San Antonio’s relationship with Mexico took center stage Tuesday as former San Antonio mayors Henry Cisneros, Phil Hardberger, and Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff sat down for a discussion concerning decades of bilateral experience with our southernmost neighbor.

The event, organized by the Asociación de Empresarios Mexicanos (AEM) and the Association for Corporate Growth (ACG) at the Pearl Stable, was moderated by Rivard Report Director Robert Rivard and included a luncheon for the more than 100 attendees present.

ACG, founded in 1954, is a premier global organization dedicated to middle market growth. The organization recently put together a similar event in Austin where they gathered former mayors of the city representing five decades. AEM, a leading organization for Mexican entrepreneurs in the United States, was founded in San Antonio in 1996 and is currently celebrating its 20th anniversary.

Cisneros, who served as mayor of San Antonio from 1981 to 1989, commended AEM for its contributions in the business world and for “helping build bridges” in the community.

“The empresarios represent the latest contribution of human capital to San Antonio from Mexico that follows many previous groups of waves of Mexicans that came to San Antonio,” Cisneros said. “The empresarios really represent a good deal of the future of San Antonio.”

Cisneros began by reminding the audience of San Antonio’s history, which includes a deep heritage rooted in Spanish and Mexican culture. In addition, he mentioned the wave of prominent Mexican journalists, doctors, and exiles who came to the area fleeing the Mexican Revolution and greatly contributed to the city. This ebb and flow of human capital throughout history has always influenced San Antonio and continues to do so to this day.

“This was once part of Spain, then after the revolution in 1810 it became part of Mexico, and then of course the events in 1836 resulted in the new border,” Cisneros continued. “San Antonio has been on both sides of the line as history has moved and we know that there are mexicanos who lived in this area when it was part of Mexico, and some of those families are still around.”

As mayor, Cisneros took advantage of his friendship with his old Harvard classmate Carlos Salinas de Gortari, who later became president of Mexico. With such personal relationships and friendships that allowed direct communication in Los Pinos, “we were very well positioned” to foster that relationship with Mexico, Cisneros said, a relationship that Rivard called “like an up and down marriage” of sorts.

This “up and down marriage” between the two countries was strengthened with the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) while Wolff was mayor from 1991 to 1995. The agreement put the city in the trade spotlight after it was signed in San Antonio by Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, U.S. President George Herbert Walker Bush, and Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney in 1992.

Recently, political rhetoric has vilified NAFTA, but Wolff and Cisneros said that the trade agreement has been important to both countries, enhanced trade, and opened up export opportunities. The agreement, Cisneros added, is “solid and safe for the long run.” In addition to NAFTA, the former mayors talked about the possible bilateral trade opportunities between Texas and Mexico by garnering the new rules set by Mexico’s recent energy reform. This, they said, provides yet another opportunity for both countries to work together and take advantage of untapped oil reserves.

The conversation couldn’t go on without getting a little political, and the former mayors shared their thoughts on Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s vilification of the Mexican people.

He has been “disrespectful to the Mexican people and unappreciative of the nature of the relationship (between the two countries),” Cisneros said. “It’s an utter meltdown … a tragedy. (I have) no words to describe the ignorance of Trump’s position.”

Former Mayor Phil Hardberger (2005-2009) discusses the twin hurricanes that brought aid from Mexico.
Former Mayor Phil Hardberger (2005-2009) discusses the twin hurricanes that brought aid from Mexico. Credit: Scott Ball / Rivard Report

Hardberger said that it would be “foolish not to keep that close relationship with Mexico,” and much can be done where there is unity. Through his experience serving as San Antonio mayor from 2005 to 2009, he recalled a touching story from 2005 when the Mexican Army marched across the border to San Antonio in order to help evacuees devastated by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita – an image that counters the one of “rapists and criminals” streaming across the border.

Hundreds of Mexican troops set up camp at the former Kelly Air Force Base, Hardberger said, distributing potable water, medical supplies, and providing meals to around 10,000 people during a three week period.

When he hears negative rhetoric against the Mexican people, Hardberger said he thinks of “that Mexican army of soldiers that came to the United States to help us,” and  “got absolutely nothing for it.” He added that many were upset that the Mexican army put up a giant Mexican flag on the premises, but instead of telling the soldiers to take it down, Hardberger said they just put a U.S. flag right next to it. To this, Hardberger received loud applause from the audience.

Wolff said that most of us have friends and relatives on both sides of the border, a point which later made the discussion pivot to the possibility of comprehensive immigration reform once the Nov. 8 Presidential Election comes to a close.

Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff and former San Antonio Mayor (1991-1995) gives his remarks regarding San Antonio's history with Guadalajara and Monterrey.
Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, a former San Antonio Mayor (1991-1995), gives his remarks regarding the human connection between Mexico and San Antonio. Credit: Scott Ball / Rivard Report

“The relationship (between both countries and with the Mexican people) would get much better if we could get Congress to address immigration reform,” said Wolff, adding how it’s been frustrating to see illegal immigrants who have lived in the country for several years pay so many taxes but get no benefits in return. “I’ve never been able to understand that hateful rhetoric that’s occurred here in our country.”

Cisneros added that insiders from the Hillary Clinton campaign have told him that immigration reform is at the forefront of Clinton’s priorities if she gets elected into office. And although Cisneros admits that it’s hard to get bipartisan support, he is hopeful.

“I’m personally a believer that after the catharsis of this election, and some of the hatred is shone not to be a path to victory, that (both sides) will put together some kind of immigration reform,” Cisneros said.

Republican Hispanics, Hardberger added, “hold a very important key” in voicing their assertiveness on immigration reform. He urged them to stand up and make their voices heard in the party.

A big part of the discussion later turned to the potential of San Antonio becoming even more connected by focusing on growing the air routes offered at the San Antonio International Airport. There also was talk of the possibility of another airport in between Austin and San Antonio, a region that Cisneros said holds they key to San Antonio’s future.

“I had hoped that we would be talking seriously about a regional airport but we missed that opportunity when (Austin) built Bergstrom,” Cisneros said. And although a regional airport seems unlikely, he added that “we need to be talking about the air routes question, because … our airport is one of our achilles heels for our future.”

Hardberger and Wolff agreed that the airport symbolizes a lot of untapped potential and involving Mexico in that possible growth, by taking advantage of that proximity, would make San Antonio an even more pivotal stop for Mexican nationals. Wolff added it would help the city “emerge” and become its own force.

City of San Antonio International and Economic Development Director Rene Dominguez, who attended the luncheon, told the Rivard Report about initiatives currently in place that bolster the relationship between San Antonio and Mexico.

During the “SA to DF” trade mission in November 2015, organized by the San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and led by Mayor Ivy Taylor, “we signed a substantial Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with Mexico City, which led to programming with the Free Trade Alliance,” Dominguez said, whereby leaders in Mexico City collaborate with leaders in San Antonio to focus on job growth and economic opportunities for both cities.

In addition, the City has trade offices on the ground in Guadalajara, Monterrey, and Mexico City to help connect companies interested in investing on both sides of the border. On Oct. 17, Mexico City’s Secretary of Economic Development Ricardo Becerra invited a small group of San Antonio business leaders from CPS Energy and the San Antonio Economic Development Foundation (SAEDF) to attend the Expo Pymes in Mexico City in order to collaborate on new energy initiatives. All of these initiatives, Dominguez said, have strengthened the bilateral relationship.

It was clear at the end of the Tuesday luncheon that the relationship between Mexico and San Antonio can be deepened, and if we take control of it, the possibilities for growth – on both sides of the border – are endless.

Rocío Guenther

Rocío Guenther

Rocío Guenther worked as a bilingual reporter and editorial assistant for the Rivard Report from June 2016 to October 2017. She is originally from Guadalajara, Mexico and holds a bachelor's in English...