessed how Mexico’s millionaires lived: in big houses, with big American cars and servants who did nearly everything for them, from making food to cleaning their houses and their clothes, tending their gardens and attending to the needs of their spoiled children. These days, Mexicans do much the same work for Anglos North of the border.

Then, too, in Chiapas, near the border with Guatemala, I met Indian lumberjacks who cut down immense forests to make lumber that was exported to Europe and the United States. In Ocosingo, where the road ended and the jungle began, I rubbed shoulders with a priest who saw it as his mission to convert the Indians to Catholicism, a story that has gone on for centuries.

Mexico got into my blood and invaded my head. I went back several times in the 1980s, then again in the 1990s as a tourist. I have returned to Mexico every few years over the past decade, mostly to the city of Guanajuato in the state of Guanajuato — known as “GTO” — that sits about seven thousand feet above sea level. Visitors can feel dizzy until they become adjusted to the altitude. It’s a place with a rich history that’s still visible and sometimes even palpable in the colonial architecture and the elaborate system of tunnels that run underground, funneling cars from one barrio to another and preventing the streets from descending into absolute chaos.

Like much of Mexico, GTO is a maze and labyrinth. Most of the inhabitants live in small houses along the steep hillsides, practically on top of one another, or “cheek by jowl” as one expat told me. Callejóns, or alleys that are not wide enough for a single car, crisscross the hillsides and disorient tourists. One needs a map to get around the city.

GTO boasts a modern university, a first class symphony and a month-long cultural festival known as the Cervantino that draws visitors from around the world. Nearly all year, GTO is alive and lively with music, loud fireworks, noisy marching brass bands and hordes of students who crowd the streets at night. When it rains, young couples lean against stonewalls, embrace one another and engage in long kissing sessions.

Still, the past is never far away. Spanish and English speakers alike remind tourists that the Spanish arrived in the sixteenth century, discovered silver, enslaved the Indians and imported Africans in chains to work the mines, cut down the forests and carved out a colonial empire that sputtered to an end, along with the abolition of slavery, independence from Spain and the Mexican revolution that was led by the likes of Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa and fueled by peasants and workers who hated the rich and the powerful and wanted a piece of land to call their own and liberty, as well. “Tierra y libertad!” Not bad as far as slogans go.

Diego Rivera, the artist, muralist and communist, was born in GTO. A small but exciting museum honors his life and his work. Rivera’s image appears on the 500-peso bill. He’s on one side, while Frida Kahlo, his wife, lover, fellow artist and comrade, appears on the other. Mexico reveres its left wing artists, provided they’re dead and buried and can no longer make big murals ridiculing blowhards like Nieto and Trump.

Mexican graffiti from Guanajuato showing current Mexican President Nieto kissing former President Carlos Salinas.

Mexican graffiti from Guanajuato showing current Mexican President Nieto kissing former President Carlos Salinas.

Sterling Bennett, an expat who has lived in GTO for 14 or so years, has made it his mission to preserve Mexico’s history of bondage and freedom in two novels, Playing for Pancho Villa, and Commandante Ibarra, a murder mystery with a Mexican detective who borrows from Sherlock Holmes’s bag of tricks and investigates the history of crimes against the Yaqui Indians who lived in the Mexican state of Sonora and in Arizona and survive to this day.

Bennett has found a niche for himself in GTO. Expats like him can live much more inexpensively in Mexico than in the United States. A monthly social security check for $1500 goes a lot further than it would in San Francisco or Seattle. Still, expats often have a hard time or so it seems to me. Mexico and Mexicans can rub them the wrong way. Then, too, some expats carry a sense of guilt around with them that can feel as heavy as the boxes that Mexicans lug on their backs uphill and down hill. In a society built on caste and class, expats have their own pecking order.

From all over the world, Mexico takes in Americans, French, British, Chinese, Japanese, Brazilians, Poles, Australians and more. It takes them all in and yet it remains Mexico, much as it takes in everything, from rock n’ roll and the NFL to Coca Cola and all the cast-off T-shirts that Americans wear and discard. Something about the place defies conquest.

Perhaps the other really remarkable thing about Mexico is that while not every Mexican can do everything, every Mexican can do something that’s useful, valuable and practical, like repair a broken-down bus on an isolated stretch of road on a remote mountain range and with only a couple of tools. I was there. I saw it happen. I lived to tell the tale.

In almost every city and decent sized town in Mexico including GTO you can find a workman who can build a house, install plumbing and electricity, repair a TV or a computer, make anything that is made anywhere in the world, except perhaps a nuclear weapon. Mexico has its own population bomb that keeps on exploding. Indeed, Mexicans are not afraid to give birth to lots of children and to go anywhere and everywhere. One finds them in Maine and Mississippi, California and Kansas and in the strangest of places where they speak Spanish, preserve their culture and lose it at the same time.

Ubiquitous Mexicans are America’s convenient scapegoats. After all, as our next-door neighbors, they’re close at hand, and, while they’re overwhelmingly Catholic and faithful churchgoers, they’re awfully far from God and the Goddess, and don’t have him or her on their side, despite what priests tell them. Moreover, despite their numbers, they’re vulnerable, and rather easily deported when they’re no longer wanted or needed.

When I read about Trump’s day in Mexico, I thought that maybe he wasn’t as dumb as his enemies made him out to be. After all, he is the Republican Party candidate for President. Perhaps he knows, or wants us to believe, that the election isn't about Obama, Hillary, Syria or ISIS. Perhaps, from his perspective, it’s about Mexico, Mexicans, immigration and the border between our two countries that also exists anywhere Mexicans call home.

Savvy Trump works both sides of the border. He visits with Peña Nieto and shows that he likes his “brown brothers,” to borrow an old racist expression, and then he hops crosses the border and rallies faithful supporters who can’t and won’t face the demons that live inside their own heads. Instead, they demonize Mexicans who won’t stop coming here no matter how high, wide or extensive the wall might be. After all, humans build walls so that they will be breached, scaled, broken and undermined. Not even Trump can keep the greatest of walls from falling down. Viva Mexico! 

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