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1: Neighbors

Preface to the 1981 Edition || 2: A Bad Scenario >>

"A well-fed neighbor sleeps, and so may you" is, a folk saying. that Mexican emissaries have long quoted in Washington. Americans agreed that it is a charming aphorism, yet we have declined to bear the cost of such a panacea. With wetbacks flooding the United States, we are aware, of course , that a hungry Mexico is expensive, too. But, cheap labor is useful, and the ultimate decision, it has been thought, lies with Washington , not with a weak Mexico in which the United States had little interest. That was the thinking before the 1970s, when the OPEC oil cartel unbalanced world prices and Mexico entered its second great oil boom. To North American, that boom seemed a blessed way out of the OPEC trap.

Foreign relations are among the most difficult of human enterprises to manage, partly because of well-justified suspicions and fears. These often are exaggerated between next-door nations, who, like next-door neighbors, must be sensitive to each other's problems, because so many opportunities for friction arise. Cheek-by-jowl quarrels offer chances to wound that are absent from long-distance squabbling. When England held much of France in medieval times, the countries constantly slashed at each other. Russia's neighbors for centuries have likened their position to that of "being in bed with an elephant," and Mexico has felt like that toward the U.S. since it became independent of Spain in 1821. Its relations with Washington often have been strained or broken, usually because they were neighbors.

Neighbors are bound to have problems along their border. There are customs laws and searches and aggravating rules and waits. There is illegal "hot pursuit" over the border of antelope, cattle, bandits, smugglers, wives, and lovers. There is the exchange of cleverer refugees--embezzlers, stock manipulators, and political terrorists--and the documentation of extradition and legal proceedings. Goods move back and forth, legally and illegally. There is exchange of wholes, strong drink and drugs, gambling, weapons, factories, blue jeans, and shoes. But now, happily, there is not much exchange of gunfire, unlike some borders in the world.

A common border increases the potential for trouble when one nation is rich and the other poor; nowhere is there a border contrast greater than that between the United States and Mexico. Such disparity promotes smuggling, illegal entry, labor abuses, arrogance, and resentment. Americans sneer that "when Mexico enters the twentieth century, real communication will be possible." Mexicans sigh, "poor Mexico, so far from God, and so near the United States."

Being next to the United States often has been a curse to Mexico, but it is now at least a mixed blessing to the swarming poor south of the border. The 65 million Mexicans of today will be more than 100 million in twenty years, while the economy, though growing, scarcely dents the legions of the poor.

So they go to the United States--on contract, under the fence, or packed into the trunks of cars. Mexican maids pour in from Ciudad Ju&aacuterez daily to work in the homes of El Paso, Texas; other Mexicans cross in a thousand places to pick melons, wash cars, and swab out restaurants. Meanwhile, U.S. industry, encouraged by Mexican law, moves south of the border to use the cheap hands there.

American organized labor demands reduced contract labor from Mexico, expulsion of illegal immigrants, a curb on border factories in Mexico, and a tightly policed frontier. On the other hand, growers of lettuce and almonds say that Americans will not do "stoop" labor and that Mexican pickers are needed. Leaders in Mexico say that their poor citizens are invited to the United States and then mistreated. They also declare that Mexicans who have for years lived and worked illegally in the United States have, in effect, earned a "promise" that they may remain. Mexican newspapers claim that the United States cannot now change the "rules" and deport illegal Mexican aliens.

Mexican leaders and newspapers say, in addition, that since their country cannot provide jobs for the mushrooming population, Mexicans inevitably will cross the border illegally until the United States helps improve the Mexican economy so that Mexicans will want to stay home.

The United States says, "Have fewer babies"; Mexico says, "Mind your own business." Washington declares, "Work harder"; Mexico City replies, "Charge less for your manufactured goods and reduce tariffs on our goods." The U.S. cries, "Stop the drug traffic!" Mexico suggests, "Stop using drugs."

Mexicans also angrily complain that millions of people of Mexican heritage who are citizens of the United States meet prejudice and discrimination. The United States scarcely can answer that.

So there is friction, even when the will to compromise exists; when it does not, we hear demands for extreme "solutions"--thickets of guns, electric fences, guard dogs, a wall from sea to sea.

The friction abruptly lost much of its importance with news of vast new Mexican oil discoveries during the 1970s. North American interest in Mexico soared. It was hoped that gas from Tabasco and oil from Vera Cruz would let Americans forget the Arabs. Washington serenaded Mexico City. Alas, the serenade was unpracticed and sung but clumsily. Could the U.S. learn to do better? Could the neighbors forge a better relationship? Ojalá, God willing, as the Mexicans say.

Preface to the 1981 Edition || 2: A Bad Scenario >>