Sunday, March 27, 2011

America, NAFTA, and the Riddle of Fighting or Running Across Fronteras

In the pantomime of montaña piercing sky, I drew my shawl tighter against me. Chiapas was the most beautiful place on earth: verdant cliffs, azure streams, and the splash of ruby flora that hugged the hips of sloped land. The sun was growing thin behind curtains of clouds as Cristobal, a twelve year old boy was playing his wooden guitar while singing a song that was no ordinary song. I don’t come to make war—I’m a working man/ Though it pains The Neighbor/We are more American /Than every last one of the Gringos. Rough fingers stroking metal strings, I watched him stare past the trees to a place that I could not find him. How could an indigenous boy be more American than those who were born and live in the country? How could he be more American than me?

America. La Mexcla del Mundo, the mix of the World. But why this nation? What has attracted so many people to these borders? When I asked a Mexican fruit vendor in Texas while I was there visiting family why he came to the USA, he responded by saying that America is the land of opportunity. Growing up in Mexico, he heard stories of people who went to the States with a clean slate and were able to make it rich with hard work, a little luck, and several prayers. I then asked him if the image he had in his mind as a boy came true. He looked at me, the corner of his eyes creasing as he smiled wearily. It will come. More determination. More work. And I will make it. To my determined friend, America is not just a country. It is a mindset, a prize that will bring him happiness, the final frontier over a third world village tucked into the jungles of Chiapas. But this is not just his vision. I then realized that to Cristobal, the twelve year old boy, America was the tired nights of wanting to do more and to leave his all too familiar pueblo for a new, breathtaking land. America was a dream that Americans did not see. A dream that was certainly taken for granted. A true American would appreciate and work harder and harder for that dream. America was determination. To me, this is what ‘America’ stands for. For me, for my father, for Cristobal, and for the rest of the world. America is an image that entices the masses. This is certainly evident with the drama that enfolded after the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement. But in the process, ideologies clashed and the dispute between individual versus society unfolded. Mexico became the battlefield for an identity

influenced by America. The United States’ influence in Mexico is not only an economically based.

Its first important to note Mexico’s convoluted and tragic history. Mexico had been cheated throughout history by her Northern cousin, the United States of America, several times. For example, when Austin and Houston claimed Texas for the United States, Mexico was tricked into selling the land for a very cheap price out of desperation for money to keep the Mexican National Treasury from being buried in debt. But since its independence, Mexico has looked at America for direction. To illustrate, in the 1940’s, Mexico wanted to show to the world and particularly the United States that it could be a luxurious and driven place too. Thus the Mexican government poured millions of pesos into the construction and rehabilitation of a small fishing town known as Acapulco. Acapulco became the playground and swimming pool or Hollywood Stars. Mexico became moda, fashion. The hotels were built in styles similar to South Beach hotels with air conditioning, televisions, and night clubs. Acapulco was transformed with entrepreneurial skills and innovation that remind me of the vision of America: the attempt of success with hard work, luck, and determination.

The NAFTA document was in many ways, like Acapulco. The agreement would catapult Mexico into the First World and raise Mexico’s GDP significantly. Mexico was going to be in the ranks with the United States. With an economy that had been corrupted by a league of cheats since the birth of the nation, Mexico wanted to have the stability; NAFTA could provide stability for Mexico. The purpose of the document was the eliminate barriers of trade between the three countries of North America. The seeds of the agreement were planted in 1988 when the Canada-US States Fair Trade Agreement was signed. When in effect, the document mitigated all tariffs on imports and exports between the United States and Canada and enabled a more fluent flow of products between the two countries. The third North American country Mexico wanted a share. In 1992 US President George Bush, Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mullroney, and Mexican Presidente Carlos Salines met in Texas to form a document. The negotiations were finalized and the document was signed on December 31st 1994 and in Mexico City, a National Fiesta was held for the celebration. Mexico was finally about to break the mold. The Mexican government declared NAFTA as progress.

But was it truly progress? Who was profiting? On an economic standpoint, Mexico became the second largest importer to suppress the United States’ demand for agricultural products when pre-NAFTA Mexico did not export much agricultural goods outside its borders. In fact Mexico’s agricultural exports increased by 9.4% annually between 1994-2001. Mexico became the farmlands of North America. But on a deeper level, NAFTA was making a change, but not in a positive way. During the 1950’s- 1990’s, the Mexican government redistributed land for the long ignored indigenous communities. In the state of Chiapas, the most fertile state in Mexico, about 17% of the land was used in a system of ejidos or communal farming grounds for indigenous communities. The communities were promised more land, but after NAFTA, the communal lands were taken away by rancheros who grew mass amounts of corn to export it to the United States in order to keep up with the competitive market two years before the document was signed. Indigenous people all over Chiapas were forced off their ancestral homes in order for more ranches and farms. The indigenous people grew tired of the unjust treatment and on January 1st 1994, an army of indigenous people stormed into the main cities of Chiapas to reclaim the state as their own. With the help of Subcomandante Marcos, a professor of philosophy from Mexico City, the indigenous people held up banners with the words YA BASTA on them. Enough they said. The reclaiming of cities by force gave the indigenous communities a sense of belonging and power. Never before had the indigenous people of Chiapas collectively stood up for their rights. It was an attack on an unlawful system that robbed them of their livelihood and community. In the indigenous community, the individual is not as important as the community. Everyone has a role to play in society. For example when I was in Oventic, a Zapatista village, I was meeting the leaders of the Junta (collective tribal government) and while we were speaking, the women stood up and left the room. I was the only woman present and the men carried on their conversation with me. I asked them where did the women go and they replied that they had to cook for the rest of the community. The community relied on each individual to form into a community. In response to the effects of NAFTA, political ideologies were tossed around in conversation, and it became unclear what the indigenous community truly wanted. In the “EZLN Demands at the Dialogue Table” a document written by Zapatista leaders, thirty-three clauses in the document state needs for schools, medicines, doctors, communal farming lands, and clean water, yet in the final clause the communities do not want to be governed by the Mexican government and want sovereignty from the national government. Also, when I was visiting the villages of Oventic, I was talking to a few seniors in high school. I asked them what they want for the future of their villages. They quoted Marx and called on communism as the best way to go because the individual knows his place in society and will act in respects to his duty. These villages were theatrical in many ways because I felt they were confused as to what they wanted for the community. What were the Zapatistas fighting for? Were they reclaiming land or a lost persona? I believe it is both. The movement united the communities. Community is key. But it is a different sense of community we hold on to. This sort of community is an unspoken bond in which every person in the community knows exactly what his or her job is. Traditions were important, but there was a world beyond the mountains. The big scare was certainly about youths running off up the Yucatan and making their way to the border. Sometimes the strict codes and rigid structure of society caused many to run.

When I visited a family in the indigenous province of Chenalo, I was surprised to see no men. I met everyone in the family that was present, but not a single man. I asked where the husbands and fathers and brothers were. Lucia, a woman who was taking care of me took me by the hand and led me one of the houses. I stared at photographs hidden behind glass on a wooden wall. These men she said ran to America. I stared at the empty look on Lucia’s face. NAFTA hit the community hard because not only was it the loss of corn fields but the loss of men as well.

Since the late 1990’s thousands of Mexicans have left their homes in order to find a better life in the United States. It is the same vision my father saw of the states some forty years ago. The same vision caused a nation to sign a document that put the tradition and economy in a limbo. It is the same vision that is causing men to leave their homes in order to support their families. I was always aware of this vision, but I had never experienced it so concretely. I could never imagine all the men in a family to cross the frontera and being in the presence of women and children who had not seen their loved ones was beyond anything I had ever felt before. But in the families with members over the border for a vision, the family still in Mexico I noticed was so strong. The unity was unbreakable. Women took the jobs of men in the fields and harvested corn. In the communities, I felt a sense of unspoken unity with these women, too. And when I think of Cristobal, I can see that he is thinking of another place, another community. I know that he will join his brothers, uncles, and father in the southern America to prove that he is more ‘American’ than all of us gringos.

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