Welcome guest blogger A.M.! We had been reminiscing about his time in Mexico long ago, being deported from Mexico back to the U.S. and commenting on the culture that would lead to the disrespect shown by those of “privilege” in the recent viral video called las ladies de Polanco. He said,”I had to get it all out.” 🙂
I am an enigmatic ball of paradoxes. I am an Anglo-American who was deported from Mexico for working illegally. I am a full-time single father. I am from Chicago and like Sriracha on my hotdogs. I am both a Cubs and a White Sox fan – which I can get away with because I live in the suburbs even though I say I’m from Chicago, and my home away from home is Mexico City.
Because of the aforementioned ball of paradoxes, I am uniquely qualified to offend most everyone with my observations of taboo subjects like politics, which is really defined by economics and explained by taquerías. A model that will ultimately solve the immigration debate by telling you what you already knew. Confused yet?
In 1992 I studied abroad in Mexico City. Although I was born and raised in a suburb where Latinos have become over 50% of total population, I was ignorant to my own stereotypes of Mexico, Mexicans and Mexican culture. Ironically I found, so were they. Many if not most of my friends speak Spanish as their first language. Youthful intrigue with my friends’ bilingualism, and a 7th grade crush on a girl named Laura, drove me to study the language with ferocity: grammar, literature, and translation.
Arrogantly, by the time I went to Mexico I thought I understood what I would encounter. I knew Mexico City was a huge metropolis – so is Chicago. I’d eaten tacos al pastor, menudo, and a plethora of other Mexican dishes. I spoke Spanish, watched Telemundo and secretly listened to “’Chente” when I wasn’t blasting Big Daddy Kane in my headphones. In short, I thought I was culturally qualified to know what I was getting into.
What I didn’t expect was the thinly veiled in-house racism. Anti-American messages conflictingly wrapped in totally American labels, i.e. Hollywood and fast food were associated with enviable and imitated privilege, whereas the culture they represented, was only slightly more evil than Satan. The complete lack of a middle class (more on this epiphany later), the highly, highly, educated and well-travelled, multilingual Mexicans who believed in conspiracy theories even more vehemently than their nearly illiterate paisanos who worked day jobs in the U.S., and used stereotypes to give validity to the world’s problems more readily than my grandparents used the Great Depression to explain why they still washed aluminum foil for re-use in the 1990’s. Corruption, pollution, crime…. and I thought Cook County (QF note: Chicago is in Cook County) was bad.
All that being said, here is more of what I didn’t expect – Artists who made art for art’s sake; musicians who made music for music’s sake. Culture and history was rampant. Hot chocolate so good, I drank it in 85 degree weather. I was amazed when they asked me what a burrito was, “we see them in movies all the time….” And, imagine my complete and total joy learning that a caguama (a quart sized beer) cost $0.90 with a $0.30 rebate when you turned in the empty bottle. The Metro was as indescribable as the beautiful parks and remarkable museums. Mexico was beautiful and I was spell-bound.
In 1992 I recognized that there was unlimited opportunity in Mexico. I taught English for $10 per student, per hour. At my peak I had 13 students and was making $130 in an hour every Saturday morning. I also translated resumes, scripts and instructions – usually in exchange for a few beers or tacos. I could pay for school, food, transportation and rent working an hour a week.
I felt the nervous energy in the Mexican press. There were doubters, but they lacked my youthful exuberance – so I thought. Mexican presidents were all Ivy League economists. Ours were Ivy League lawyers. This had to be a win-win – so I thought. Mexicans would develop a middle class – the entity that softened political extremes in the U.S. and eventually might reduce some of the rampantly historic racism and classism in Mexico – so I thought.
I didn’t understand how NAFTA opened the door for U.S. outsourcing and the destruction of the U.S. middle class. I didn’t understand how the devaluation of the peso would cause the rich to finance their lifestyles on credit, and the ubiquitous poor to flee in ever greater numbers to the U.S. as already scant opportunities disappeared. Later, U.S. corporations realized that low-cost maquiladoras still couldn’t compete with Asian (slave) labor rates. This reality and economic uncertainty in Mexico caused closure of the maquiladoras resulting in even more Mexican emigration. In the U.S., a wave of immigrants looking to work, combined with the loss of jobs from outsourcing, made Mexico and its people scapegoats of CEO shareholder responsibility and victims an increasingly public racism. While CEOs were being responsible to their shareholders, the lawyer-led-Legislature and Executive Branch of the U.S. were being irresponsible in the name of free-market economics via deregulation and political horse-trading.
Combine these faux pas with terrorist attacks, natural disasters, the burst of the housing bubble, foreign wars and 9%-15% unemployment, and the result is a society of traumatized, angry, and frightened Americans wondering, “What happened?” In history, we’ve seen this scenario played out before. Entire populations become polarized and susceptible to extremist cults of personality – how more extreme the politics of George W. Bush and Barack Obama? How more extreme the advent of the Tea Party and the 77% increase in food stamp usage between 2000 and 2010? Cause and effect; action and reaction; Blue and Red, Raza y Gringo. And, with the Mexican ménage a trois that is PRD, PRI and PAN.
In Mexico, there were near riots in 2006 when taqueros held demonstrations because they couldn’t compete with the puestos selling Noodles in a Cup. They complained of a sneaky Asian invader that was remotely stealing their livelihood and their culture. Others complained in the newspapers that compañías gringas like McDonald’s and KFC were similarly imposing a foreign culture over the Mexican one, but then strangely counter argued that if U.S. fast food lowered their prices to those of local Mexican competitors, Mexican consumers would have a broader freedom of choice, and the cultural issue would cease to exist because there would no longer be exclusivity associated with these invaders. Under-cutting price is an economic threat to the poor and over-pricing is a cultural threat to the elite.
Simultaneously, in my little corner of suburbia, taquerias sprung up on every corner. There are 5 within a 5 block radius of my house. Tacos cost $1.30, Burritos $4.00, and Tortas $5.00. Sesos, tripas, birria, huitlacoche, literally sharing a driveway with Big Macs in one location, Frosty’s in another and both prospering while they do so. What does all this fast food border hopping, nationalistic fear and loathing mean?
Here’s the lesson: We react with extremes when we feel threatened, whether that be economically or physically. Extreme behavior is rooted in self-preservation and causes us to think with a narrow focus. The narrow focus equates ignorance of the proverbial big picture, and the very existence of that ignorance requires a scapegoat. The loss of the middle class U.S. is creating the same polarization that already existed in Mexico. The sense of entitlement and greed of the 80’s generation and subsequent MTV culture has created a call-to-action that amounts to whining and paying someone else, via a vote or a check, to solve “the problem” with no understanding of what that problem actually is. Regardless of which side of the Immigration Debate you support. If you don’t understand what is motivating the passion of the other side, then you have no interest in a solution – only in a greedy, instant, self-gratification. And, in spite of ironic similarities on both sides of the border, that is that type of ignorant, narcissistic thinking that started this mess to begin with.