Drivers line up at the Cordova-Americas international bridge in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. (Herika Martinez/AFP/Getty Images)
Columnist

Mexico is the most popular foreign destination for Americans — and possibly the most misunderstood.

Last year, 36.9 million Americans traveled to our southern neighbor, more than twice as many as to all of Europe. Yet our national discussion about Mexico is dominated by the same stupid stereotypes that I recall from growing up in Southern California in the 1970s and 1980s. Back then, racist Mexican jokes were commonplace, and the popular image of Mexico was defined by the poor, uneducated immigrants who mowed Angelenos’ lawns and took care of their babies.

How little things change. Donald Trump launched his presidential campaign denouncing Mexican immigrants as “criminals, drug dealers, rapists,” while adding, with faux balance, “And some, I assume, are good people.” Since taking office, he has continued on a virtually nonstop tirade against the “bad hombres” coming from the south — who, in his telling, include not only criminals but also terrorists. (There has never been a terrorist attack in the United States carried out by terrorists from Mexico.)

Now Trump is threatening to close the U.S.-Mexico border “if Mexico doesn’t immediately stop ALL illegal immigration coming into the United States throug [sic] our Southern Border.” It’s doubtful he will make good his threat, because to do so would imperil more than $615 billion in two-way trade, but his insults and threats resonate with a voter base conditioned to fear and loathe Mexico.

Popular culture unwittingly contributes to the negative perceptions. I love the movie “Sicario,” the Netflix series “Narcos,” and Don Winslow’s “Power of the Dog” trilogy. (I’m now reading the third novel, “The Border.”) But they are helping to make Mexico synonymous with grisly drug violence.

This menacing image, admittedly, has a basis in fact. In 2016, Mexico had the second-highest number of “conflict deaths” on the planet, behind only Syria. By last year, Mexico had become even more violent, with a record-setting 33,000 homicides in 2018. Mexico doesn’t have the highest murder rate on the planet (El Salvador holds that dubious distinction), but it’s nearly four times deadlier than the United States.

And yet in the two weeks I recently spent in Mexico on a working vacation with my family, I never once felt remotely unsafe. Cartel wars do occasionally spill over into touristy towns such as Acapulco, prompting lurid headlines such as this one in the New York Post: “American tourists risk death to vacation in Mexico.” But most drug deaths occur in states that tourists never visit — and most of the victims are themselves narcos.

Having spent time in Iraq and Afghanistan, I know what it’s like to face real risks while traveling. But in Mexico, the only risks I experienced were from sunburn and overeating. I didn’t run into any criminals, but I did see senior citizens dancing in the street and well-dressed executives enjoying long, leisurely lunches. Admittedly, that’s because we were visiting placid places — but that’s the whole point. There are many such spots in a country where the headlines suggest otherwise.

We started our trip in Cabo San Lucas, a beach resort on the Pacific that was full of American college students on spring break and American and Canadian retirees seeking an affordable place in the sun. We then flew to Mexico City and from there drove two hours to Puebla, a Spanish colonial town that was recently named Mexico’s “coolest under-the-radar city.” It has a new International Museum of the Baroque, the oldest public library in the Western Hemisphere, and lots of buildings painted in eye-popping primary colors.

Next stop: Oaxaca, another colonial town that has become a foodie mecca. I particularly enjoyed the fried grasshoppers (chapulines) and ant larvae (escamoles), but I get that they’re not for everyone. In Oaxaca there are numerous art galleries and cafes. Just outside of town are the ruins of Monte Albán, the center of Zapotec civilization 2,000 years ago.

After Oaxaca, it was back to Mexico City for a few days in one of the world’s great metropolises (population 21 million). The murals and museums are breathtaking. The food is world-class — and cheap compared with New York and Washington. And the young professionals thronging upscale neighborhoods such as Roma, Polanco and San Angel would feel right at home in Kalorama in Washington, Brentwood in Los Angeles or Soho in New York. This is a slice of Mexican life rarely depicted in American popular culture; one notable exception was last year’s film “Roma.”

I don’t want to overgeneralize based on a couple of weeks of travel or pretend that I’m an instant authority on a complex country. But it doesn’t take long to see that the reality of Mexico is very different from the hellhole described by Trump.

We need to stop blaming Mexico for problems beyond its control, such as the flow of refugees from Central America, and accept our fair share of blame for its drug wars. The Mexican drug cartels wouldn’t exist, after all, without so many Yanqui customers. Yes, Mexico has many problems — but so do we. In fact, some of our problems look similar: Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador is a populist demagogue similar to Trump. For all of Mexico’s woes, it is the 12th-largest economy in the world, with a higher per-capita GDP than China. Mexico deserves our respect and our cooperation. It doesn’t deserve to be demonized.