Why Americans Fear Mexico



The United States traditionally has not thought much about its neighbors, north or south. Like a teen-age boy -- all arms and legs -- growing fast, self-absorbed, the U.S. didn't bother about borders. If the United States was getting bigger than its borders, then too bad. Let Canada and Mexico worry . . .

Canada and Mexico are countries that see themselves on a north-south axis. Mexico regards its eternal self as deriving from the stone civilizations of the South, whereas the north has been the ungovernable, the changing part of Mexico -- the hideout of the Chichimeca, the hideout of modern Mexican rebels, the ungarrisoned land that Mexico lost to the gringo.

Canada sees its wintry northern extreme as unchanging. (''Every October in Halifax you could smell the north coming -- in the wind, with the morning frost,'' a Canadian journalist told me.) The Canadian north is also where the indigenous Canadians reside, as resistant to modernity as any Indian in the Yucatan. Whereas, in Canada, the southern border with the U.S. is always vulnerable to change, ''pop culture'' from the U.S. spills across the border into Canada, an influence both feared and desired -- true seduction.

The U.S. Civil War was between the North and the South. But in some deeper way the United States has been a country that saw itself -- unlike Mexico, unlike Canada -- on an east-west axis. People in the U.S. regarded the westward expansion as the unfurling of history. The justification for taking Mexican land in the 19th century was something mystically called ''Manifest Destiny.''

Today, as California has become crowded, as people in the U.S. have come up against the western edge of the continent, there is a new pessimism, as though the U.S. had no more future because there is no more west to discover. It is no coincidence, I think, that as the western U.S. has become crowded, people in California are turning north and south. People speak of moving to cleaner Canadian cities; people in Southern California escape the crowded metropolis by buying ''condos'' in Baja California.

The border with Canada is not well-guarded. In a cultural sense, despite disagreement over the British crown, the U.S. and Anglo-Canada are barely strangers at all. Mexico, on the other hand, was Catholic, mestizo, a country shaped by the faith and civil law of counter-reformation Spain. Mexico was destined to be at odds with the United States. It was inevitable that the U.S.-Mexico border would become a real border, guarded by guns.

What people in the U.S. always knew was that theirs was the younger country. Whereas Mexico saw her identity as continuous with the ancient Indian civilizations, the U.S. was oblivious of the Indian, disregarded memory, was preoccupied by the future.

Mexico fought a revolution, partly to keep U.S. business interests away. Mexico's famous writers continue to flatter Mexico by talking about her unchanging soul, but Mexico is, in reality, on average 15 years old. Mother Mexico is a teen-aged girl.

But it was in those same years of revolution that the great northern migrations of Mexicans began. Mexicans began to speak of ''El Norte'' as synonymous with possibility. In recent decades, upper-class Mexicans have been seen in the United States, at universities and business schools. They were preceded for several decades by peasants who went to the United States looking for work. To the United States the southern border was an annoyance. Though people in the U.S. were willing to use the inexpensive labor of Mexico, the U.S. was inclined to arrest Mexicans, once their labor was done, and send them back into Mexico.

At best, for decades, the U.S. pitied the poor of Mexico, pitied Mexico. But here is the most important change of recent years: Now people in the U.S. have begun to fear the Mexican poor. How shall the U.S. compete against the poor of Mexico? You hear the concern expressed all over the country -- lost jobs, jobs moving south of the border. Suddenly, the rich U.S. is unable to hold onto jobs that Mexicans are willing to do for a fraction of the wages.

Mexico, meanwhile, is getting younger and younger. Mexico's famous writers continue to flatter Mexico by talking about her unchanging soul, but Mexico is, in reality, on average 15 years old. Mother Mexico is a teen-aged girl.

As much as the youth of Mexico might undermine its stability, the youth of Mexico unsettles the United States. The U.S. has always assumed its meaning in its youthfulness. The U.S. saw itself as a kind of adolescent -- in rebellion against authority, against memory.

Now the United States is becoming a middle-aged country (we are in our thirties). We are becoming more tragic in sensibility. The U.S. interest in environmentalism is a reflection of the aging of the nation. People here wonder why Mexicans are having so many babies, why Mexicans are so careless about pollution. People in the United States are aware suddenly of finitude.

My expectation is that the three North American neighbors will draw closer, despite those citizens in all three countries who resist a coming alliance. But after all the negotiations are conducted in Ottawa, Mexico City and Washington, people in the U.S. are going to have to re-imagine their immediate world.

Mexico, especially, is going to trouble the United States. We in the U.S. are going to look south with a sense that we are looking at our lost youth. We are going to envy Mexico. Already people in the U.S. regard the optimistic new Mexican cities like Tijuana and Monterrey with the haunting sense that we are looking at our 19th-century ancestor. Mexico is becoming a place where we see our past (the youthful country we once were) and our future, now that we have run out of the West.

Richard Rodriguez, author of ''Days of Obligation,'' wrote this article for Pacific News Service.

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