There’s no doubt that the anti-immigrant seeds sown by on-going fence-building political rhetoric are sprouting controversy.
Yet, the debate has served to rekindle attention on two realities that undermine the fence: (1) financial benefits on our southern border flow both ways not just to Mexico, as alleged by a major political candidate; and (2) the fact is that the Berlin Wall-type “fence” would be built in the middle of “Old Mexico.”
These economic and historical facts are self-evident. Yet most people in the U.S. totally overlook their existence. Thus, further discussion is in order.
America is already great, because we are stronger together. Contrary to inflammatory electioneering talking points, our relationship with our loyal ally Mexico is not a rivalry, but a solid partnership where each side profits. This long-standing winning formula between our two countries calls for embraces, not fences.
Unbelievably, a vocal political candidate often boasts to his supporters that he will shut down the U.S. Mexico border (at least for some time). His is obviously expedient bluster, but what’s the impact to the U.S. economy if that happened? In one word – Catastrophic!
Statistics tell the tale. Mexico is the second major oil supplier to the U.S., and its third largest trading partner. Further, the U.S. Mexico border is one of the busiest in the world and the envy of other countries. About one million travelers cross each day, with over $1 billion worth of goods in a highly integrated two-way conveyor-belt system.
Connected to a network of market points strategically spread out to include non-border states, it touches communities throughout the U.S. In actuality, border cities on the U.S. Mexico border operate a perpetual vortex of activity stretching from Brownsville, Texas to San Diego, California, simultaneously delivering goods to U.S. destinations in states far from the border.
It’s the same open system success story with tourism dollars. Mexican travelers in the U.S. spent nearly $10 billion in 2011. Business leaders in Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio are well aware of this dynamic gold mine and compete with border towns to lure Mexican shoppers to their cities. Conversely, over one million U.S. citizens choose to permanently live in Mexico and over 20 million made Mexico the number one vacation destination for U.S. travelers in 2012.
Still, besides its commerce impact, there’s the historical angle. The fact is that the Borderlands (from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific Ocean) is in “Old Mexico” (New Spain), not New England. (There’s no Plymouth Rock off the Texas Coast!) Incredibly, fence-building fanatics miss that truth entirely, intent on ending Spanish Mexican influence in the Southwest by closing our southern border.
Nevertheless, proponents expect that once the fence is built, the Spanish Mexican heritage (language and culture) will disappear from Texas to California. The strong organic roots will not let that happen.
Perhaps no other example proves that point better than the annual “Abrazo” Ceremony between Laredo, Texas, and Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas, Mexico. Held in the middle of the International Bridge during George Washington’s Birthday Celebration, it’s a key event.
This serious (and at the same time joyous) ritual performed by dignitaries representing the governments of the U.S. and Mexico is a reminder of their mutual economic connections. However, for Las Villas del Norte descendants, the border has a much deeper meaning that deals with family values and pre-1848 kinship preservation.
Please note that residents on both banks of the Rio Grande share the same family names and look identical. That’s because long before today’s celebratory Washington’s Birthday event, two groups of close-knit family members initiated the original “Abrazos”, marking a very solemn occasion. Sadly, in 1848, the Rio became a political boundary, changing family daily life forever.
With “Abrazos de lágrimas” (Embraces of tears), fathers and mothers said goodbye to sons and daughters, brothers and sisters said goodbye to siblings, grandparents said goodbye to their grandchildren, compadres and comadres said goodbye to their kids’ godparents.
Under the watchful eyes of U.S. military troops, customs officials, and Texas Rangers, families gathered en masse by the river’s edge, solemnly waving goodbye to their kin across the Rio.
The reason is that following the costly U.S. Mexico War of 1846-1848, northern Tamaulipas was no longer part of Mexico. On May 15, 1848, residents of the east side of the Rio became citizens of the U.S. Those on the west side remained citizens of Mexico. More radically, residents living south of the Nueces River (South Texas) were no longer citizens of the state of Tamaulipas.
Incidentally, further west, the change was equally harsh for our Native American brethren. For example, in Arizona and New Mexico, their already-reduced homeland was arbitrarily cut into two sectors; one in the U.S. one in Mexico. Their separation continues to this day!
For Laredoans, their cohesive community was now split in two. Previously, the phrase “El otro lado” just meant the other side of the Rio. Now, its meaning was more extreme. Suddenly, it meant another country — another world. Citizens could no longer cross the bridge at will as they had done for nearly 100 years, from El Paso to Brownsville. In short, the Rio Grande became a barrier secured by armed guards.
To illustrate the severe impact, most Texas school children learn about the Mason Dixon Line during the U.S. Civil War that once separated Slave States (South) from Free States (North). In that war, Border States families were also separated. Lucky for them though, after the Civil War, families were re-united and now live together.
Sadly, Villas del Norte families weren’t so lucky. In spite of the fact that residents are still organically connected, the Rio Grande became a permanent Mason Dixon Line that separates them to this day.
Thus, the festive occasion in Los Dos Laredos celebrates, rather than condemns the close familial relationship between the sister communities, whose origins go back to Las Villas del Norte (1749-1755).
Nevertheless, there’s a good chance that the anti-Mexico rhetoric will continue past the on-going presidential election. That’s because unless we rediscover (and believe) our rich Borderlands history ourselves, it’ll be difficult to stop the verbal attacks.
Yet, being Laredo born-and-raised (and as an eighth-generation Texan) it’s my hope that Laredo city leaders, their counterpart elected officials, and business organizations throughout the U.S.-Mexico border become Borderlands Ambassadors. Without delay, they must repackage the good news story of the border and early Texas through the mass media much more effectively. In truth, it’s a task we must all do within our own spheres of influence without delay.
Along those same lines, a coalition of San Antonio educators (Somos MAS), plans to actively tackle this issue on a much broader scale. Their goal is to fill in the missing pieces of Texas history taught in the classroom so that students of all backgrounds learn of the true founding roots of this great place we call Texas.
In the final analysis, that anyone thinks the U.S. Mexico border economic mega-structure momentum can be shut down regardless of the length of time or reason is unbelievably naive. Likewise, Borderlands communities, possessing common roots predating 1776, (the birth of the U.S.), have lasted and endured through many years of adversity. They will continue to exist, strengthen, and increase in numbers, no matter how high or how thick the border fence. The bottom line? Embraces Yes, Fences No! (¡Abrazos si, cercas no!)
Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying this guest column shows U.S. President Barack Obama and Mexico President Enrique Peña Nieto.