Distant Neighbors

The massive misunderstandings that plague the relationship between the United States and Mexico.

Read more about America’s dysfunctional relationship with Mexico.

A Virginia National Guardsman patrols the U.S.-Mexico border

The other day, my 4-year-old son asked me what a border is. It was a simple question, and yet I found myself stammering until his eyes narrowed intently. He does that, as if to say, “Aha, it seems I have stumbled upon something juicy here.” He might as well have been asking where babies come from. In fact, I was merely struggling to figure out whether to emphasize that borders are shared, thus bonding either side, or whether to emphasize that borders separate and divide, creating sides in the first place.

I have crossed it so many times. My life’s been defined by the choice of which side of it I would end up on, and yet I still don’t know quite what to make of la frontera. I showed Sebastian the U.S.-Mexico border on the map. We traced the straight eastward line from California—now diagonal, now horizontal—until it hits El Paso-Juárez, where all pretense of tidiness is surrendered to the vagaries of the Rio Grande and the integrity of the Texan republic.

It’s befuddling on the ground, too, perhaps no place more so than in Nogales, a town—or towns, thanks to the fence crawling across the jagged, barren hills, one in Arizona, one in Sonora state—begging to be forever preceded by the adjective Godforsaken. No offense, but if you have been there, you know what I mean. The border there, unlike in Juárez or Tijuana, seems to slice through one compact community, almost violently. It’s reminiscent of Berlin and its wall that way, and as in Berlin in its day, the severity of the line drawn in the sand (literally, in the case of Nogales) serves to reinforce that each side of the same community belongs to entirely different worlds. To walk across to the Mexican side, you go through an old-fashioned turnstile of the kind you might find at a stadium or on the New York City subway, and then you’re out, gone, in a separate reality. As if to underscore the arbitrariness of life, Mexico welcomes you with a small, pedestrian-size traffic light. Press the button: green, you’re good to go; red, open your bags.

“Poor Mexico,” an old saying in that country goes, “so close to the United States, so far from God.” If Americans cared enough about Mexico to coin pithy sayings about the place, they might have an equally regretful formulation. The title of Alan Riding’s book Distant Neighbors remains operative a quarter-century after it first appeared.

This week, Barack Obama is going to a Mexico that few Americans understand or appreciate. It is both remarkable and typical that neither the president nor anyone in his top tier of advisers, including his secretary of state, have shown much interest in our southern neighbor and its more than 100 million people or have much knowledge of them. A presidential trip to Burkina Faso would be only slightly more exotic to this crew.

On the Mexican side, of course, there is plenty of misunderstanding as well, but one borne not from neglect but from excessive rumination about the northern colossus. Mexican elites think they know the United States inside and out, but they invariably hold onto irreconcilable, overreaching stereotypes: As individuals, Americans are innocent, humorless, and bumbling, but in the aggregate, Americans somehow manage to form a ruthless, omnipotent hegemon.

Partly because half of what used to be Mexico now lies north of the border, Mexicans underestimate the ability of the United States to bumble. Seeing the United States as a nearly infallible superpower suits Mexico’s cultural fatalism and provides Mexicans with an all-convenient scapegoat for their daily travails. But Mexico’s exaggerated sense of awe about its northern neighbor is as corrosive and distortive to the bilateral relationship as is the utter contempt with which Americans regard Mexico.

On immigration, for instance, Mexicans can’t entertain the possibility that perhaps the United States is incapable of policing its border with microscopic precision. Hence, in the Mexican narrative, millions of Mexicans have crossed “illegally” because Washington wanted them to do so since they needed their labor, a view reinforced by the ease with which they get hired. The fact that prospective employees are made to cross a desert as part of the application process, and forced to live in the shadows subject to arbitrary deportation, is just a sign of anti-Mexican prejudice, which preceding waves of immigrants from places like Ireland and Germany would never have been subjected to.

The headline-grabbing violence surrounding the drug trade, which has claimed more than 10,000 lives in the last three years, also exacerbates a sense among Mexicans that their fate is determined north of the border. American demand for illicit drugs is the root cause of the problem, and the trafficking cartels are becoming an ever larger cancer thanks to the billions in profits and the thousands of weapons that flow back into Mexico.

If you’re a Mexican invested in the narrative of an all-powerful American empire, it’s hard not to take the current situation as a personal affront. The Obama administration and members of Congress might pat themselves on the back for offering Mexico a helicopter or two to help out, but south of the border there is a perception that if it wanted to, the United States could easily put an end to the northward flow of drugs and the southward flow of cash and guns. Beyond effective policing, how about repealing the Second Amendment and legalizing drugs to solve the problem? The fact that Mexicans can raise such questions in earnest shows what distant neighbors they really are.

The current financial crisis also feeds all sorts of misunderstandings and even conspiracy theories south of the border. How to square this financial crisis, a global contagion that for once was triggered by the United States and is wafting across the border from north to south, with the image of an all-powerful America? In Mexico, the thesis of American decline is not obvious. Surely there must be something else going on, and indeed the fact that it is the Mexican peso, not the American dollar, that has been devaluing—eating away at recent gains in Mexican living standards—seems an indication that when it comes to the coin toss of sharing a border with the United States, it’s always going to be “heads they win, tails we lose.”

Despite all the failures to communicate, the misunderstandings, the disparity of interest, and the mutual mistrust built into the U.S.-Mexico relationship, the fact is that both countries are fortunate to border each other. Ours is like a stale, neglected marriage whose inherent virtues and strengths are now best appreciated by others. Certainly in Europe, Africa, and Asia, the U.S.-Mexico partnership is perceived as a harmonious, mutually beneficial one. Nowhere else in the world do you find a 2,000-mile boundary between what used to be called the First and Third Worlds, and for all our petty dramas, it is remarkable that there is not more friction.

For all its fatalist paranoia, the proximity to the United States is a huge economic advantage for Mexico, and the country has only itself to blame if it hasn’t fully exploited that fact. Moreover, the need to retain its own identity while in the shadows of the United States has enriched and deepened Mexico’s own culture in ways that make it deeply admired around the world. The two economies, so integrated now, complement each other, and the United States has reaped tremendous benefits from sharing a border with a growing market for its goods, as well as by serving as a source of needed labor that can seamlessly integrate into the American work force. Other developed economies like Germany and Japan haven’t enjoyed such an advantage, and their choices have been to airlift in workers who encounter and trigger far greater cultural tensions or to atrophy in the absence of such inflows.

Americans know so little about Mexico—at least about the parts between Tijuana and Cancún—because they have had the luxury of not paying attention. And we haven’t been sufficiently appreciative of that luxury. Generations of Americans have had to learn about the geography and culture of Germany, Korea, Russia, Cuba, Vietnam, and Iraq—and not out of any intellectual curiosity. But Mexico, for all its flaws and contradictions, has been a largely sensible, peaceful partner that shares many of our nation’s values and has thus earned itself our neglect. The loud nativist anti-immigration voices in this country like to portray Mexico as a hell on earth, but really, how many other developing nations with a population in excess of 100 million would we prefer to have as a southern neighbor?

Ask Russians, Chinese, or Europeans whether we are fortunate in this respect. Americans quibble over how many Border Patrol guards should police its southern flank, and in the anxiety of the moment there is much talk of mobilizing the National Guard. But this in itself reflects the tremendous luxury geography has afforded the United States, which has never had to deploy vast standing armies to secure its land borders. Of how many other great powers in history can the same be said? I am guessing the answer is in the neighborhood of zero.

So, I still don’t know quite what to make of la frontera—both the physical one and the notional one. We are fortunate to share it, if annoyingly unaware of that reality. I don’t find the current bull market in concern over Mexico all that reassuring, because it is driven by an overwrought failed-state thesis peddled by the same anti-Mexican voices that scuttled comprehensive immigration reform. If portraying Mexico as another Pakistan is the only way we’ll pay attention to our neighbor, then maybe I’ll cast my ballot for continued neglect.

What we have here is not a failed state so much as a failed relationship, one that both governments need to address in a sustained, responsible manner in the coming years.