Michelle Sierra Laffitte
States of the Union is an ongoing series featuring brief pieces by writers we admire from around the world. Some of the writers are in exile, some communicate from within a country ruled by a regime they defy. Read editor-in-chief Dale Peck’s introduction to the series here. For the full series, click here.
Mexico’s mediatic content in the United States encompasses little else than horror stories: narco shows featuring gruesome killings and beheadings, hours-long shootings in airports and public places, and massive Covid spreads due to Tulum Euro-trash parties. Not so long ago, the country also played an important role as a scapegoat for Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant policy, which, paired with Mexico’s stigma as a drug country, peppered the evening news with demeaning language and insults to an entire nation.
But perhaps the most resonant media leitmotif is still the problems created by illegal immigration, a natural result of geography and the social and economic disparity between Mexico and its American neighbor. Despite decreases in population size over the last decade, Mexicans continue to represent the largest group of immigrants in the United States, accounting for about a quarter of all foreign-born residents.
It is virtually impossible for the poorest Mexicans not to be tempted by the success stories of those who have made the journey before them. They hear stories of relatives, neighbors, and friends earning dollars, a currency that can quickly afford the better life that only a tiny minority can access in the home country, and also serves as a valuable resource for family members left behind. These wages are earned through an informal but well-networked economy that American governments at the local and state level quietly tolerate because—after all—cheap Mexican labor is a staple of many industries, such as restaurant and construction. The freedom to live life as you wish, or “como se te de la gana,” and do so safely, is equally attractive to the better-off migrants. They flee a country that has constantly let them down, directly or indirectly, with its violence and insecurity, extreme inequality, poverty, femicides, the selective ignorance of the ruling class, and its abuses of power.
As an immigrant myself, I do not speak without nostalgia. I left Mexico twenty years ago to chase my own American dream. From the privilege of my cushy Brooklyn life, I’ve seen a few Mexican presidents take office: the outlandish and borderline irresponsible Vicente Fox, the lackluster Felipe Calderón, the old guard–puppet Enrique Peña Nieto, and perhaps the scariest of them all, the authoritarian Andres Manuel López Obrador or AMLO, who, like Trump, and selectively overlooked by the Biden administration, has treated Central American immigrants with cruelty and chosen to spread hatred as a proselytism tool. Poverty, organized crime, and violence against women remain at an all-time high, with none of these heads of state, regardless of their political affiliation, making a difference in the lives of millions of Mexicans who struggle to make ends meet.
I greatly hope that the year 2021 could come to be regarded as a turning point for the country. This past June, the most critical elections in Mexico’s recent history took place amid high voter participation and disputed positions. Newly appointed leaders in Northern Mexican border states such as Chihuahua and Nuevo León, including María Eugenia (Maru) Campos Galván, Samuel García Sepúlveda, and Luis Donaldo Colosio Riojas, came pushing through with refreshing new ideas to change the country for the better. Meanwhile, the old political guard (including AMLO) has remained too close to the Mexican political “Dinosaurio” figure; paternalistic politicians who for decades have exerted their influence in Mexican politics. Too hung up with resentment and personal vendettas, they believe in a powerful presidency, a godlike figure whose authority needs to remain unquestioned, maintaining Mexico’s democracy in diapers.
Now, an exciting new political force is denouncing corruption, offering solutions, operating from the grassroots, and building hope that Mexico will become a country no Mexican would want to leave. With progressive or “anti-dinosaur” practices, they are active in social media and in close touch with the young and old norteños (northerners) they govern, who, tired of the old ways, are increasingly backing them.
“Now, an exciting new political force is denouncing corruption, offering solutions, operating from the grassroots, and building hope that Mexico will become a country no Mexican would want to leave.”
The election of Campos Galván to the governorship of Chihuahua is encouraging. A Partido Acción Nacional affiliate, she’s the first woman to become appointed governor in one of Mexico’s most crime-ridden states (bordering Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico). Campos Galván has vowed to promote economic development and invest in technology to combat organized crime. She has also promised to fight for women’s rights and safety, and to help migrants, especially children. Within barely six months on the job, she addressed the state’s fiscal deficit, solved water supply conflicts, and opened direct channels to communicate with citizens via forums and dialogue as part of an inclusive Plan de Desarrollo, or development plan, for her mandate.
In Nuevo León, thirty-three-year-old García Sepúlveda was voted governor. Nuevo León, on the border of Texas, is one of the richest Mexican states. García Sepúlveda’s ideas have included arranging buses to transport children aged between five to eleven to Covid vaccination centers in the United States, and pairing up with a famous Mexican boxer to distribute toys to kids living in poverty during the holiday season. Aided by his influencer wife’s popularity—and not without a few controversies—he’s proven that there is a will to exert change. This determination has amassed him millions of social media followers and etched his name on the list of possible 2024 presidential candidates as a member of the Movimiento Ciudadano political party.
Colosio Riojas is perhaps the most interesting name on the list, as the son of his namesake father, the ruling party’s presidential candidate in 1994, who was assassinated during a campaign rally in the northern border town of Tijuana. In June 2021, despite his relative lack of experience (he was first elected for office in 2018), this thirty-six-year-old was appointed Mayor of Monterrey, the capital of Nuevo León, also with Movimiento Ciudadano. His mandate goals include entrepreneurship, social mobility, and a greener city. Speaking about unity, compromise, responsibility, and loyalty, his name heads the list of potential 2024 presidential candidates. Mexicans have a lot of sympathy for the young Colosio Riojas, who at seven years old lost his father to what is believed to be a PRI old-guard inside job against a candidate who was trying to shake things up a little too much.
They all sound encouraging, but who knows? Perhaps access to power will wash out their good intentions, and Mexico’s corruption will come back as a cancer that the younger generations will ultimately succumb to. Only time will tell, but in the meantime, thousands of Mexicans, immigrants or not, are betting on them.
Michelle Sierra Laffitte
Michelle Sierra Laffitte is a writer, journalist and editor based in New York. Her non-fiction work has appeared in magazines and outlets including Reuters.com, The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, The Washington Post, CNN, Expansión and MSNBC. She has an MFA in creative writing from The New School and and an MS in International Affairs from Columbia University. Born in Mexico City, she is working on a novel about gentrification in Manhattan. She lives in Brooklyn with her family.
Image by Hippolyte Baraduc (1850-1902). Reproduced from L'âme humaine: ses mouvements, ses lumières et l'iconographie de l'invisible fluidique (The human soul: its movements, its lights, and the iconography of the fluidic invisible), Paris: Librairie internationale de la pensée nouvelle, 1913.