What is the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the word “Mexico?” I would be willing to bet it is either illegal immigration, drug violence, or poverty. Maybe Cancun if that’s where you spent your Spring Break. Nonetheless, the fact is that my nation’s reputation in the United States is a negative one. There is a stigma in this country associated with being Mexican. Invariably, there is an underlying assumption that any and all Mexicans are undocumented immigrants. By extension, Mexican-Americans, their descendants, are faced with the same stigma, either by association or because they may be perceived as “ïllegals” themselves. Added to that are the sensationalist stories about drug violence south of border. The picture isn’t pretty.
For a neighboring country, it is remarkable how deeply misunderstood Mexico is and how little is known about the country. Common wisdom amongst members of U.S. society — often including Mexican-Americans themselves — indicates that Mexico is either a place to avoid out of fear of violence or one to visit solely for a debaucherous Spring Break in a beach resort. Even Northwestern, until last year, wasn’t accepting study abroad applications for the program in Merida, a beautiful city in the Yucatan peninsula, due to the travel warning issued by the Department of State (it still requires additional security measures and the signing of a release). This is a region with a crime rate about as high as that of Montana. Chicago is a war zone compared to Merida. Yet no distinction was made by the school when making the decision to not send students there.
When I wanted to apply for a grant to conduct research over the summer in Mexico, I found out it would require the same additional steps — obstacles, essentially for the same reason, even though that’s my home. The preconceived notions and stereotypes about Mexico can be saddening, amusing or flat-out demeaning. But I have come to find that they are not surprising. Remarkable, yes. But not surprising.
Certainly the narrative on this side of the border does not help. On one side, there is the hostile rhetoric by certain segments of society about Mexicans and why they come to the U.S. as agricultural workers, janitors and low-skilled service workers. Stealing American jobs whilst constituting a burden on public resources. On the other, the perspective from Mexican-Americans tends to be one of struggle, where Mexico is the place their parents overcame for a better life — a country to leave behind so that their children could live the American dream. Because, in this view, it is preferable to endure any and all difficulties in the U.S. than to live in Mexico. At best, it is a country and a society to empathize with by virtue of being part of “the global south.” At worst, it is a lawless narco-state whose citizens are desperate to flee northward. Only this could explain why, at one of the top universities in the U.S., I am asked in all seriousness who mows my lawn in Mexico, “because here in America it’s always Mexicans who do that.” In any case, the discourse and attitudes toward Mexico are seldom favorable. In fact, they have never been worse.
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A public opinion survey on Americans’ views toward Mexico, conducted last year by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and The Woodrow Wilson Center, found that overall opinions of Mexico are at their lowest point since the surveys started back in 1994. My country received a mean rating of 43 on a scale of 0 to 100 (with 0 being the most unfavorable and 100 the most favorable). It also found that few Americans are aware that Mexico is one of the America’s top trading partners. This, to me, is impressive. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2013, Mexico purchased more than $226 billion worth of American products. That’s more than the value of American exports to Brazil, Russia, India and China combined. In my case, my family’s livelihood largely depends on business and trade conducted with firms in the United States. In turn, 6 million jobs in the US depend directly on trade with Mexico, according to the same think tank. Tourism between our two nations works both ways, too. Last year, 14.5 million Mexicans visited the US, and spent $10.5 billion, more than Chinese tourists spent.
I could go on and on about how stereotypes regarding Mexico are not only false but also harmful. Mexico does not need empathy. What we need is a serious attempt at cooperation and understanding by the U.S. Stemming the flow of American guns and cash into Mexico that fuel the violence would be a good place to start. An American society that is not so quick to judge and is instead informed would also help. We are neighbors, so close and yet so far away. It is time Americans wake up and realize Mexico is more than the bloody appendix of their imaginations. As for myself, I intend on returning to Mexico upon graduation. Far from being a country to escape, to me it represents opportunity, family and the only place I can call home.
Pablo Garcia Romero is a Weinberg junior. He can be reached at email@example.com.