The Other Side

Images never fail to impact. The relationship with the U.S. is perhaps, says Sidney Weintraub, the most atypical in the world, and the variety of components is preeminent and much richer, and more complex, than would appear.

In the district known as La Villita in Chicago’s lower west side, I came upon scenes that not only delight the eye, but give rise to mixed emotions. There, disparate cultures and extraordinary stories converge, as well as a bilateral relationship that official interchanges are frequently unable to visualize.

La Villita has everything: shops; images; passersby; restaurants; street hawkers; tamales; activists; children; panhandlers; popsicle vendors with carts imported from Puebla, and hundreds of faces of people absorbing a new (and often old) world. As in so many other corners of U.S. geography, what was previously a North American space became a Hispanic, predominantly Mexican, concentration. But what is impressive is the prosperity and enthusiasm observed in the faces of dozens of people who come to the place in swarms. It is impossible to know everyone’s story, but those of a small nucleus with whom I talked evoked a lifetime and the enormous possibilities, with all of the sacrifices these entailed, that the freedom of the world of the USA has offered them.

Lupita, the most communicative of the group with whom I talked, is originally from a town in the central Mexican state of Zacatecas, where she left her two children in the care of her parents. Like so many others, she was first employed as a hotel chambermaid. Eventually, she became the head of the hotel’s laundry, where she learned the ins and outs of the business. She obtained a loan to buy two washers and two dryers and set up her own laundromat. At the beginning, she only opened the laundromat nights after returning from work at the hotel, because someone had to be on duty all the time, and because though the washers and dryers never stopped, the income from the business was not sufficient for her to leave her day job or to pay an employee. Instead of capitulating to defeat, Lupita invented a novel enterprise: rather than only renting the washers and dryers to customers who operate the machines themselves, she introduced the services of washing and drying, folding, and ironing for those not desiring to do this, or who didn’t have time to go to the laundromat and wait for their clothes. Although the new service appropriated many of her sleep hours, in three months Lupita generated sufficient income to increase her credit line, purchase four additional washers and dryers, and leave her position at the hotel. Today, Lupita has three laundromats with eight employees in all. From farm worker to migrant to employee to entrepreneur, all in less than a decade. And more importantly: all without governmental support; struggling uphill; violating the law, and living in illegality.

Lupita is an uncommon woman, but hers is not an atypical case. Millions of Mexicans have achieved taking a step toward economic freedom, transforming their lives along the way. A man from Spain in Lupita’s group said that she has “more pride than Don Rodrigo de la horca”, an idiom in Spanish denoting the infrangible satisfaction of individuals who, even under the most adverse circumstances, get ahead on their own power. Observing this scenario, listening to Lupita’s remarkable story, I was left with the sensation that there are dynamics in the relationship between these two neighboring countries that are obvious in, though difficult to incorporate into, the formal interaction between governments and that result in profound lessons for us in Mexico and for the future of the bilateral relationship.

The lessons for Mexico would seem evident. Mainly, what is telling in the fact that a person with Lupita’s outstanding capacity and potential -and there are thousands of Lupitas in all of the country’s enclaves- who cannot develop themselves in Mexico, and for whom it has been Chicago where they found answers and opportunities. With all the adversities that confront a migrant, Lupita showed the world, but chiefly, herself, that the only thing required is a free space to develop one’s maximal potential. Lupita is surely no more than 35 years old, and it would not surprise me if when she’s 50, she’ll already have a chain of laundromats and will be selling franchises. The question is why she was unable to do this in Mexico.

Despite the restrictions inherent in the border and illegal access, the U.S. has become a blind control -a source of unimpeachable evidence- to our limitations, and most especially, to the stumbling blocks devised by our system of government to impede individual development. Lupita has no clout, no privileged entrée into the banking system, no friends in high places: her success is that of any American because the governmental system is designed to make it possible for the Lupitas of this world to be successful. The structure (snarl is a better term) of laws, regulations, ordinances, and authorities that provides norms for the life of the economy is so absurd that it has the effect of obstructing job creation, preventing the unleashing of what Keynes called “animal spirits”. In Mexico, everything is an obstacle, in that procedures are favored over results, and, more to the point, because everything is an interminable contention for power and access to corruption. Creating jobs and the well-being of the population are the least of it.

The Mexico-U.S. bilateral relationship is atypical because we find at the border distinct cultures, histories charged with symbolism, and very dissimilar levels of development. Mexicans have clamored for help for decades from the Americans due to the fact that there are two very distinguishable levels of development to be dealt with. The claim that asymmetry be part of the equation is ubiquitous and unremitting. However, the success of millions of migrants in the U.S. marketplace reveals that the asymmetry is not the product of a relationship of domination and dependence, but rather, of Mexico’s inability to create favorable conditions for development. It is clear that the differences cannot be obliterated overnight, but it is equally clear that a successful strategy of development in Mexico would allow us to breach the gap over the course of time.

Many countries worldwide covet the border that we regard with contempt. It is not that the U.S. is a paradise: the difference with us is that they have organized themselves in such a way that people’s development becomes possible and have created an atmosphere of freedom for the development of all in the nation’s economy. It is evident that we are the ones who must resolve our own economic and bureaucratic structure for the bilateral relationship to cease to be atypical but, above all, for this to serve the development of the country and its population.