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MATAMOROS, Mexico – I don’t cross the border into northern Mexico with the same nonchalance I did as a young journalist living and working in Brownsville in the 1970s. I was busy learning Spanish back then, and the streets of Mexico were my classroom.
U.S. citizens visiting Mexican border cities enjoyed a certain security in a time before violent drug cartels grew powerful, and local and state law enforcement started taking orders from the bad guys. We were good for business and we felt safe. The ruling party, the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI), maintained a tight grip on all levels of government and society. Crime, corruption, and injustice were commonplace even then, but there were rules. One learned to recognize invisible lines, and did not cross them.
June 23 was an exception to the rule, when I crossed into Matamoros from Brownsville in the company of Martha True and Philip True Jr. Martha is the widow of former San Antonio Express-News Mexico City Bureau Chief Philip True, and Philip Jr. is her 19-year-old son. He was born a few months after his father’s 1998 disappearance and murder in Mexico’s Sierra Madre while trekking through the remote, rugged back country of the indigenous Huichol tribe.
I am Philip Jr.’s proud padrino, or godfather, and he is my ahijado, or godson. We were on our way to an extended family gathering to watch Mexico’s World Cup team defeat South Korea, 2-1, six days after the Mexican side defeated defending champion Germany.
Martha stopped at a street stand to buy me a surprisingly affordable Mexican national team jersey, which the salesman pointed out was not, as I suggested, a knockoff, fayuca or contrabando. The jersey, he corrected me, was “una réplica.” Okay.
After the match, vehicles bedecked with Mexican flags, horns honking, paraded through the city’s streets, still caked with mud from two days of torrential rains. It was a good day to be a proud Mexican.
The flags and horns will probably be seen and heard across the republic again Monday, even if Mexico fails to defeat Brazil in Samara, Russia, that morning. The fiesta, if it happens, will come one day after Mexicans go to the polls Sunday to elect a new president.
It will surprise few to see after the polls close Sunday that Mexicans have elected Andrés Manuel López Obrador as the country’s new president. Polls have predicted for months now that López Obrador’s time has come.
A longtime leftist wary of free markets and small government, López Obrador this campaign season has ignited crowds in plazas across Mexico. He’s a fiery, populist candidate riding a wave of public fatigue with violence and insecurity, corruption at the highest levels, and an economy with too few winners and too many losers.
Conditions remain far worse in Central America for the impoverished majority, but reality in Mexico is still dire enough for many that the only hope remains risking life and limb to cross the border into the United States without protection against those who prey on migrants or legal documentation.
Who would not do the same if faced with the same circumstances?
If AMLO, as he is known, is sworn in as Mexico’s new president, it will primarily be over these domestic issues. Yet voters also see him as an unapologetic nationalist who will not bow politely to President Donald Trump, or diplomatically endure his harsh, often offensive pronouncements on free trade, immigrants, and border security.
For San Antonio, the U.S. city that sits at the confluence of the two countries, nationalism, protectionism, and cultural tensions are not welcome trends. Such politics run counter to our long, carefully cultivated friendship with Mexico and undermine economic ties while offending many families with cross-border roots.
Not long ago, I sat in my Toyota Tacoma pickup truck at a Southside crossing as a seemingly endless freight train carried Tundra and Tacoma chassis from Mexican plants to the Toyota manufacturing facility here. It was a moving portrait of San Antonio and Mexico’s interdependence.
I wonder what steel tariffs will do to the price of trucks we manufacture here. I also wonder what effect a trade war will have on the bilateral relationship, especially as we continue to feud about immigration policies, the building of a multibillion-dollar border wall, and other exclusionary acts.
It will be interesting to watch President-elect López Obrador once he dons the sash and takes the oath for his sexenio, or single six-year presidential term. Mexican voters, if the polls hold true, are looking for a messiah, someone who will come in and radically disturb the status quo, even if it means dismantling the old order without any sure sense of what might take its place.
That same sense of anger and frustration drove tens of millions of voters to reject Hillary Clinton and put Trump in the White House. Now it’s Mexico’s turn.
San Antonio is geographically closer to Mexico City than Washington, D.C. What each country’s leader does or does not do will reverberate here. The journalist in me will watch with fascination, not to be confused with optimism.