How Mexicans Can Make America Great

(Versión en español en este link)

No one has done more lately to cheapen the American brand than Donald Trump. Not just in the eyes of the world, but for people like me, a white English-speaking American male proudly born and raised in ‘Murica. Though the truth is I’m not your average gringo.

I moved to the U.S. — Mexico border after graduating from college and have been living and working in El Paso and Ciudad Juarez ever since. This last year I’ve watched dismayed from the borderland as Trump has generalized Mexicans as criminals, rapists and mostly “bad people”. His comments are so far off-base, yet so popular among his constituency, that I finally had to speak up.

The last 10 years on the border have taught me a lot about our neighbor to the south. I’m now convinced that if America really wants to be great, it can only do so with the help of Mexicans. This is not hyperbole; you just have to appreciate a few things I have learned about Mexico and Mexicans that I wish Trump and his supporters understood:

NAFTA Would Be Worse If It Weren’t for Mexico

While trade deals have gotten a bad rap this election cycle, Mexico is a big reason NAFTA is even as good as it is for America. American jobs in many industries were already being outsourced to foreign countries many years before the North American Free Trade Agreement was signed. NAFTA’s purpose was to encourage trade between the U.S., Mexico and Canada, but it also provided incentives to keep outsourced jobs closer to home, as in Mexico, rather than in faraway places overseas.

What many Americans don’t realize is that when businesses outsource across the border to Mexico, rather than across the ocean to China, fewer American jobs are lost. Many of the companies that used to manufacture products in the U.S., but are now are located across the border in Ciudad Juarez, continue to buy raw materials and services from the same U.S. suppliers as before. Had the manufacturing operations gone all the way to China, all the supporting business would have been replaced by foreign companies, forever closing the doors of many more American businesses.

Many companies that manufacture products in Mexico with American raw materials, export their finished goods all over the world and compete with non-NAFTA countries globally. This helps keep business in our continent and keeps people working on both sides of the border.

Trump has repeatedly claimed Mexico is “killing” the U.S. in trade. He’s wrong. On the border I see first-hand how much commerce flows in both directions — striking a stark contrast to the one-way shipments we receive from China. Mexico is our second largest customer for American exports after Canada, our other NAFTA partner. We import much more from China than we do from Mexico, but China buys less than half as much of American goods as Mexico. Mexico shouldn’t even be considered a suspect in any supposed trade deal “homicides”.

NAFTA Gets Mixed Reviews in Mexico Too

With the expansion of trade between the U.S. and Mexico, many Mexican businesses were negatively impacted when they couldn’t compete with more efficient U.S. companies that began exporting heavily into their country. The complaints of many Mexican workers sound similar to and are just as legitimate as the complaints of many American workers who have experienced the negative side of globalization. Keeping jobs in Mexico is just as important to Mexicans as keeping jobs in America is important to Americans. Compra lo hecho en México (Buy Mexican) carries the same weight in Mexico as Buy American does in the U.S.

America Needs Immigrant Workers and Americans Need to Understand Why They Come

While many low-skill jobs that employed many Americans have been outsourced, there continue to be many U.S. companies operating in the U.S. that depend on low skill/low wage workers. These types of jobs tend to be physically demanding and in harsh working conditions like agricultural work, which employ high levels of immigrant workers.

This is a particularly complicated issue where America contradicts itself. On one side there are American workers who want to keep immigrants out so they don’t take “American” jobs, and on the other side, American businesses who need immigrants to come or they would no longer be able to operate in the U.S. due to the short supply of domestic workers. This leaves many Mexicans in the middle who are attracted by the demand for workers and who are willing to do the difficult jobs because of the staggering difference in earning potential doing the same work in Mexico.

To put it in context, Mexico’s daily minimum wage of $73.04 pesos converted to dollars at the current exchange rate equals less than 70 cents an hour. Compared to the U.S. national average minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, in a 40-hour workweek an employee would gross $290 dollars in the U.S. compared to a mere $28 dollars in Mexico. Working a single week in the U.S. is equivalent to working more than 10 weeks in Mexico.

The combination of the need for workers and the difference in earning potential creates a vacuum that is without a doubt the single biggest attraction for immigrants from Mexico to the U.S. Some come alone and send money back home and others bring their families with them. Either way, opportunity for employment is why most people come and what most people do. Mexico isn’t sending anyone, and the U.S. isn’t a better place to be a criminal or rapist. Just look at what happened when the U.S. economy slumped and there were fewer jobs available during the recent recession. Many Mexicans returned to Mexico and even fewer made the trip to begin with.

There is much debate about whether Americans actually want the same jobs the immigrants are working and whether it’s accurate to say these jobs being “taken” from Americans if they don’t want the work for the pay. The typical American has every advantage over the typical immigrant who speaks little (if any) English, has little (if any) formal education, and is far from home with few (if any) connections, resources or support systems. So why such fear of Mexicans outcompeting Americans for jobs? Only in Trump’s America.

Mexicans Are Embarrassed of the Border Wall

For many Mexicans the necessity of the border fence between Mexico and the U.S. is a source of embarrassment. Many on the border refer to it as the “Wall of Shame” since it reflects a situation that is so hopeless for so many Mexicans that the U.S. has to have a fence to keep people from running away. But at the same time they joke that if the U.S. builds a 20-foot wall, they will just build a 21-foot ladder.

Americans Actually Cause a Lot of the Problems in Mexico

Many Americans are quick to judge all Mexicans based on the incidents of violence and corruption they see on the news. But not only is it wrong to associate the average Mexican immigrant with the bad things that have happened in Mexico, the truth is Americans themselves deserve much of the blame for it.

Americans spend around $100 billion dollars on illegal drugs each year, making billionaires out of the Mexican drug cartels and giving them limitless power over Mexico and beyond. It has created many people like Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, a Forbes List billionaire, who’s massive wealth and endless resources give him, and the other cartels, endless power to corrupt at any level and with no regard for human life.

Mexico waged its own War on Drugs during the past decade, but it resulted in tens of thousands of deaths while Mexican cartels battled for control of the supply routes to the most lucrative market in the world, our United States. Demand has remained steady, even while the U.S. has been fighting its own War on Drugs for decades. It’s another example of Mexicans filling a vacuum created by the United States, and then getting criticized for it.

The overwhelming majority of Mexicans receive no benefit from the billions of dollars generated by the illegal drug trade, but they are forced to deal with the often life-threatening consequences and either adapt to living within the culture of corruption and violence and all the instability and unfairness it creates, or go someplace else. What would you do?

Not All Mexicans Want to Come to America (Or Take Our Jobs)

Despite all the problems in Mexico, and despite what some Americans imagine, there aren’t 129 million Mexicans lined up at the border waiting to sneak in. In the unlikely event that U.S. ever did open its borders completely to Mexico, there’s no way to know how many people would come. However, I have no doubt that if given the option, most Mexicans would prefer to have Mexico improve so they could stay, rather than having America open its borders so they could leave.

You can see examples of this all over the border where I work and live. Those who live just well enough prefer to stay in Mexico because of everything they would have to sacrifice if they left. The many Mexican engineers and managers I work with, who are leading successful and competitive global manufacturing operations, have the education, skills and experience to actually take the jobs Americans want, but mostly prefer to live in Mexico where their wages allow them to live just comfortably enough. They prefer to be immersed in their rich culture and surrounded by friends and family, which far outweighs the potential benefits of a lonely life in America. Herein lies the most rational solution to the so-called immigration problem — the better the situation in Mexico, the more people will want to stay.

If the goal is to keep Mexicans in Mexico, then we need to think smarter than Trump’s expensive and unrealistic plans of forced mass deportation and massive border walls. We need to openly acknowledge that America creates much of the push and pull that brings immigrants from Mexico to the U.S., like the demand for workers and the corruption and instability created by the demand for illegal drugs. The U.S. has a moral obligation to help Mexico fix these problems so that fewer people feel compelled to leave.

Reevaluating American “Greatness”

But even if removing all incentives for Mexicans to come to the U.S. was something that could be done quickly and easily, I would argue that it would not be in our best interest as a nation, people or culture. Not for self-serving reasons like the availability of cheaper labor or having people to do America’s “dirty work”, but because we would lose the opportunity to learn from a great culture that has lived among us for so many years, but that we’ve hardly allowed ourselves to benefit from.

While not disregarding any of the truly great things and great people in America, if we’re honest, there’s also way too much “un-great” stuff happening here for us to over- generalize. Racism still festers like a disease in pockets around the country despite so many years trying to change laws, hearts and minds. Large demographics fear law enforcement because of brutal police violence. There is an epidemic of random mass shootings and high levels of mental health issues in adults and children, depression and suicide, and the highest use of illegal drugs in the world. There are also shockingly high levels of poverty and hunger, preventable health epidemics and obesity. Education inequality persists, as well as a surprising low educational ranking internationally, all while having the world’s largest number of incarcerations. And if that’s not enough, many well-known American cities are on the same list as infamous violent cities around the world. In other words, America’s got 99 problems, but Mexico really ain’t one.

Sure, Mexico struggles with many of the same challenges facing America, and then some. And while the typical Mexican is fiercely proud to be Mexican for who they are as a people, they do not confuse that with Mexico for what it is as a country. They would never look at the array of problems affecting different people at different levels all over their country and pretend they are just a few deportations and a border wall away from being “great again”.

At the risk of generalizing (which of course is unavoidable in some degree with two countries this large and diverse), this is where we begin to see important differences between Mexicans and Americans. It starts with brutal honesty and open self-criticism that I’ve found so refreshing during my time in Mexico. It allows Mexicans to see their own flaws, as well as the flaws of their government and even all the way back to their nation’s founders, and admit that not everything could be called “great”. This candor means fewer people waste each other’s time pretending to be something they aren’t, and would rather openly discuss what they can change to become better. Although Mexico has had issues executing actual changes, the United States could learn from the value of this type of honesty, but this is far from the only thing we have to learn from Mexicans.

What Americans Could Learn from Mexicans

Mexicans are much more resilient when it comes to staying happy when times get tough. I saw this firsthand in the most extreme example during the recent violence in Ciudad Juarez.

When I moved down to the border in 2006, Ciudad Juarez was a vibrant border town that was a decent, and even enjoyable place to work and live. The city was growing, industry was strong and people were optimistic. But then the War on Drugs came to town around 2007, and everything fell apart. The city suddenly and violently become engulfed in a literal battle-to-the-death between major drug cartels, gangs, police and the military. In only a little over half a decade 50,000 people were killed in Mexico, with a significant amount of those deaths occurring in Ciudad Juarez. In 2010 alone, 3,111 people were killed in Juarez, for an average of almost 9 murders around the city every single day of the year.

At its worst, the death toll in Ciudad Juarez was higher than the wars happening in Iraq and Afghanistan at the same time. The entire country felt like it was at the brink of collapse, with widespread concern in the U.S. about Mexico becoming an actual failed state. Citizens of Juarez became hostages in their own homes, leaving only to go to work. Crime and lawlessness overran the crumbling city adding to the fear and anxiety. Any progress Juarez had made to overcome its troubled past was erased and almost irreparably reversed. Almost overnight, Juarez became the most murderous city in the world, a distinction it would hold for many consecutive years.

Imagine if this happened in the city where you lived and worked and had a home, where your children went to school and where you were trying to raise your family. Try to imagine this horrific reality as your own. How do you think the people in Juarez handled it? Did they blame me, an American working in Mexico, and try to get me deported? No. But they could have easily declared me guilty by association and protested to expel all the drug-addict Americans out of Mexico as retribution. But they didn’t. Did citizens take to random mass shootings for societal revenge for their hardships? No. In fact, rather than looking for others to blame, like the United States for creating the demand for the warring cartels, most people focused their criticisms on their own government’s failings and even themselves for passively permitting a culture of corruption. But most importantly, they refused to allow the unimaginable brutality happening all around them to stop them from being happy, kind and decent human beings.

Seeing the reaction of many Americans during our comparatively mild challenges, and how many have chosen to focus on Mexico instead of addressing real problems, is just one example of the differences in the attitudes of the two countries and people. If Americans had just a little of what Mexicans have, or did just a little of what Mexicans do, it would be different.

During even the most hopeless times in Juarez, it was easy to momentarily forget the chaos happening outside the walls of our building because of my coworkers’ relentlessly positive attitude and ability to laugh, smile and focus on the good. With them it wasn’t something that was forced; it’s something natural and unconscious that I’ve learned is deeply rooted in Mexican culture and part of who they are. Mexicans are able to be happier with much less than Americans, even when times are much harder. These are the some of the little things that make it possible:

Everything Starts and Ends with Family

In Mexico, it’s common for many generations of families to live together in the same house, or very close to each other either next door or on the same block. Grandparents help with grandchildren in the homes where eventually they themselves will be taken care of in return. Unmarried adults living at home until they marry is also common because the idea of living alone someplace without family is unthinkable. Close friends become like family, which is why it may seem like everyone you meet is a primo or tío (cousin or aunt/uncle) to someone.

Participation of all local family members is mandatory even at small events like a niece or nephew’s birthday. Special events like quinceañeras and weddings are multi-day events where extended family will make long journeys to attend, so they make it worth the trip. Celebrations go all night long, resume the next day and again the next night. And what do you do at 4:00am after partying all night, you ask? Eat menudo with close friends and family, of course!

Speaking of food, for Mexicans it’s much more than just something to eat. Food traditions are rich and vary based on region. Everyone has a traditional dish that reminds them of growing up and where they’re from, no matter where they find themselves. Despite their northern neighbor’s preference for quick-and-easy meals, frozen dinners are mostly unthinkable, and eating alone or even going through a drive-through to take food home is tragic. Food is meant to be good, and meals are to be shared.

Choosing People Over Problems

Mexicans greet each other warmly each day with handshakes, hugs and kisses. Taking the time to properly greet those around you when you walk into a room is expected, no matter how rushed, stressed or preoccupied you are. Coming into the office and quietly sitting at your desk is almost offensive. Even shy children are forced out from their hiding places behind their parent’s legs to properly greet someone, which engrains the mentality that how you treat those around you always overrides how you feel at any given moment.

Mexicans prefer to gossip with a neighbor they don’t hardly like rather than living in isolation and not socializing at all. They still have more real friends than Facebook friends and the popularity of Whatsapp, and especially the voice message option, reflects their preference to communicate directly with friends rather than through posts or emails.

Music and Dancing Are Participatory Sports

Music is a fundamental part of Mexican culture and it’s never a question of whether someone is “musical”, or not, it’s just a part of who they are. You don’t have to have a good voice to sing out loud, you just have to sing with passion. People sing while they work, often as if they were on stage with the mariachis. Karaoke is widely popular and standard at social gatherings, and songs played on the radio or performed live will all be eagerly accompanied by the audience, who know the words to all the songs.

If you are at a social event and you’re not singing, it’s probably because you are dancing (even though it’s common to see people doing both at the same time). In Mexico dancing is a healthy and fun way to socialize, from as soon as you can walk and until you are too old. Dancing in Mexico isn’t bouncing around mindlessly by yourself around others while music is playing; it’s one-on-one with another person, usually very close. People can dance with a complete stranger and look like they’ve danced together for years. It’s another way Mexicans enjoy human contact, and they make it look good.

It’s About Who You Are, Not What You’ve Got

Mexicans don’t define themselves by what they have, but rather who they are. To even jokingly imply that a possession is more important than a person or relationship is deeply offensive. Even alluding to your possessions is impolite, and many Mexicans literally cannot even mention their home without adding that their home is also your home (mi casa que es tu casa), just in case you had any doubts of whether or not you are welcomed in their home.

It’s rare to see homes full of things people don’t need, or storage units full of useless belongings they can’t force themselves to throw out. People tend to have only what they need, and take better care of what they have. The humblest of people may only own a few pairs of nice clothes, but when they put them on they will be clean and pressed to look their best.

The things Mexicans do own they do not hoard or keep to themselves. Sharing with others is an expectation, and accepting something shared with you is equally important, even if you don’t really want it. If someone sits down to eat and opens a small bags of chips, they will instinctively offer to anyone sitting around them, and each person will accept. I’ve even seen strangers do this in a laundry mat. If you have something, you share. If you get offered, you accept.

Being Cool and Keeping Calm

For Mexicans, being high-strung, uptight or rude are major character flaws. Emotional intelligence and knowing how to interact with people matter just as much as being smart or having experience. Mexicans are known to be quick to take offense, but just as quick to forgive, preferring not to hold grudges and let things remain uncomfortable or awkward.

Mexican people will openly and harshly criticize their government and leaders for the endless list of problems in their country. But when the national soccer team puts on their green, red and white uniforms, they will also paint themselves green, red and white to support their players, and are known for being some of the best fans in the world.

Although many Mexicans have a deep religious and spiritual foundation, there is no kind of extremism or anyone trying to force their morality on strangers. In fact, the worst thing they may do is insist you try to enjoy yourself at a social gathering by trying to dance, even if you don’t know how.

Though the language barrier for Mexicans in the U.S. doesn’t allow many Americans to realize it, Mexicans have a sharp sense of humor that is full of creative wordplay and rich cultural references. Their innate honesty results in critical and self-deprecating humor that is skillfully used to address heavy topics that would be difficult to discuss otherwise. Mexicans like to laugh out loud at jokes, even ones that aren’t that funny, because it’s always more fun to smile and laugh.

These kinds of small things are what make Mexicans great, and could help Americans too. The U.S. has a lot it needs to figure out, and maybe part of the answer has been living to the south of us all along.

Make America Great Again…By Becoming More “Mexican”

This may sound crazy to some Americans, but if you want to see what it might look like all you have to do is come down to where I live. On the El Paso/Ciudad Juarez border, people have been cherry-picking the best of the two countries and cultures quietly for generations.

The connections between the people, cultures and economies of the two cities are so strong that it feels like one big city. People far away from the border may not appreciate how many people cross back and forth across the border both directions every day without any issues. I go to Juarez from El Paso every day for work. My trips back-and-forth daily are just a few of the million that happen every year across the U.S. — Mexico border.

One of the easiest ways to see the relationship between the two cities is by looking at the license plates on cars. Particularly on the weekends, parking lots at El Paso shopping malls and outlets fill with cars with Chihuahua license plates owned by Mexicans who are spending their money in America. I lived in Juarez for a time and would see the same thing around my neighborhood. On Friday night the streets would fill up with cars with Texas license plates and stay that way all weekend as people would come and go.

Mexicans coming across the border to the U.S. can enter with different types of permits. The most basic allows them to be within the greater El Paso area for normal activities like shopping, visiting friends and family, or attending special events. A different, additional type of permission is required to go further into the U.S. All types of permits require the person to have a clean background and prove themselves economically “stable”. It’s the same kind of stuff you’d have to prove to apply for a loan. I have many Mexican friends and coworkers who have been going back and forth across the border all their lives without any problems (besides the occasional border patrol agent who’s in a bad mood).

Although far from perfect, this system has worked well for many years, which is why the fears of so many Trump supporters seem so unfounded for people actually living on the border. Millions of times per year people cross over the border either direction for school and work, to visit friends and family, to shop and eat, to go to the doctor or dentist, for formal events or just to hang out. They spend their time and money on the other side of the border and go home when they’re done, never losing their connections by keeping one foot on each side of the border.

El Paso provides a higher standard of living, with incomparably better infrastructure, and most notably, a greater sense of security. Despite what wall-builders assume, the insecurity on the Mexican side of the border does not necessarily affect security on the U.S. side. In the same years Juarez earned the distinction of the most murderous city in the world, El Paso was recognized as one of the safest in America for its size, making it much safer than many better-known American cities far away from the border.

Living on the border has taught me how to recognize and appreciate the best that each country and culture has to offer, which is why I’ve found it impossible to leave. I may not be here for the rest of my life; my roots are far away in Oregon. But at least I was here long enough to figure out a little of what many of us Americans may be missing without realizing it.

We can’t stay like we are or become even more culturally isolated and expect to become “great”. We need go no further than our neighbors to the south, who in many cases are already our neighbors in the north, and combine the best of both sides of the border to make something better — and maybe even great.