I was sitting in the back of Santa Lucia church, in Mérida, Mexico, waiting for the mass to finish so I could meet my wife and head to a nice brunch at La Chaya Maya. The priest, vested in green, wandered down the aisle, came up to great me, and asked where I was from. After a few pleasantries he asked “so what about this Trump?” I expressed my dismay and embarrassment about this president who has spoken so crudely and rudely about Mexicans. “But it is the interaction of ordinary people that is most important,” responded the padre, and he gave me a reassuring pat on the arm.
We were in Mérida for the month of January, missing the grey chill of Indiana’s winter but also the inauguration, the women’s march, and the steady stream of stupefying comments and actions by the new American president. Not surprisingly, all of this attracted much attention in Mexico, both in the mass media and in the streets. This was particularly the case with Trump’s very undiplomatic phone call with the Mexican president, Enrique Peña Nieto (when he threatened—or joked?—that the U.S. might have to send troops to Mexico to deal with the “bad hombres” there); the President’s continuing demands that Mexico should pay for the wall; his threat to dismantle the North American Free Trade Agreement; and his ban on refugees.
Of course, none of this went down well with Mexicans. The press was full of articles dismissing or ridiculing the President and his policies. Peña Nieto, who’s own approval ratings in Mexico are only at about twenty percent, saw a surge in his popularity after he cancelled his visit to Washington and spoke up for Mexico’s “dignity” and “sovereignty.” In Mérida, where we had seen weekly protest marches against the recent increase in gasoline prices, now the marches often included anti-Trump banners and speeches as well.
My wife and I worried a bit that some of this anti-U.S. sentiment would spill over onto us, but it did not in the least. Mexicans always treated us with kindness and respect and, with the exception of the priest, did not even raise the issue of Trump unless we did first. Even then, they were uniformly restrained in their criticism, at least with us, reflecting a kind of politeness and civility that has been entirely missing in the rhetoric of our new president. At one point, when I was waiting in a bus station, and Trump appeared on the television there, bombastic as usual, I rolled my eyes in embarrassment. A Mexican man sitting nearby exchanged glances; I said “lo siento” (I’m sorry). “No se preocupe,” he responded—don’t worry. I wonder how Americans would have responded to Mexicans if their president were publicly insulting and threatening the U.S.
During the campaign, candidate Trump castigated Mexicans for being “rapists” and criminals, though he conceded that “some” might be good people. Indeed, in the hateful and fearful climate of the U.S. this year, more than one person expressed concern about our safety in travelling to Mexico. But our experience in Mérida (with over one million residents) was a city that was peaceful and “tranquil” (a word often used by locals) and even joyful. On Sunday mornings, the city center is closed off to traffic, so people can bicycle and skate in a circular route. Whole families rent bikes and pedal around for hours. In the evening, with the main streets still closed, restaurants move their tables out into the streets, street musicians play, and bands play in the public squares and parks while people (including a lot of old folks) dance on stages set up for the purpose. People interact with each other, in community, in ways that seem to have disappeared in most of the U.S.
As to the violence: there was not a single homicide in Mérida during January, while in our hometown of Indianapolis, every few days there was a report of yet another murder. We both felt safer in Mérida at night than we would in Indianapolis. Statistical comparisons (e.g. the web site Numbeo), bear this out: overall crime rates in Indianapolis are “high” and those in Mérida “very low.”
Mexico is our neighbor, and one of this country’s oldest and closest friends. After China and Canada, it is our largest trade partner. Over 30 million Hispanics of Mexican origin live in the U.S. Some 25 million Americans visit Mexico each year and about a million live there. Mexican immigrants to the U.S. have contributed enormously to our economy and our culture. The U.S. should embrace this relationship and foster it. At the moment, Washington, and especially our President, is poisoning it.