The words "drugs," "corruption," and "poor" were the most common word associations associated with Mexico in a national poll conducted by Vianovo, a consulting firm, and the GSD&M advertising agency in June.
The word "drug(s)" was mentioned by 33% of respondents when prompted on the U.S.'s third-largest trading partner and neighbor to the south. Mexico and the U.S. trade more than $1.4 billion per day and more than $1 million per minute, according to the 2015 U.S. Census, yet cross-border trade did not make the list of associations.
"We first conducted this poll in 2012, at the end of the Calderón administration, as a way to see what U.S. citizens thought of Mexico in comparison to other countries," said James S. Taylor, a Vianovo partner. "The results were not favorable."
Taylor thought this year would be a meaningful time to repeat the poll to see if perceptions of Mexico have improved better, seeing as President Enrique Peña Nieto's sexenio, or six-year term, nears an end.
Results from this year's poll show that Mexico's image in the U.S. continues to be a negative one, with 45% of respondents claiming an 'unfavorable' opinion of the country, similar to U.S. opinion of Cuba and Colombia.
Interestingly, ideology seems to be the significant driver of U.S. views of Mexico. A 65% majority of conservatives view Mexico in a negative light while only 30% of liberals feel the same. Call by Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump to erect a wall between the two countries and to engage in massive deportations has clearly contributed to popular sentiment among his supporters.
On Thursday, during the Republican National Convention, Trump reiterated that sentiment saying, "We are going to build a great border wall to stop illegal immigration, to stop the gangs, violence, and drugs from pouring into our communities," with audience members continuously shouting "Build that wall" afterwards. He also called NAFTA, "the worst economic deal made in our country," and said he wouldn't permit U.S. companies to expand to other countries without consequence.
In the same Vianovo and GSD&M poll, 63% of respondents said that if Trump were elected president, the U.S. relationship with Mexico would deteriorate.
"This is obviously about perception," Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1) told the Rivard Report. "It's unfortunate that there is rhetoric out there that helps create this level of concern, and I think it's misdirected."
"There is a disconnect in the minds of U.S. citizens with respect to the good and the bad of Mexico, which prevents them from seeing everything as a whole," Javier Martínez, chairman of Asociación de Empresarios Mexicanos (AEM), said in an email. "We have to understand why the negative aspects have more weight in that perception."
AEM is a leading organization for Mexican entrepreneurs in the U.S., founded in San Antonio in 1996. It currently has chapters in 26 U.S. and Mexican cities. The organization promotes constructive bilateral relations. The organization's 3,500 members are active in business and cultural activities that promote cross-border trade and relations.
"Yes, we do need to work on correcting those issues that give us a bad name, like issues of organized crime and corruption, but we also need to communicate that (currently) there is not a balanced perception of Mexico," Martínez added. "It is up to all of us to do this."
As for the drug problem, Treviño said, "It's not a Mexico problem," but an issue that both countries share.
It's widely acknowledged that the appetite for illegal drugs in the U.S. has created an unending demand for Mexican gangs to compete in the drug market, which adds to cyclical violence between cartels, with violence and corruption often spilling across the border.
"There is a common saying that we say in Spanish – Quién peca más: el que peca por la paga o el que paga por pecar? – Who sins more: the one that sins for pay or the one that pays for the sinning?" Treviño said. "Mexico has to be honest about its problems with cartels and corruption, but we do, too."
‘A Source of Problems’
In the poll, 54% of people said that Mexico is a source of problems for the U.S., compared to 22% who see the country as a good neighbor and partner. On the other hand, 75% of U.S. adults view Canada, the U.S.'s neighbor to the north, in a positive light.
Taylor said this poll result surprised him, knowing that all three countries benefit equally from free trade.
"There are large gaps between how U.S. Americans see Canada and how they see Mexico; they want a wall with Mexico, but not Canada," Taylor said. "This is worrisome and needs to change, because when you look at the commercial side of things, these countries have a lot at stake in their commercial relationship."
Another interesting fact: Travel appears to affect these attitudes. Most of those who viewed the country's economy, infrastructure, and overall image in a vastly negative way "have never been" to Mexico (55%), and those who believe "Mexico is a good neighbor" travel to Mexico frequently (80%).
"We have around 23 million U.S. Americans who visit our beaches every year, and all of them create very good experiences and memories of Mexico that aren't consistent with the U.S.'s overall perception of Mexico (that is reflected in the perception poll)," Martínez said.
"It's much easier to have a poor perception of somewhere you've never been," Treviño said.
Safety and Immigration
Mexico is seen as similarly dangerous to visit as Saudi Arabia, Colombia, and El Salvador, with 65% saying Mexico is an unstable country and unsafe for travel.
A majority of those polled want a bilateral relationship focused on security (70%) instead of the economy, trade, and energy issues (30%). Most (82%) believe illegal immigration from Mexico is growing, while a smaller fraction (26%) thinks it has remained the same. The fact is crossings by undocumented workers has declined, according to the U.S. government's numbers.
Immigration to the U.S. is at a historic low, with "a current migration rate of zero, and it’s decreasing," said Consul General of Mexico in San Antonio Héctor Velasco Monroy during an interview with the Rivard Report last month.
"The fact that 52% (of those polled) are in favor of building a wall at the border and that Mexico is seen as a burden in its relationship with the United States is discouraging, and it's not good for the bilateral relationship," Taylor said.
Mexico is viewed as a developing economy, well behind Brazil, China, and Russia. Only 16% of respondents think Mexico has a modern economy. In addition, 39% said that Mexico is not a good place to conduct business, compared to 35% who think it is a good place to do business.
Views are mixed on the impact of the U.S.-Mexico trade relationship, with U.S. citizens split on whether to remain a member of NAFTA: 32% think that the U.S. should withdraw from NAFTA, 30% said it should remain, and 37% said they don't know enough to make a judgment. Circling back to the notion of ideology, the majority of those who said "withdraw" are Republicans, and the majority of those who sad "remain" are Democrats.
Treviño said that people are unaware of how the economy works, and that a lot of companies take full advantage of NAFTA. He explained that several everyday products, such as Gillette razors, are made in Mexico through the maquiladora system – manufacturing or export assembly plants in Mexico that produce parts or products for the U.S.
"In the area of the border and Rio Grande Valley, there are around 110 maquiladoras, and they just announced they are building 20 more," he said. "These things don’t happen if there isn’t a market or a benefit for these companies to do so."
Fourteen million U.S. jobs depend on NAFTA alone, according to research from the Atlantic Council's Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center. According to the Department of Commerce, U.S. exports of goods and services to Mexico supported an estimated 1.1 million jobs in 2014.
"Mexico represents good business for U.S. Americans, not just in economic terms, but also in security and geopolitical issues," Martínez said.
In October, Martínez said AEM will host a special summit in Washington, D.C., where it will invite experts to articulate the case for Mexico from a U.S. point of view in order to help change Mexico's negative image in the U.S. AEM will also launch an image strategy through the American Mexico Public Affairs Committee (AMxPAC) to help counter the current negative perceptions.
Treviño said that part of his job as a City official for San Antonio, is to "see how our city embraces that movement and creates a better relationship with our neighbor on economic development."
Councilman Treviño visited Mexico in November alongside Mayor Ivy Taylor and other prominent city leaders and local business leaders who were part of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce's annual trade trip to Mexico City. The delegation had an opportunity to speak with dignitaries about San Antonio and the city's desire to work together. On the same trip, dignitaries highlighted the "huge impact" that NAFTA has on both countries and touted San Antonio as a diverse city that embraces both cultures.
"We learned some incredible facts about Mexico and how it's really self-actualizing its economy," Treviño said. "San Antonio is uniquely positioned to take advantage of its geographic position, history, and culture to help both countries and their relationship."
"I told him, 'Here is an artifact as old as our city, accept it as an invitation to come celebrate our Tricentennial in San Antonio,'" Treviño said.
Treviño said the November trip to Mexico made him recall another trip he took to the country years ago, and how a young kid came up to him and gave him something that had to do with the Mexican election at the time.
When the kid came up to him,Treviño tried to explain that it didn't apply to him and said, "No puedo, soy Americano," – I can't, I'm American; to which the kid replied "Los Mexicanos somos Americanos también" – Mexicans are Americans too.
That's why the correct term is 'U.S. Americans,' not 'Americans.' America as a whole encompasses more than one country.
Even though Treviño calls San Antonio home, he was born in McCallen and still has family in Mexico, so he strongly identifies with that facet of his heritage, one that is very common among many San Antonians.
"We can't let rhetoric allow us to forget what really binds us together. This city (San Antonio) is both Mexican and U.S. American, just like me," he said.
Top image: Top words that come to mind when thinking about Mexico. Wordle courtesy of Vianovo & GSD&M.