Mexico: Not just a border; a whole world away

By Helena Rodriguez

As I was walking through the streets of Merida, Yucatan, in Mexico recently, my feet blistered, my stomach churning wildly and aching for the tastes and comforts of home, I recalled the now not-so-funny words of comedian George Lopez.
“Chicanos belong in the United States!”
Those words rang in my ears as we walked in the downtown plaza, my feet still recovering from our trips to pyramids and other sites around the Yucatan Peninsula. It’s tempting to think that we Hispanics would blend in over in Mexico. We roll our Rs. We listen to Los Tigres del Norte and Shakira, and, at least in my case, we’re vertically challenged like many of the native Mayans who come from Chiapas to peddle their homemade crafts in Merida.
Truth be told, Lopez is right when he says that we “Chicanos” stand out like sore thumbs in Mexico. We were dripping in sweat while the natives were accustomed to the heat, and our legs were covered with mosquito bites while they didn’t seem phased by the insects.
I returned home last Friday from a 2 1/2-week stay in the southern tip of Mexico. I went as part of a Spanish immersion program through Eastern New Mexico University to not only learn Spanish, but with high expectations of broadening my horizons and developing a firmer appreciation for this neighboring land of my ancestors.
While I was cultured and enlightened, I was especially saddened. Partly with myself for not being able to hack it, but also with the reality of life there. There was a lot of poverty, even in the villages surrounding the beaches, with many people making their living catering to us tourists.
I recalled a story I read before going to Mexico in early July about an anti-American campaign launched by a group in Mexico. One of the quotes that stuck with me was by a man who said, “It’s getting to where many Mexicans are just born and die in Mexico … they spend most of their lives making the gringos rich!”
As I looked around Mexico, that seemed to ring true. There were Coca-Cola signs everywhere. There were some major Mexican brands, like the bottled water, Cristal, but there was an undeniably strong American presence. At Burger King, I tried to think of the words for pieces of chicken, trozos de pollo, I finally recalled, only for the cashier to shout in his heavy Mexican accent, “Dos chicken tenders!”
Now I’m not anti-American. After my trip, I appreciate what we have here even more. But something doesn’t feel right. Many people look down on Mexican immigrants who come to the U.S. in search of a better life. We welcome their cheap labor, but not their extended stays. American companies want to sell their chicken tenders in Mexico, but I’d be willing to bet don’t pay Mexican workers what they pay workers here.
We bicker about them invading our land, utilizing our social services and we have volunteer Minute Men trying to keep them out, but we have no problem having a strong American presence in Mexico, no problem buying their over-the-counter antibiotics or allowing them to cater to us on Mexican resorts such as Cancun and Cozumel, which are more American than Mexican.
It’s obvious that Mexico needs to diversify and strengthen its economy, and I’m sure there’s a lot of politics involved. Maybe then people won’t be trying to sneak across our borders by the thousands. But I can’t help but wonder if we’re part of the problem or the solution.
Are we Americans helping to keep down the standard of living in Mexico?
These are the deep thoughts that occupied me during my stay there. I don’t have an answer but I know that a stronger Mexico would be to our advantage, and it’s not impossible.
We climbed some of the most famous Mayan pyramids in Mexico. The Mayans were the most advanced people during their time. They created the perfect calendar. I regret leaving Mexico before I could see the famous astronomical observatory at Chichen Itza. But I did see other impressive ruins which have withstood the test of time.
Perhaps Mexico will withstand the test of time, too. I see hope for our amigos across the border, but I also sense a double standard in which we may be hurting Mexico more than helping.