Visiting California, I’m always shocked how Americans — even vaping, Prius-driving, liberal Democrats — treat their Mexican staff. Need someone to toil in the sun for 12 hours on minimum wage? Need a nanny who won’t kick off when you’re constantly late? Hire a Mexican. Employers engage little with these people who inhabit their yards and homes (the language barrier is cited) but if they do, the tone is exquisitely patronising. Mexicans aren’t so much individuals as a class of biddable, brown Untermensch.
Likewise President Trump has addressed the Mexican government like a lazy pool-cleaner, a bus-boy who dropped a tray. We’ll build a wall — and you’ll damn well pay for it. And latterly: we’re going to deport all illegal immigrants and dump them over your border, even if they’re not actually Mexicans.
Travelling around America’s southern neighbour these past few weeks, I’ve wondered if Trump knows what he is dealing with. Has he seen Mexico City’s skyscrapers and glitzy airport, the growing middle class who fill vast malls and VIP cinemas? Roads, even in the poorer south, are no worse than in rustbelt America; public spaces are more beautiful and well-tended than in New York City. This is the second biggest economy in Latin America, an upwardly mobile, modern democracy of 120 million people, being dissed as a tin-pot, dust-bowl loser.
Not all Mexicans are as livid as their former president Vicente Fox, whose “we’re not paying for no f***ing wall” tweets have so amusingly breached diplomatic protocol. People I met were more baffled, insulted and hurt. And these feelings, already being harnessed, will benefit Mexico and damage America.
The term “malinchismo” describes a Mexican self-hatred, a sense that foreign products, ideas, even people, are inherently superior to home-grown. White faces dominate magazines in a majority mestizo land. All things American have long had a special allure and a status often unequal to their quality. As I tried on a jacket in a fancy department store, the assistant warned me: “You do know it is a Mexican brand?”
But already Mexicans are spending less on US goods: in part because Trump’s belligerence has crashed the peso, but also a defiant new nationalism is brewing. A businesswoman reports that all her Mexican friends, even apolitical socialites, have changed their WhatsApp avatars from Cancun bikini snaps to the national flag. Banners at recent, nationwide anti-Trump rallies called for dignity and respect. A student told me: “He might just unite us all.”
As a tourist I kept thinking, facetiously, it’s Mexico that should build the wall. Keep out the American visitors who demand that a deep, delicate ancient culture bows to their thin, tinny one: bringing diabolical coffee, gargantuan portions, the Coca-Cola that has caused Mexico’s obesity crisis, the corruption of a fine, fresh local cuisine into bowel-clogging Tex-Mex.
In lovely colonial towns like San Miguel de Allende, snowbirds trying to eke out Minnesota pensions have driven up house prices. Leathery, pony-tailed hippies browse English bookshops full of atrocious, self-published, expat memoirs about suburban moms “finding themselves” here. “Americans have not looked for Mexico in Mexico,” said the poet Octavio Paz, “they have looked for their obsessions, enthusiasms, phobias.”
That Trump’s wall will keep out the “bad hombres” is a particularly pointed insult. Overall crime in Mexico is marginally — 2 per cent — higher than in the US. But in America, gun crime is six times greater. In Mexico, there are no street-corner gun shops, as in Miami or Houston; indeed, gun laws are closer to those in Britain. In theory, citizens have a right to bear arms; in practice, it is virtually impossible. And where do the guns come from used by the brutal narco gangs of Breaking Bad fame? They are bought legally in America. Between 2009 and 2014, around 70,000 firearms seized by Mexican authorities were found to originate in the US, mainly from southwest border states.
The “bad hombres” are armed by America. Indeed, the ruthless drug cartels that kill and maim, ruin whole communities and corrupt local democracy, feed a degenerate and wholly American appetite for heroin, cocaine and crystal meth. Mexico’s drug problem is negligible: use of opiates is six times lower than in the US. Moreover, it is the chaos and violence caused by the cartels that drives migration across the border. If America wanted to keep down illegals, it could save $15 billion on a wall, stop partying, put its alienated, addicted youth into rehab and reform its gun laws. Of course, it never will.
It is possible that every brick in Trump’s theoretical (and most likely unfeasible) wall could help to build Mexico. Already there is evidence of a “Trump Slump”, with European holiday inquiries about America tumbling. With his every utterance, Trump pulls up the national welcome mat a little more. Meanwhile, Mexico’s tourist trade is booming.
More significantly, a high-level US banker remarks that the smart money is betting on Mexico: inward investment will flourish. Meanwhile, malinchismo will fade, making it patriotic to buy local goods. And its politicians are growing braver. If Trump tears up Nafta, imposing tariffs to pay for his wall, Mexico will retaliate: already it threatens to stop buying an annual $2.4 billion of US corn and look instead to Argentina or Brazil.
A temperamentally chilled-out nation is rising. America may find that the hardworking neighbour, who mows its lawns, cares for its kids, clears up its mess without complaint, won’t be bullied any more.
Janice Turner is a columnist and feature writer for The Times.