Sweet Home Obama
Forgive and Forget?
As an International Reporting Project and FRONTLINE/World Fellow, Macarena Hernandez traveled to Mexico to explore the Mexico-Guatemala border. She recently completed a year-long reporting project for The Dallas Morning News documenting the educational experiences of teen Latino immigrants at one of the oldest high schools in Dallas. She is a graduate of Baylor University and earned a master's degree in Journalism from the University of California at Berkeley.
I'm standing in the middle of the Zocalo, the heart of Mexico City's historical district, listening to Marco Antonio Solis of the native band Los Bukis. About half a million people are in the square to support Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the former mayor of Mexico City and left-wing presidential candidate, who is set to speak. Two years ago, this country had its own high-profile election and many Mexicans still feel that the ruling party stole the 2006 presidency from Obrador and his party, the Paritido de la Revolucion Democratica, or PRD.
I've come to Mexico to do a report on Central American migrants crossing from Guatemala into Mexico on their journey to the Unites States. But with feelings about their last election still so obviously intense, I'm also curious to know how Mexicans are feeling about the U.S. presidential race and decide to find out.
For Primitivo Rodriguez, an immigrant rights activist, the U.S. presidential race has been a preoccupation. I caught up with him and two of his friends at a birthday party in Puebla, a two-hour drive from the capital. Carlos Olamendi and Gerardo Gonzalez, like Rodriguez, have been watching the U.S. elections closely. They're not your typical Mexicans. They can dissect each of the candidates' positions on immigration and free trade.
The three friends, who work with immigrant issues on both sides of the Rio Grande, have deep respect for John McCain, who they agree "gets" Mexico. But, they say, McCain isn't the McCain he used to be -- the McCain who just two years ago co-sponsored a highly controversial immigration reform package with an equally controversial Democratic Senator, Edward Kennedy.
"McCain was a true independent," Rodriguez says. "But he wants to win a base of voters that has never supported him, the party's most conservative base -- actually the most anti-immigrant section of the party."
Neither McCain nor Obama -- who are both for immigration reform -- was tested on this thorny election issue. In fact, throughout the campaign, immigration barely came up. Voters were more concerned with the troubled economy and the never-ending war in Iraq.
Still, all three men predict that immigration reform will happen on the next administration's watch.
"With one out of every 10 Mexicans living in the United States, immigration is a key issue," says Gonzalez, who coordinated the 2006 vote abroad, the first time Mexicans living in the United States could vote for Mexico's president.
Olamendi, who is Puebla state's high commissioner for migrant affairs, says he personally knows his candidate McCain, and believes that no matter who becomes the 44th president of the United States, Mexico wins.
"We have before us two candidates who are friends of Mexico, friends of migrants," he says. "That's going to be a better position for us and give us a better opportunity to work on a bi-national agenda."
But not all Mexicans are so optimistic. When I asked former Mexican ambassador to the United States and the United Nations, Jorge Montano, his thoughts on the next U.S. administration, he sounded a more cautious note.
"We are not going to be big dreamers, [we are going to be] realistic about our neighbors," he says. "That's the best way that we can keep a very good relationship."
With each new U.S. administration, be it Republican or Democrat, Montano says that Mexico must seek it out.
Former Mexican ambassador to the United States and the United Nations, Jorge Montano.
"Look! With Bill Clinton, he didn't know about Mexico but he learned very fast," Montano says. "He understood that NAFTA [the North American Free Trade Agreement] was important for the U.S. as well -- that Mexico was an important country. We had a very good eight years with Mr. Clinton." But not so good under George W. Bush, Montano says, despite the fact that he spent four years as governor of Texas, a strategic border state.
"He was more distant with Mexico than Mr. Clinton," even though "his father [former president George H.W. Bush] was very close to Mexico."
As the Senator of another border state, Arizona, McCain has been entrenched in U.S.-Mexico politics for decades. He was also a staunch advocate of NAFTA and an influential voice on the issue of immigration reform before talks broke down last year.
Over the summer, McCain visited Mexico with his wife, Cindy. Months later, Mexicans were still talking about the couple's tour of the Basilica of Guadalupe, one of Latin America's most sacred Catholic sights. Folks wondered if it was a political ploy to appeal to Catholics and U.S. Hispanics.
I asked Basilica volunteer David Flores, who was present for the McCains' visit, to give me a tour. Flores told me that the monsignor gave McCain his blessing in Spanish.
Flores is a university student and against the war in Iraq. Although Obama never made it to Mexico during the campaign as McCain did, he still wants the Democrat in the White House.
"I want Obama to win so that the United States can change its course," he told me. "That could help the United States and have a big impact on international relations."
In a recent poll, two out of every three Mexicans were rooting for Obama.
Before I left the birthday celebrations in Puebla, I asked Rodriguez and his friends why Obama has so caught on in Mexico. Would a black man be able to win a presidential election in Mexico? The same Mexico that has collective amnesia when it comes to its own black and indigenous roots?
"That's a very good question," Rodriguez responds. "Why is Obama so popular in Mexico, when we in Mexico have never given our black population the place it deserves?"
He guesses that it must be Obama's charisma, the desire for someone new, and the fact that the Senator from Illinois is a minority, which helps win sympathy with Mexicans.
Gonzalez offers an even more simple explanation.
"For the people who aren't really informed, who just catch snippets of [the campaign] on television, we see Obama as the underdog. It's just like football," Gonzalez says. "If England is playing against Honduras, Mexicans will root for Honduras."