Since the North American Free Trade Agreement was signed between Mexico, the U.S. and Canada in 1993, Mexico has experienced rapid economic growth. As education levels and financial status have risen and a booming aeronautics and auto industry has emerged, Mexicans now want to be seen as an equal partner to the U.S. — and to have the respect that comes along with it.
But since the heated rhetoric of the U.S. presidential campaign that led to the election of President Donald Trump, a shift has happened in the relationship between the United States and Mexico, as U.S. words and policy have sparked anger and a drive for independence within Mexico.
A new economic future
In the 24 years since NAFTA was negotiated, Mexico’s annual gross domestic product has more than doubled to $1.144 trillion in 2015, according to the World Bank . Education has been on the rise, as Mexico had the fastest growth in high school graduation rates from 2000 to 2011 among countries involved in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, according to the organization.
These changes have left is a Mexico fundamentally different than that of 20 years ago. But one thing that hasn’t changed is the deep-seated trade relationship between Mexico and the U.S.
The No. 1 source of Mexico’s imports, and No. 1 destination of its exports, is the United States, according to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Observatory of Economic Complexity. For the U.S., Mexico is No. 2 in both categories.
While a clear economic disparity exists between the countries, the gap has been closing as Mexico’s GDP rises and companies like Ford and Bombardier move manufacturing into Mexico, further connecting the two countries. The U.S.-Mexican relationship is sure to continue, but some see the friction caused by Trump’s election as an opportunity for Mexico to begin to forge other fundamental economic and diplomatic partnerships, particularly in Europe, Asia and other parts of America.
“I really think that it is a great opportunity for Mexico to review the current state of affairs with the United States and to find opportunities of diversification in terms of a strong economy, a strong port of exports and imports, because the height of alliances based on NAFTA is, of course, with the U.S. economy,” said Rodolfo Hernandez, senior adviser to the Center for U.S.-Latin America Initiatives at the University of Texas at Dallas.
This diversification can already be seen in Mexico’s trade relationship with the European Union. Mexico signed a Free Trade Agreement with the union in 2000, and since then the flow of goods between them has grown from €26 billion to €53 billion, according to the European Commission. The two partners have made moves to accelerate the process of updating their trade agreement since Trump’s election.
With Mexico’s growing and globalizing economy, what many are demanding now is respect from their northern neighbor — something they feel has already been lacking during Trump’s presidency.
Mario Lopez had this in mind when he decided to organize a march in San Miguel de Allende, a city in Central Mexico that hosts a large population of U.S. expatriates, after Trump’s election. Lopez’s march was a part of a larger series of nationwide marches on Feb. 12 organized by the Vibra México (“Mexico Moves”) movement.
Of the 520 participants that Lopez counted at his march, however, about 400 were expatriates there to show their opposition to Trump. For the 120 Mexicans who were there, Lopez said it was a chance to participate in a larger national movement to demand respect and show pride in their country. And while he believes strongly in continued collaboration between the two countries, he also said that it is time for things to change.
-Expatriates in San Miguel de Allende talk about relations with the U.S. (Cronkite Borderlands Initiative audio by J McAuliffe)
“Our relationship.… We need each other,” he said. “But I think it’s good to recognize each other as different countries and cultures, now that we are moving into another age. We want respect.”
While the fundamental relationship between the U.S. and Mexico is in a state of flux right now, many hope that, coming out of it, Mexico will be a stronger, more independent power.
“I think in the long run Mexico is going to be in a more equal base … with the United States and to be presented as a more independent partner and neighbor with respect to the U.S.,” Hernandez said. “So I think after all, everything, this is a good opportunity to review the circumstance and to present Mexico eventually in a stronger and more powerful place in terms of interacting with the United States.”
History always plays a role
While Trump’s presidency has presented new challenges to the U.S.-Mexican relationship, the strain between the nations is hardly new.
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Mexico’s recent demands for respect are informed both by Trump’s inflammatory words and policies – from talking about the “rapists” coming to the U.S. from Mexico to demanding the deportation of the “bad hombres” to threatening to build a wall along the Southern border – but also by the countries’ long history.
The event that sits at the forefront of many Mexicans’ minds is the Mexican-American War of the 1840s, and in particular of the loss of Mexican territory to the U.S. that followed.
In signing the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo to end the war with the U.S., Mexico ceded nearly half of its territory in giving the U.S. ownership of California as well as what was left of Mexican territory in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and Nevada.
For Lopez, there is a definite connection between the feelings then and the feelings of many after the election of Trump, as Mexicans try to adjust to the changing relationship between the two nations.
“We are afraid … in the sense of when you feel betrayed,” Lopez said. “Each 10 (Mexicans), at least four feel betrayed because of this nonsense election.”
Hernandez, who grew up in Guanajuato and lived in Mexico City before moving to the U.S. 23 years ago, said that this loss has fed the sense of nationalism that led to the feelings of pride and the demand for respect following Trump’s election.
“In the case of Mexico, the sense is that we lost,” Hernandez said. “That’s why this is a driver on the individual level of this notion of nationalism, and that is the way Mexicans are educated.”
– Cronkite Borderlands Initiative audio by Emily Zentner
Hernandez said that nationalism is in the “DNA of the Mexican” as they grow up imbued with a sense of history and national pride that leaves many still grieving the loss of their lands to the U.S.
The loss of this territory stung in particular due to the vast oil reserves that sat in this land. While it was far in the past, many Mexicans still mourn the loss of the land, and the resentment that came with it has not disappeared.
“Well, we lost half of our territory,” Lopez said. “We already lost half of it already, and I had a teacher who said it was the biggest half, the biggest half because it’s the petroleum. But I think not only my point of view, we weep as a nation for the territory. It was the worst thing.”
But some are afraid that by invoking this long-ago loss in discussing the current situation between the countries, the sense of anti-Americanism that followed the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo could return and permanently harm the nations’ relationship.
Rafael Fernandez de Castro, the head of the Department of International Studies at the Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México, has this concern in mind with some of the responses to Trump in Mexico that he has seen.
Fernandez, who served as an international adviser to former President Felipe Calderon and Calderon’s wife, current presidential candidate Margarita Zavala, said the nationalism that formed after the loss of this territory was good for Mexico in the long run – but it may not be good for Mexico today.
“In the 19th century, when we lost half of the territory, vis-a-vis the U.S. … Then Mexico became very anti-American and that is Mexican nationalism,” Fernandez said. “At the time, that nationalism was very positive because it was the glue that allowed Mexico to stay together, to keep together, because we were disintegrating.”
Despite the benefits of nationalism then, however, Fernandez stressed the importance of the friendship and collaboration between the two nations and said that this attitude may not be the best solution to the current problems.
Zavala, who Fernandez has advised on U.S. relations, expressed a similar sentiment, saying that a rise in national pride is always good, but the return of “anti-gringo” feelings would benefit no one.
Looking inward: A chance to redefine
But of all the concerns that Mexican citizens and officials have, there is one good thing many see that could come from Trump’s shake-up of the status quo between the countries: A chance to redefine the relationship to suit a modern Mexico.
“Like, now we need to ask ourselves like a nation what is happening,” Lopez said. “We are not anymore the manufacturing country of the United States… It’s a breaking point. As a community, as a continent, as good partners, I think we need to make a link and start to do something.”
In working toward re-evaluating the partnership, many hope for Mexico to turn more to its domestic economy in order to strengthen its own markets instead of relying so heavily on the U.S.
Despite the importance of maintaining the relationship between the nations, it is also time for Mexicans to figure out who they are in the 21st century and to make sure that their partnerships are working for them, Lopez said. Out of the tumult of the last year, he said, comes a chance for Mexico to rediscover its own identity.
“At the end, we don’t know our partner and that’s why it’s really, really a good question – who the United States are now, today, who is Mexico now?” Lopez said.