How countries see their borders speaks volumes about their priorities and self image – I saw this going to and from Canada by car this August. Canadians were 100% about Covid, examining my negative test results with as much care as a family doctor. Well, that and guns – Canadians picture Americans as all toting their preferred sidearm, maybe more than one, and television from local spots in Texas and reports of school shootings seen in Canada reinforce this idea .
On my return the American custom folks wanted to know nothing about my Covid condition but were very interested in the produce I had in my cooler. Well, that and drugs (Canada made marijuana legal nationally a while ago); Canadians can be perceived of as nice, quiet – a little dull even – and maybe stoned.
Landing in a country via an international flight is crossing a border too but, by dint of the efficiency required to run airlines and airports, the actual paperwork is pretty straightforward, particularly if your hitting a major tourist destination.
However, the experience can be sudden and discombobulating. When traveling a good way around the globe, an airport arrival feels like a sensory deprivation experiment. You invariably arrive at some odd hour whose impact is exacerbated by having only slept passably or not at all, experienced an enormous time change and have consumed far too much video media for your health. How many releases of the Mission Impossible franchise can you watch at one sitting?
At large, more trafficked airports, you are disgorged with your fellow travelers into brightly lit, long corridors. You stumble by other jetways with flights arriving from places whose names you’ve only seen in National Geographic, by pods of shops and restaurants, all going full bore. And then through the luxury area, whose rich perfumed smell from all the high end bodily applications you’ve never sensed in your day to day life. It feels like a 24 hour high end mall; indeed a friend of mine who invests in them calls major airports “shopping malls with parking for airplanes.”
My arrival at the Jeronimo – Santa Teresa border crossing, has a steady background hum of confusion (mine) that is gradually resolved through a process of trial and error. Speaking in Spanish dutifully to the first two border folks I meet, I assume that I have entered Mexico. I then realize that they are American Homeland Security agents who find my earnest Spanish amusing.
On the Mexican side of the border there is no evidence of a car or passport check; I am waved through casually. I set out to explore the official looking building by which I have been waived (you really could enter the country without getting any of the paperwork you would need on exit) making several visits to each counter in the building as I gradually decode to process for getting myself and the car registered.
People wait in line patiently, the fellow selling copying services does a brisk business. I insist on speaking Spanish to which the folks behind the counter kindly oblige – this undoubtedly slows things down more. Actually, most expect to be spoken to in Spanish so I feel better trying.
There is an order to things but this must be teased out slowly, patiently, gradually. Folks behind the counter are remarkably accommodating but it rests on me to figure things out.
And then, Mexico – through the Chihuahaun desert. Large expanses of scrubland, creosote, acacia, agave, dotting flowing brownish yellow grasslands, with evidence of additional water here and there as vegetation becomes more dense and shows more green. The dry, rolling landscape is framed by dry, broken hills both East and West that pop up and disappear as I make my way South. In the far distance, what looks like pale blue, two dimensional cut outs of mountains, as if part of a theater set.
And occasionally, well developed, American scale apple orchards front onto the highway, The occasional Pemex gas station with the ubiquitous and cheerful OXXO convenience store, with taquerias and restaurantes huddled around the stop, often shacks really, as if basking in the crisp corporate sheen of the two national brands.
The Mexican American border has a long history that is not always well received on either of its sides.
The U.S. annexed the state of Texas in 1845 and disputed with Mexico how far South the state actually extended. This thrust was consistent with America’s desire to expand (“Manifest Destiny”) and played into the hands of Texan cotton farmers who needed slaves to manage their crops (Mexico had recently banned slavery, making the subsequent war which America started a little less noble than is currently felt by patriotic Texans.).
And so started the Mexican American war – in which both Ulysses Grant and Robert E Lee (Generals on opposite sides of the American civil war 20 years later) fought. President Polk did try to negotiate with the Mexicans but only after Texas had been seized, not a solid way to get to a deal. The war ended in a shattering defeat for Mexico, with American troops entering Mexico City and the country ceding a large swath of land (modern day California, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado) to America.
Manifest Destiny, a phrase coined in 1845, was the belief that America’s due was to expand and subdue the continent without interference by European powers. This made the Louisiana Purchase and the Oregon Treaty natural moves, and the pursuit of wars with and subjugation of indigenous folks, often breaking treaties that had previously been negotiated, things that had to be done.
To my ear, “Manifest Destiny” sounds like the name of a ’90s Korean boy band, whose expansionist tendencies would focus mostly on the size of their stage shows (“We need more dancers!”)
America-Mexico relations have long been fraught; the Mexican American war was just one of many difficulties between the neighboring countries.
In the next century, the Mexican revolution ran for 10 violent and bloody years (1910 – 1920) and installed an elected constitutional republic, replacing a dictatorship. One of its undercurrents was Marxism, fed by the social unrest in Europe and the revolution in the Soviet Union. Mexico had an active communist party – the muralist Diego Rivera (husband of Frida Kahlo) was a member – and Trotsky fled there after a falling out with Stalin, who subsequently had him murdered, in a house just around the corner from Frida’s in Coyoacan, a suburb of Mexico City. You can see the murder weapon – an ice pick – in the house which is now a museum. Perhaps not how we would resolve a political dispute today but effective nonetheless.
The Mexican revolution frightened American politicians, having seen what had happened in the Soviet Union – the idea of nationalization by Mexico of U.S. oil and mineral assets was not well received North of the border. The opposite threat – of American entities extracting the value of the resources and leaving nothing for Mexico, then an incredibly poor country, was real to the Mexicans too.
One sees the socialism promoted during the revolution in a number of Mexican government programs and policies today – e.g. land ownership by communes of peasants called Ejidos. (Ejidos created during a simpler, more manual time when most of the population lived on the land, have left land parcels too small for modern farming, which needs significant capital and scale – this challenge is faced in India and China as well.).
And now the border is all about the flow of migrants North seeking work. Most are Central American, Mexicans are too wealthy to find low pay, unskilled work in American appealing. I pass through a military checkpoint, impressive looking but unmanned, and another for “Migrantes Moviles” – migrants on the move – that looks only half attended.
And drugs. The flow of drugs into North America is massive (America consumes about $150 BN in illegal substances annually, much of which is generated in or flows through Mexico.), and has been incredibly destabilizing in Mexico. Mexico acts as a source of cocaine, fentanyl, heroin, marijuana, and methamphetamines and the drug trade feeds corruption and lawlessness and it is often the poor that suffer the most. There have been more than 250,000 murders here in the last 15 years, most unsolved and more than 100,000 people have been “disappeared” (now a verb in Spanish). Most of these deaths and disappearances have been poorer local folk who had to align themselves with the cartels, which sometime act as shadow governments, so as to survive.