Correction appended below
Shortly after I moved to Mexico City in 2004, I discovered a fantastic pozole restaurant near a subway stop called “Niños Héroes” – literally, “Boy Heroes.” I took a Mexican friend there and, between slurps of cilantro-y goodness, asked if by any chance he knew the origin of the name. He started to explain, and then an amused smile crossed his face: “You know, güero, you should look that up yourself.”
In retrospect, all I can say is: That’s not a chapter I remember them teaching us in U.S. public schools. The Niños Héroes, for the similarly uninitiated, were six teenage soldiers who died defending Mexico City’s Chapultepec Castle from invading U.S. forces in 1847. As the story goes, one of the cadets wrapped himself in a Mexican flag and hurled himself to his death from a castle wall rather than surrender to the Americans. Among Mexico’s most revered heroes, the Niños also have their own national holiday, a monument and mural (see the image above) in Chapultepec Park, and for many years their faces adorned the Mexican currency. So, yes, what I did was roughly akin to a Japanese tourist in Hawaii asking in between mouthfuls of hamburger: “Hey, what’s this Pearl Harbor thing all about, anyway?”
I’ve thought of my papelón often as Donald Trump prepares to take office, and serious attention turns to what the relationship between Mexico and the United States will really look like, beyond all the tweets and hype. Because while memories are short, the harmony and economic integration of the First NAFTA Era (1994-2016, RIP) have been more the exception than the rule when it comes to bilateral ties. People of my age and origin – I am 39, and Texan – tend to take for granted things like Mexican cooperation on border security and drug interdiction, or the friendly treatment given to U.S. companies and government officials south of the border. But a look backward at history, and forward at the upcoming political calendar, shows why it’s possible that Mexico and the United States could have a genuinely hostile relationship just two short years from now.
No, we’re not there yet. Despite having launched his campaign by calling many Mexicans “rapists” and vowing to make them pay for a border wall, Trump will likely begin his term with relations that are tense but still productive. Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto has stayed mostly silent in the face of Trump’s provocations (aside from the odd Hitler analogy now and then), and last week appointed as his foreign minister a man viewed as the most constructive possible emissary to the Trump White House. Many have ripped the unpopular Peña for not being more aggressive, but confronting Trump has been counterproductive for others – and polls suggest Peña’s muted approach makes some domestic sense. Mexican public opinion of the United States hit an all-time high in 2016 – with 76 percent voicing approval, according to a poll by Latinobarómetro. This suggests that, at least for a time, Mexicans were drawing a distinction between the declarations of a presidential candidate and the country so many of their compatriots reside in – and love. Attitudes have darkened since Trump won the election on Nov. 8, and Peña’s recent mishandling of a gas price increase has further limited his room for political maneuver. But the bottom line is that, whether he deserves it or not, Trump still has a chance to build a productive relationship with the U.S.’ southern neighbor.
Does Trump care? In many respects, the answer is emphatically “No.” “America First” is about as unambiguous as it gets, and his vows of retribution against U.S. companies who invest in Mexico have only increased since the election. But it remains to be seen if Trump is willing to risk a full-on trade war, or follow through on his threats to deport 12 million people (as opposed to “just” those with a criminal record). It’s one thing to roll back some of the excesses of globalism over the last 20 years – Mexicans, with their own history of economic nationalism, may even understand. But if Trump goes too far – that is, if he keeps all his campaign promises – the attitudes of the Mexican public and their government may quickly revert to something resembling the historical mean.
Even gringo knuckle-draggers like me know the United States took about half of Mexico’s territory in various wars. Incursions by U.S. troops continued well into the 20th century. Mexico’s expropriation of its oil sector in 1938 was an explicit rebuke of U.S. companies, and as recently as the 1970s Mexico was the only Latin American country that refused to sign a military assistance agreement with the United States. In 1979, Mexican President José López Portillo complained of an “atmosphere of mistrust or open hostility” between the two countries. It was only in the 1980s that the modern era of cooperation began to take shape. My point here is not to pick at old scabs, but to note that even today many Mexican history textbooks emphasize these darker aspects of U.S. ties – the Niños Héroes and the like. Meanwhile, those who most arduously defend close ties with Washington are often comparatively wealthy folk who have attended U.S. universities. Well, it’s been a rough year for globalist elites. As elsewhere, the tide could turn against them in Mexico very quickly.
What would a hostile Mexico-United States relationship look like in the modern day? For starters, Mexico could stop (or slow) efforts to police its own southern border – which would lead to an unprecedented flow of migrants northward from Central America, as well as Haiti and Cuba, that even a wall might struggle to stop. Cooperation on anti-terrorism operations, such as the one that halted a scheme to kill the Saudi ambassador in Washington in 2011, could also become less enthusiastic. Meanwhile, a former Mexican foreign minister has proposed that Mexico refuse to take back its own deportees unless the U.S. can prove their nationality with documents – which could create a huge, chaotic backlog of people in legal limbo. Drug interdiction efforts could be pared back, especially after the latest wave of marijuana legalizations in California and elsewhere. Mexican regulators could make life a lot tougher for U.S. companies, and reciprocal tariffs could be in the cards. The bad blood could also trickle down to the popular level, with everything from harassment of American tourists to campaigns against U.S. companies. Indeed, since Ford canceled plans for a Mexican factory last week, at least one prominent Mexican politician has proposed a boycott.
Confronted with such scenarios, many Americans respond: Come on, Mexicans would never risk a major fight with a country that receives 90 percent of their exports. To which I say: Really? Didn’t Americans themselves just ignore warnings of economic disaster, and opt for nationalistic self-interest anyway? Isn’t Mexico the number-one or number-two export destination for approximately half of U.S. states? And even if Peña holds the line, his successor may not. Many political analysts believe that Andrés Manuel López Obrador, a leftist who lost the previous two elections by small margins, is now the slight favorite to be elected president in July 2018. AMLO, as he’s known, would have no qualms about battling Trump – damn the consequences. Every inflammatory tweet, every punitive tariff over the next 18 months will make an AMLO victory that much more likely.
Even then, there would likely be limits to any nastiness: Cultural and economic ties built over the last two decades, and two centuries, run deep. But if Trump has any interest in maintaining a modicum of civility and cooperation – and again, he may not – there are still options available. He could speak, with a level of conviction and detail he has not yet mustered, about the achievements of Mexican (and other) immigrants who are in the United States legally. He could also make one of his first trips as president to Mexico, and cast his grievances as against the Mexican government, rather than its people. Gestures matter: Harry Truman is still fondly remembered for visiting the Niños Héroes monument in Mexico City on the centenary of their death, and paying homage to their bravery. Trump might even take some time to learn the history of U.S.-Mexico ties. Hey, take it from me – It’s never too late.
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly said Mexico is the number-one export destination for about half of U.S. states.