MONTERREY, MEXICO — Monterrey, Mexico. - In the United States, many people worry about Latinization: See, there is this tan wave of Mexican immigrants, and they still speak Spanish, and they stick together. One hears talk, from some Hispanics and some Anglos, sometimes half-serious and sometimes half-not, that they (the Mexicans) will re-occupy the American Southwest -- Montezuma's real revenge.
In Mexico, there is an opposite anxiety: Americanization. This booming metropolis, with almost 4 million people, allegedly has the world's highest rate of television satellite dishes, bringing down everything from Monday Night Football to the Playboy Channel. When (it's regarded as a done deal) the North American Free Trade Agreement is signed, possibly early next year, many Mexicans fear an even greater flood of Yankee influence.
There is cross-border caricature at work. Mexicans resent the U.S. cartoon view of Mexicans: lazy folks on a burro, covered with a serape and a sombrero, always on siesta. At the same time, many Mexicans see the United States in equally broad stereotypes: broken families, crime, sex and violence, lacking respect for traditional values, competitive and wildly individualistic.
How this contest for the culture is to be resolved will, of course, be revealed here. But it can't be understood without a look at Mexican economics and politics.
While the United States is slowly coming out of recession, Mexico is booming, particularly here in the wealthier North, which has roughly 20 percent of the population of 90 million people. Mexico's GNP rose by about 4 percent last year, and about 5 percent so far this year.
Something remarkable is happening. It's said that a former president of Mexico, Luis Echeverria, wanted to make Mexico the leader of the Third World. That was when ''The New World Economic Order'' (read: ''U.N.-style beggar socialism'') was a hot item.
But of Carlos Salinas, the current president, something very different is said: He wants to make Mexico, finally, a member of the First World (read: ''market democracy.'')
President Salinas' bold Thatcherite economic policies have given Mexico a running start toward the ''market'' part. Mexico may well be an economic miracle ready to happen. It has educated people, oil, and when the free-trade agreement arrives, proximity and access to the greatest market in the world -- just over the Rio Grande. Foreign investment is pouring in. As that economic growth and economic linkage occurs, other things will happen in Mexico, and in the U.S.
In Mexico, the middle class will burgeon, as per-capita income climbs from the current roughly $2,000, a figure that puts Mexico well above Third World nations and well behind First Worlders.
In America, exports will grow to meet the high-end demands of the new middle class, from cars to computers. The best thing Mexico brings to the free-trade agreement is market growth, precisely what our low-immigrant-low-fertility competitors in Europe and Japan lack. Even though birth rates are sinking, Mexico will still add 60 million people by 2025. It's our ultimate economic insurance against a ''fortress Europe'' protectionist trade bloc.
What about Mexican politics? The electoral process is (slowly) -- getting better than it used to be, but what it used to be stank to high heaven. Unlike most of his predecessors, Mr. Salinas is not accused of stealing money, only elections.
But one-party rule won't survive. Free trade and free media bring in free political values, now sweeping the world. If those values are not accommodated, they can explode, derailing economic progress. President Salinas knows that.
All that yields modernism, which in its most popular form is
called Americanization, and which will proceed among Latins on both sides of the border. Modernization yields longevity, prosperity, higher status for women, literacy, urbanization, individualism -- and with it a fearsome challenge to family and traditional values.
That, in turn, becomes the central issue in modern democracies everywhere, including the United States. In culture, as in economics, there is no free lunch.
PD Ben Wattenberg is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.