To a Facebook Friend
There's something I want to tell you. I see your posts and memes. The one showing brown-skinned people climbing the border fence: Like if you think illegal aliens should not receive food stamps (a moot point, since undocumented immigrants don't qualify for E.B.T., welfare, Medicaid, and most other benefits anyway). The ones from the Donald Trump for President page. I know you feel oppressed by the government, resentful that your hard-earned tax dollars go to freeloaders who take advantage of the system. Angry--and maybe frightened too--that the country of your youth is disappearing forever. Trump's words, whether about Mexican rapists or Muslim terrorists, resonate with you, perhaps partly because you don't know any Mexicans, or any Muslims. I remember what our hometown is like; I lived there too.
I can't speak to all these issues. In any case, they're subjects that other people have addressed much more thoroughly and eloquently than I ever could. I just want to tell you a little bit about Mexico, the country I've called home for the past few years. I wonder if you've ever given any thought to the subject. I never had, until I moved here.
To begin with, in this country, not even your most basic rights are guaranteed. You can be jailed--even killed--for speaking out against those in power. Hundreds of people were massacred by police at a peaceful demonstration a few decades ago; to this day, no one has ever been held accountable. Forty-three students disappeared in late 2014 in an attack masterminded by their town's mayor and his wife. Just last month, police killed eight protesters and injured dozens more during demonstrations organized by teachers in Oaxaca. Since 2000 dozens of journalists, bloggers, and other writers have been murdered or disappeared. Few of these crimes have even been investigated. In July 2014, President Enrique Peña Nieto signed the Federal Telecommunications and Broadcasting Act, which gave the government power to shut down Internet activity during protests.
There is no universal right to bear arms here. The licensing of firearms is so restrictive (sportmen who belong to expensive hunting clubs, for example) that, generally speaking, the only people who carry weapons are police and criminals. The police are at least as feared as the criminals--often more so.
According to United Nations numbers, nearly half the population of Mexico lives in poverty, while the top 10 percent possesses more than 42 percent of all income. In the city where I live, workers earn between $43 and $64 U.S. per week; that's for a 45-hour work week. They're the lucky ones. They have jobs, and they live in a place where wages are relatively competitive. They've escaped the crushing poverty of rural areas like Zitlaltepec, Tlaxcala, the subject of a recent Huffington Post article; there, 86 percent of residents live on less than $80 U.S. per month.
Stores frequently charge interest rates above 30 percent for installment plan purchases, which people pay because the low monthly payments make items available to them that they couldn't otherwise buy. Bank loans, credit card purchases, and car loans carry interest rates in the 20-30 percent range. Computers and cell phones and iPods and lots of other cool stuff are all more expensive here than in the United States, which means they're economically inaccessible to most people. According to the International Telecommunication Union, only 44 pecent of Mexicans accessed the Internet in 2014.
The public schools here aren't free. There's no transportation provided, or meals, and parents pay ever-increasing academic, athletic, and maintenance fees. They must also buy two uniforms--one academic, one athletic--with shoes for each. Then they send their children to dilapidated, graffiti-covered buildings with broken windows, crumbling walls, and high student to teacher ratios. Schools that consistently rank at the very bottom of the list in every one of the the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development's areas of evaluation: math, science, and reading.
At both schools where I've taught, my employers--the owners of prestigious for-profit private schools--paid me cash in order to avoid taxes. At my most recent job, the owner drove a late model Escalade and employed not only his wife but also his daughter and a niece. I earned $2.70 U.S. per hour; I was one of the highest-paid teachers because of my Master's degree in the Teaching of English from a U.S. university.
Electricity costs more here than in the United States. Most people I know only light their hot water heater once a day, so they can take a warm shower. Many wash clothes by hand rather than in a washing machine. Only the fabulously wealthy can afford dishwashers and clothes dryers. Cell phone service costs more here than in the U.S. For decades Carlos Slim, consistently ranked among the top three richest men in the world, maintained a virtual monopoly on telephone service. He used his influence with the government to lobby for restrictions on workers' rights to organize and protest.
The current sales tax nationwide is 16 percent, nearly double the national average in the United States and almost four times that of our home state of North Carolina. One of the first things President Peña Nieto did after taking office was to raise taxes on many common food items. In the six years I've lived here, I've seen some products nearly double in price, even as the value of the peso drops.
Mexico has national tax collections that amount to only 14 percent of the country`s gross domestic profit, compared with the U.S. level of 25-28 percent, because tax rates unfairly exempt the rich from paying their fair share. In the words of Gary Hufbauer of the Institute for International Economics, in Mexico "the wealthy classes do not want to tax themselves, period."
College is expensive here, and there are few scholarships available. The class system is perpetuated by keeping higher education inaccessible to the poor and working classes, regardless of their ability. According to De panzazo, a documentary about the state of Mexican education, fewer than ten percent of Mexicans finish college, and only one percent achieve advanced degrees. The universities are much smaller than in the U.S. (they're almost always housed in a single building), with only a small allotment of students accepted each term. I know a man who was told upon receiving his college entrance exam results, "You had the top score, but you won't be accepted because the slots are all filled by the children of wealthy families." He emigrated to the United States, where he now owns a multinational corporation; his children have all completed college and/or graduate school in the United States. In fact, a recent study from UC-Irvine and UCLA found that Mexican-Americans’ high school graduation rate was more than double that of their parents, and their college graduation rate more than double that of their fathers and triple that of their mothers.
Many people in this country have never eaten a meal in a real restaurant. They don't eat seafood, which is more expensive than other meat. Healthy foods--whole grains, organics--are not only prohibitively expensive but also hard to find. They don't sell them in the corner stores or open-air markets where the working classes shop; you have to take a bus to a rich neighborhood to find the specialty stores and American supermarket chains that carry them. The obesity rate, including childhood obesity, is the highest in the world.
According to the United Nations Environment Programme, in the United States 30 to 40 percent of the food supply is wasted. I've never seen anyone throw food away here. Or anything else they can find any possible use for.
There are no protections against age discrimination here--in fact, equal opportunity employment is not promoted at all--and job solicitations nearly always stipulate that applicants be under 35. Thirty-five. There is no federal Social Security-equivalent pension for retirees. Old people bag groceries or attend to bathrooms or direct parking, working only for tips. Or they beg.
I know a man here whose whole family lives in a one-bedroom hovel because his daughter was born with a heart defect. In the course of financing her multiple surgeries, they lost everything--except their daughter; she's beaten the odds by living to age twelve.
I know people here who don't have running water in their homes. Whose floors are bare cement. Whose children's only shoes are their two pairs for school. Then there are those who don't have any shoes at all. In 2013 a team of Triqui Indian boys made history by winning an international basketball tournament--barefoot.
Perhaps you think that Mexicans should focus their attention on improving their own country rather than trying to get into ours. I'm sure there's nothing they'd like more, if only it were that simple. Even the vote--the only power the average citizen has--is fraught with corruption. I was here for the last presidential election and witnessed widespread fraud myself, including obvious changes to the hand-marked ballots. In a twist of sad irony, vote-buying by the present administration's party turned out to be a swindle; the supermarket gift cards they exchanged for voter I.D.s--cards activated the day after the election--had only a tiny fraction of the promised amount of pesos loaded on them. People willing to sell their vote for a week's groceries discovered, too late, that the cards contained only a couple of U.S. dollars.
Donald Trump says that Mexico doesn't send its best people to the U.S., but I disagree. I believe that what it requires to risk your life, leaving everything you know and everyone you love behind, and move to a country so foreign that you don't know even the language is the same stuff that America's immigrants have always been made of: courage, idealism, and hope. I think, in fact, that Mexico's worst people are the few who take advantage of a rigged system to make themselves richer at the expense of the many--not unlike Donald Trump himself, with his tax evasion and overseas workers. And we're not being our best selves when we let a person like him manipulate us into despising our fellow human beings. I believe we're better than that.
Trump could learn something from the immigrants' humility and perseverance. I know I'm speaking in broad terms, but as a whole, the Mexican people view their deplorable political system with resignation, though not without hope, and approach life in general with fortitude and equanimity--qualities no doubt augmented by their strong Christian faith. They love life, they live in the moment, and they value their families above everything. The primacy of family relationships makes it the more poignant that so many of them are divided by a border. And although their homeland certainly has its share of violence, it's mostly attributable to the northward flow of drugs into our own country. I've never heard of a single instance of the kind of senseless violence that plagues the U.S.--random attacks on shopping malls and movie theaters and schools.
I personally have been made to feel welcome here and treated with warmth and kindness. The only instances of discrimination I've ever experienced were in my own country, the result of association with my husband. They range from subtle--when it began to drizzle as we waited outside a museum and the guard gave everyone in line an umbrella except us--to more dramatic--being stopped for no reason by the police and searched for drugs. It was enough to strip away some of my white privilege and give me a glimpse into what many people have to bear every day of their lives. My husband was once stopped twice in the same week by the same cop, both times without any cause. Another time a white man approached him at a gas station and asked angrily, "How are you able to drive that car? I've worked my whole life, and I can't buy that car." It was only a Toyota Camry, but more to the point, had my husband been white, I can't imagine that the man would have questioned--or even noticed--what kind of car he drove. All this helps to explain why I prefer living in Mexico. Here it's a benefit that my children are both Mexican and American, whereas there, I fear, it would be a liability.
Trump says undocumented immigrants are criminals, yet according to The Wall Street Journal, the reality is that they're less, not more, likely to commit crimes than native-born Americans. They have a lot to lose, a lot that we take for granted. We were lucky enough to be born on the easy side of the border. The irony of Trump's words is that the immigrants themselves are often the victims of crimes: exploited by unscrupulous employers, exposed to occupational hazards, not paid the minimum wage, not compensated for overtime hours. Sexual assaults and robberies go unreported by victims who fear detection and deportation by the police. According the ACLU, these individuals are not safe even in ICE custody; sexual abuse allegations, including the abuse of minors, have come from nearly every state that houses an immigration detention center.
If you're still reading, I certainly can't complain that you haven't given my point of view a fair hearing, so thank you for that. I know you're a good person. I have many fond memories of you from my childhood in Shelby. And I think you understand why I feel such a personal stake in this; you see the photos I post of the four people I love most in the world. I don't want a wall between my country and theirs.
I don't want a wall between you and me either. Maybe we'll never agree on most of the relevant issues in this election, but perhaps you can at least view the undocumented immigrants whom Donald Trump rails against with some degree of compassion. All they want is a better life--not your life; they don't even presume to aspire to that--but enough, in peace and safety, and a future for their children. Can we, who have been blessed with so much, really begrudge them that?
About the Author: A native of the North Carolina foothills, April Vázquez holds a B.A. in Literature and Language from the University of North Carolina at Asheville and an M.A. in the Teaching of English as a Second Language from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. She currently lives in León, Guanajuato, Mexico, where she homeschools her daughters Daisy, Dani, and Dahlia. April's work has been published or is forthcoming in The Missing Slate, Windhover, The Fieldstone Review, Eclectica, Foliate Oak, The New Plains Review, and others.