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Borderlands
The fates of the United States and Mexico -- and of all their citizens -- are inextricably linked.

Reviewed by Pamela Constable
Sunday, November 4, 2007

REVOLUTION OF HOPE The Life, Faith, and Dreams of A Mexican President | By Vicente Fox and Rob Allyn | Viking. 375 pp. $27.95

EX MEX From Migrants to Immigrants | By Jorge G. Castaneda | New Press. 222 pp. $25.95 (forthcoming in December)

MONGRELS, BASTARDS, ORPHANS AND VAGABONDS Mexican Immigration and the Future of Race in America | By Gregory Rodriguez | Pantheon. 317 pp. $26.95

Relations between the United States and Mexico have long been poisoned by the problems of cross-border migration. The northward human flow has been welcomed by business but reviled by nativists, distorted by outside wars and catastrophes, and debated with equal hypocrisy and mistrust in what Vicente Fox, Mexico's president from 2000 to 2006, calls a "bleak pattern of mutual misunderstanding."

Most Americans today are probably not in the mood to listen to what Fox, or any other Mexican, has to say on the subject. With an estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in the country, many Americans feel besieged by a tide of Spanish-speaking strangers, angry at the U.S. government for failing to stop it, and unsympathetic to the plight of people who break American laws to escape poverty their own leaders have failed to alleviate.

But there is another side to the story and thoughtful voices from across the Rio Grande that need to be heard amid the shrillness of this emotionally charged moment. They remind us that Mexico, too, is grappling with the issue of how to feed and keep its workers, that its leaders are also constrained by domestic politics and posturing, that its emerging democracy is making it a better neighbor. They also point out that Mexican Americans are a permanent part of our society and that Mexico's economic future is ultimately linked with ours.

Fox's book, Revolution of Hope, written in English and launched with a U.S. tour, makes a direct plea to the American people to see Mexican immigrants in a kinder light. He wants us to have patience with Mexico's fledgling efforts at political and economic reform, and to seek common solutions rather than building walls. His tone is often hyperbolic, but his message is heartfelt.

"A Mexican farm boy who crawls across the barbed wire at the Rio Grande desperately loves his homeland," Fox writes. "Only the gnawing hunger and low wages on one side of the border, and the golden promise of economic opportunity on the other" drive him to flee to an alien land where hard, dirty work awaits him.

Fox views these emigrants, whether legal or illegal, as both Mexican "heroes" and American assets. He argues that they are helping America compete with global rivals as well as providing Mexico with an economic safety valve.

A rancher known for blunt, salty language, Fox is both a proud, sentimental Mexican and an ardent admirer of America. He helped end 70 years of ossified one-party rule and took office in 2000, eager to open up Mexico's economy and seek a long-elusive immigration pact with Washington, banking on his friendship with President Bush.

But as he recounts with deep regret, the prospects for any agreement collapsed with the attacks of Sep. 11, 2001. A day of terror plunged Washington into a war Mexico could not support, and gave fearful, angry Americans "a pretext for acting out their xenophobia." At home, Fox's economic agenda was thwarted by domestic opponents, and his dream of peaceful democratic transition marred by an ugly election controversy.

In part, Revolution of Hope is an effort to redeem Fox's legacy. It is laden with bromides and self-indulgent asides -- the nostalgic memories of his childhood ranch, the gee-whiz accounts of visiting China or meeting the pope. He comes across as temperamental but guileless, self-absorbed but humble -- an appealing persona that has been further tarnished by recent reports of Fox's lavish, post-presidential lifestyle.

But the book becomes relevant to American readers only when Fox switches from "I" to "we." When he talks about Mexico's future, he is also talking about ours. When he lashes out at American insensitivity, he also criticizes Mexican isolationism. When he lauds the courage of illegal immigrants, he also rues Mexico's inability to pay them enough to stay. "Our greatest failure," he confesses, "is that they are leaving still."

Fox is premature in his vision of a North American common market where the free flow of goods and workers will benefit all sides. As long as wages are 10 times higher on one side, the flow will remain hopelessly lopsided. But he is prescient in his parallel arguments about the mutual opportunities and challenges faced by both countries, and about their inevitable need for each other in a tough global economy.

Revolution of Hope will not stop the furor over illegal Latino immigrants, but it does make us ponder the futility of building physical and emotional barriers against them. Mexico's own history, Fox points out, shows that "we cannot live forever with a wealthy few inside the walls and the masses locked outside." The American way of life, he adds, "cannot exist in a Fortress America."

Jorge G. Castaneda, a Mexican intellectual who served as Fox's foreign minister, covers much of the same ground in his forthcoming Ex Mex, but he makes a more tightly argued and documented case for the advantages of Latino immigration. His monograph, stuffed with statistics, strives for academic objectivity while acknowledging the author's pro-Mexican bias.

Castaneda focuses on several issues that help explain the sudden panic over a phenomenon many decades old. One is the collapse of "circularity," a longstanding Mexican tradition of seasonal labor migration to the States and back, which was halted by new immigration laws in the 1990s that stiffened penalties for immigrants caught sneaking in a second time. Several recessions in Mexico, an economic boom in the United States and implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement also exacerbated the influx of illegal immigrants.

Eventually the surge reached a "tipping point," he says, creating "the impression that the United States was literally being swamped." Mexican migrants also moved deeper into U.S. territory, putting down roots in communities with little exposure to immigrants, "bringing their families to join them in places where Spanish had never been spoken, chiles and tortillas were never eaten." The emotional backlash was "inexcusable," he writes, but also "understandable."

But Casta┬┐eda also argues persuasively that the "pull" factor luring illegal immigrants to U.S. jobs remains as strong as ever, and that they perform tasks that are too dirty or dangerous to attract native Americans. He focuses on meatpacking plants in Iowa, where federal immigration agents staged a series of raids in 2006. Despite public resentment of the workers, he says, 76 percent of local residents in one poll said immigrants "take jobs other Iowans don't want."

A sharp-eyed student of American politics, Castaneda offers a trenchant if jargon-filled analysis of the recent congressional debacle over immigration reform. He echoes Fox's urgent call for bilateral action, but he warns more coolly that nothing, neither walls nor deportations, will stop poor Mexicans from crossing the Rio Grande until the region's severe economic imbalance begins to change.

Despite its unappealing title, Gregory Rodriguez's Mongrels, Bastards, Orphans, and Vagabonds provides a fascinating excursion through the history of Mexican immigrants in the United States. Full of instructive revelations and forgotten facts, the book shows how the treatment and status of immigrants have always been hostage to the vicissitudes of history -- from the Gold Rush to the invasion of Iraq.

The best sections of this book by a MexicanAmerican columnist for the Los Angeles Times cover events that occurred long ago. But by putting the current tensions in a solid historical context, Rodriguez offers hope that they too will eventually subside and be followed by a cooler spell in which a lasting, more rational solution can prevail over the politics of fear and bigotry.

He first traces the racial history of the Spanish colonial era, when inhabitants were rigidly stratified according to their mix of Indian, black and European blood ("Spaniard and Indian beget mestizo, Mestizo and Spanish woman beget castizo . . . . Barcino and mulatto woman beget coyote" and so on). Moving into the post-independence era, he explores Mexico's northern cities like San Antonio and Los Angeles, where the mestizo populace was increasingly challenged by Anglo settlers.

The U.S. defeat of Mexico's army in 1848 was a victory for both American slavery and territorial expansion, but the war also sparked debate over "the character of the Mexicans," whom many whites viewed as a lowly "mongrel race." "Even as their nation expanded," Rodriguez writes, "Americans recoiled in horror at the thought of absorbing an alien population."

During the next century, millions of Mexicans immigrated to the United States. Some managed to rise in society, but far more remained marginalized and subject to abuse and discrimination from Anglo vigilantes, bosses and pioneers. At the same time, American dependence on cheap labor from Mexico became an enduring fact: Workers were first press-ganged to build highways or pick fruit, then brought in seasonally under the "bracero" temporary labor program. Yet American society remained ambivalent, welcoming these workers in prosperous times and turning nativist during recessions.

Today the country is full of frenzied alarm once more, and neither Fox's personal plea, Castaneda's reasoned arguments nor Rodriguez's history lesson can compete with the fear and anger of the times. But on a calmer day, such thoughtful voices may yet find an audience among concerned Americans who realize that the fate of Mexico's economy, democracy and human populace is inextricably linked with ours. *

Pamela Constable is a staff writer and former foreign correspondent for The Washington Post. She has reported periodically from Mexico and Central America since 1983.

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