How Mexico’s new oil wealth is moving the border north

Rosalynn Carter is learning Spanish. “Everyone should learn Spanish,” she told a group of Mexican-Americans at a luncheon in the White House last September. “It’s such a beautiful language.”

And, she might have added, it’s a lot easier to learn than Arabic.

As the news begins to spread that Mexico has oil and gas reserves that may rival those of Saudi Arabia, lots of people have begun to take a new look at U.S. relations with Mexico. At this writing, President Carter is awaiting a policy analysis from the National Security Council staff that is expected to recommend that Washington link freer immigration from Mexico to accelerated Mexican production of its oil reserves. Businessmen and city officials in ports and border towns across the South and the Southwest are plotting to get their fair share and more of the expected increase in trade between the two countries. And, perhaps of greatest significance for Americans in general, politicians and intellectuals on both sides of the border are exploring new relationships between Mexico and Mexican-Americans.

Fueling these explorations, in addition to an estimated 200 billion barrels of hydrocarbons, is the distinct possibility that by the year 2000 a wealthy, industrialized Mexico will confront along its northern border not the sons of Sam Houston and Ben Milam, but a 21st-century Aztlán – former Mexican territories stretching from Texas to California that will have been recaptured at the ballot box by the American sons of Santa Anna. Beyond the lands of the Mexican cession, Chicanos and other Latinos will have become the largest minority group in the U.S., a formidable bloc within Congress and the bureaucracy, capable of influencing policy toward Latin America in much the same manner that blacks have affected U.S. policy in southern Africa.

In Texas, Chicano political strategists are looking forward to the reapportion-ment following the 1980 census, which is expected to show impressive gains for heavily Chicano areas. Chicano political control of the state will take longer to achieve than in California, says a leading Chicano spokesman in Washington, “but in Texas we have a more sophisticated political infrastructure, so the transition will be most spectacular there.” Of course, political power is not necessarily equivalent to population or even voting strength, and conservative Dallas Anglos can take some comfort in the continuing influence of the oil, ranching, and banking establishment, whatever the surnames of elected officials turn out to be. But they will have to get used to the idea that the goodies are going to be more widely distributed.

As Mexico emerges in the Eighties as an important actor on the world stage, the fortunes of Chicanos are bound to change accordingly. Imagine for a moment what American politics and foreign policy might have been like in the Seventies had there been a domestic constituency of seven million citizens of Saudi Arabian descent.

“Immigration is always beneath the surface of politics.”

The immediate interests at stake in the developing political relationship between Mexico and Chicanos are fairly basic, but negotiation of them is complicated by history and tradition on the one hand, and the need to safeguard future interests on the other.

Mexican interests that could be served by a Chicano lobby are threefold: increased exports to the U.S. and Chicano tourism in Mexico; legal access to U.S. jobs for Mexican nationals; and U.S. purchases of Mexican oil and gas at rates advantageous to Mexico. Chicano interests that could be served by close links with Mexico are fourfold: defense of Chicano civil rights; the use of Chicano businessmen as agents and importers; access for Chicanos to Mexican institutions of higher learning; and payment of multimillion-dollar claims that Chicanos have against Mexico in connection with land transfers after the Mexican war. Not all of these interests are mutual.

Illegal immigration from Mexico to the United States is the most serious issue dividing the two countries. Estimates of the number of illegal immigrants in the U.S. today range from six million to 12 million, about 60 percent of whom are said to come from Mexico. Last year, the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service captured and returned to Mexico nearly 900,000 illegal immigrants, the vast majority of whom were caught within 20 miles of the border or within 36 hours of their entry into the U.S.

Mexico’s population is now 65.8 million and is increasing at the rate of 3.3 percent a year. Half the population is under 15 years of age. The per-capita food supply is half that of the United States. Despite a government birth-control program that is sending health workers out into the countryside to promote family planning, the number of women entering their child-bearing years makes it virtually certain that the Mexican population will double in 20 years. The impoverished Mexican countryside has for years been disgorging its young people to Mexico City and the border towns. Nearly half of Mexico City’s 12 million people are unemployed. Its downtown areas remind one simultaneously of Paris and Calcutta: An indelible image is that of a young woman and her baby begging on the sidewalk in front of the Gucci shop in the Pink Zone. The city is well on its way to becoming the largest in the world; current estimates are that its population will reach 30 million by the turn of the century. In the border towns, a principal economic activity is accumulating the capital to finance an illegal trip across the river in search of the comparative riches to be had by kitchen- or stoop- or sweatshop-labor in Laredo or Dallas or St. Louis or Chicago, the farther from the border the better.

A similar process has been at work among the millions of Asians, Latin Americans, and Europeans who have been heeding the injunction to “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses” since long before the United States had it carved in granite. This process has nothing to do with any peculiar virtue of the United States; it goes on across every border where wages and conditions on one side are significantly better than wages and conditions on the other. Mexico has an illegal immigrant problem on its southern border because Guatemala is even more wretched than Mexico.

Natural as it may be, illegal immigration from Mexico to the U.S. poses some serious problems for both countries. Walt W. Rostow, the national security advisor to Kennedy and Johnson who is now ensconced in Lyndon’s monument down in Austin, argues that there is a limit to the number of illegal aliens the U.S. can absorb. Rostow was a development economist before he got all fired up about Vietnam, and he’s back at his old trade now. He says that Mexico can’t afford to have the U.S. close off the border and deport millions of people back to Mexico; the population pressure would entail the collapse of Mexican society. “In the short run,” he says, “the illegal is very attractive to some U.S. employers. In the short run, the Mexican interest in maximizing the flow of workers to the U.S. is obvious. But in the long run, it’s dangerous.

“Up to a certain point, the absorption of immigrants is acceptable. But at a certain point, people tend to react, and you get things like the Know-Nothings, the McCarran Act, the Chinese Exclusion Act, and the Gentlemen’s Agreement, which created problems leading to war with Japan. I’ve seen this kind of reaction in extremely sophisticated societies like Great Britain, where immigration is always just beneath the surface of politics.”

Jorge Bustamante, a Mexican sociologist who has been instrumental in promoting Mexico-Chicano links, is an expert on border problems. He has imagined a scenario (see facing page) that takes off from Rostow’s “certain point” and leads to a military coup in Mexico. Rostow and others make the point that Mexico needs time to put its house in order. Oil revenues are crucial here: In broad outline, the Mexican plan is to use oil revenue to finance a quadrupling of the petrochemical industry by 1982; the profit on petrochemicals is about ten times the profit on crude oil, and the government plans to use that revenue to finance accelerated development of regional urban centers and the rural areas in the Eighties. The goal is full employment by the year 2000. The implication is that the United States will have to continue to host some millions of additional immigrants each year until the Mexican economy is able to absorb them.

A Harvard-trained businessman in Mexico City finds the situation hopeless: “Eight hundred thousand people are added to the work force every year, and the government estimates that it can create 150,000 jobs annually. Even if it were 250,000, that would leave 550,000 more unemployed every year. And with the population increasing, the numbers get larger every year. There just doesn’t seem to be any solution. A right-wing solution or a left-wing solution is perhaps possible, but 1 wouldn’t want to be here under those conditions.” This man, like most other affluent people in Mexico, has a nest egg in the United States, “just in case.”

During the financial panic in the last years of the Echeverria administration, wealthy Mexicans transferred an estimated $4 billion to U.S. investments, much of it in Texas and California real estate. Many Mexicans note wryly that the United States is in no hurry to deport any of that illegal immigration.

It was in that context that the Mexican government and the U.S. Chicano community began courting each other. The courtship began in discussions between Zavala County Judge Jose Angel Gutierrez, the founder of La Raza Unida party and organizer of the Chicano political takeover of Crystal City and Zavala County, and Jorge Bustamante, who in addition to his post at El Col6gio de México is an adviser to the Mexican government on border problems; the two met while Bustamante was a visiting professor at the University of Texas in Austin. In 1972, Gutierrez, then the Crystal City school board president, led a delegation of Chicano municipal officials to a meeting with Mexican President Luis Echeverría, at the president’s invitation. Echeverría was trying to promote himself as a leader of the Third World. “On paper and up front, at least, though his real policy of course was rather different, Echeverría shifted Mexican policy toward the Third World and the various liberation movements,” according to César Sereseres, a political scientist at the University of California at Irvine. “At that time, the Chicano movement was developing, so there was a natural link-up with Chicano activists at a time at which Mexico was looking for symbols to which to attach itself abroad.”

According to Gutiérrez, President Echeverría “had become aware of the Chicano activists within the United States and their struggle with injustices” stemming from the fact that “the United States did not accept the Chicanos as full-fledged Americans and Mexico did not recognize Chicanos as Mexicans.”

’Mexico doesn’t have votes in Congress – but Chicanos do.”

As a result of the meeting with Echeverría, Mexico donated a large Spanish-language library to Crystal City and smaller libraries to dozens of other Chicano communities. An exchange of cultural events and art exhibits was begun, and seminars were organized at which Chicano and Mexican scholars could exchange views and research. There was also discussion of a program of scholarships to Mexican universities for Chicano students. Echeverría agreed to set aside presidential funds for the program and ultimately, in late 1973, CON-ACYT, the Mexican National Council on Science and Technology, made available 50 five-year scholarships to be administered through the Texas Institute for Educational Development (TIED).

“Over the next few years, we placed 45 students in Mexican universities, 40 of them in medical schools,” says Francisco (Pancho) Velazquez, director of TIED. “I’d estimate the value of the program at $1.3 million to $1.5 million.” The program has been continued and expanded under President Jose López Portillo, who announced last summer a $10-million, five-year commitment to provide scholarships for 250 Chicanos, at least half of whom will be medical students. The students are under no contractual obligation, but “part of the recruitment and selection process was whether they were committed enough to come back to South Texas and work in community and migrant health centers,” according to Velasquez. Entitled Becas para Aztlán, the expanded program is being administered by the Committee for Rural Democracy in Austin, an organization with which Jose Angel Gutierrez is closely associated.

That Gutierrez and La Raza Unida figure so heavily in the Mexican government’s plans is apparently not to the liking of more mainstream figures like Velazquez, who submitted a competing application to run the expanded scholarship program and broke with Gutierrez on the issue of La Raza Unida’s political domination of the program; and Joe Ber-nal, the former state senator and past president of the Mexican American Democrats (MAD). Bernal, now working in Dallas as director of the federal government’s Region 6 Action program, remembers attending a meeting organized by Gutierrez to discuss police brutality in Dallas:

“His pitch was that if we didn’t start relating to Mexico we weren’t going to be very functional. But this was coming from La Raza Unida party and also from some Republicans. There were very few loyal Democrats there. 1 was probably the only one. The idea was that President Carter wasn’t protecting human rights in his own back yard, and that to point this up we should use the international media. The closest international media are in Mexico City. So the idea was we should go to Mexico City and talk about human rights.

“That was one aspect. The other was, Let’s relate to Mexico. Several people have had this in mind. There are others who have tried to work a system whereby Chicanos could represent Mexico’s interests in the United Stales. Both the interests of the Chicanos and the interests of Mexico could be served, according to this view. Mexico doesn’t have votes in Congress, but we do. Chicanos don’t have oil and gas, but Mexico does. So the thinking was that it would be in the interests of Chicanos to go international – in business, and maybe in politics.”

The media were easily enough handled. Cesar Sereseres observes that “Chicano leaders had finally discovered that to get attention in New York or Washington or Los Angeles they had to go to Mexico City and hold a press conference. In Washington, when Chicano leaders issued statements about Chicano affairs, they were often ignored by the press. So they went to Mexico, and then they got coverage in the Washington Post and the New York Times.”

The notion of a Mexican lobby took a little longer to surface. On September 7, 1976, a group of Chicano leaders met with President Echeverría when he was in San Antonio to open the Mexican Trade Fair. On their way in, they passed a group of Jewish leaders who had just left the president. The Mexican delegation had voted in the United Nations in favor of the “Zionism is Racism” resolution and had awakened the next morning to find the tourist hotels in Acapuico and Mexico City half empty. Echeverría and other high-ranking Mexican government officials were now trying to make amends with the American Jewish community.

“I told him,” said Stanley Marcus, “that I didn’t approve of the boycott – I don’t approve of any boycotts – but that from the standpoint of good public relations, and this goes for governments as well as individuals, you do the right thing and good publicity comes from it, and that what he was doing wasn’t conducive to the best of relations with the United States. I said he should examine whether he really meant to do what he had done. It ended up in a love-fest and he invited all of us to be his guests in Mexico City before he left office in December.”

In the end, says an official of the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, “they promised to be good boys and behave themselves in the U.N.” The word was passed back to the Jewish community that travel to Mexico was once again kosher. Mexico has become a major supplier of oil to Israel.

“The boycott taught them [the Mexicans] a lesson,” says San Antonio business consultant Rick Bela, who is trying to promote that city’s trade with Mexico. “They were very impressed. Also, this came right on the heels of Roots. They were thinking about the Chicano community in terms of the potential for tourism, support for their foreign policy, and support for trade. There’s a mood in the Mexican government to look at the Mexican-Americans in a new light.”

Finally, it happened. On January 24th of this year, nine Chicano leaders, representing a variety of constituencies and led by Jose Angel Gutierrez and Eduardo Morga, the former national chairman of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), journeyed to Mexico City to offer President Lopez Portillo their assistance in defeating President Carter’s immigration bill.

“The main thing we were saying to him is that we were of a mind to fight against Carter’s proposal because it was adverse to our interests,” says LULAC’s Morga, now a Defense Department auditor in California. “Because it was also adverse to his interests, he was all for it [our lobbying against the bill], but he was very careful not to say anything that could be considered interfering in the internal affairs of the United States.”

At the time, Morga told reporters in Mexico City, “We’ve never before told Mexico that we are all ready to help Mexico in the United States. We feel that in the future Mexico can use us as Israel uses American Jews, as Italy uses Italian-Americans, and so on.”

“Obviously,” he said in a recent interview, “this is in its embryonic state. 1 hate to liken us to anything else, but you have to resort to analogies and the one that comes to mind is that one [American Jews and Israel]. Right now we’re still trying to establish rapport. The Mexicans are like anybody else – left wing, right wing, et cetera. There’s at least one Mexican government official who considers Chicanos undesirable. There’s a question of what exactly are our goals in the short range and the long range.”

One limitation, however, does seem to have been established by the January 24 meeting and the brief news report that followed it on February 12 in The New York Times. One of the most important Chicano organizations, the Washington-based National Council of La Raza, was scheduled to have its annual board meeting in Mexico City at the end of February, in conjunction with a seminar on economic development of the border regions. Council officials had expected that L6pez Portillo would attend part of the meeting and that U.S. Ambassador Patrick Lucey would also attend. Raul Yzaguirre, national director of the Council, says that he had been receiving excellent cooperation from the State Department but that “after that January meeting there seemed to be a bit of a chill.

“We had talked about having the ambassador, and instead we got the first secretary of the embassy,” Yzaguirre said. “Hispanic appointees in the State Department called and said maybe we ought to cool it – postpone or cancel the meeting in Mexico. They said we couldn’t let ourselves be viewed as agents of a foreign power, that it would be against the law and that it would be embarrassing to both the Mexican government and the U.S. government.” Lopez Portillo also apparently got a message; he stayed away from the meeting and the seminar, although other high-ranking Mexican officials attended.

The embarrassment, if that’s what it was, was only momentary, and contacts between Mexico and Chicanos continue. The leadership group – with ever changing personnel but always including Gutierrez, Morga, and Reies López Ti-jerina, the New Mexican leader of the Alianza de los Pueblos Libres – has met with Lopez Portillo several times since the January meeting. But several Anglo academics and diplomats label the whole process a “disaster,” saying that the Chicanos with whom the Mexicans have chosen to do business represent only fringe groups within the Chicano community. Raul Yzaguirre points out, however, that “every major Chicano organization has been there,” and Rick Bela puts it even more bluntly: “Lopez Portillo could invite any Mexican-Americans he chose to. He’s not stupid. So 1 think it speaks for itself. These organizations could be a lot more wonderful than they are, but they’re what we’ve got now.”

“Anglo-Texan paranoia fears a Mexican Quebec in the Southwest.”

The flap over the explicit use of the word “lobby” betrays a weakness that Chicanos will have to overcome if they are to move onto the stage currently occupied by hyphenated Americans of African and European descent. A high-ranking officer of the U.S. embassy in Mexico City, asked to give the State Department’s view of the development of a Chicano lobby on behalf of Mexico’s interests, says that the Chicanos “are American citizens and they’re entitled to do and say what they please.” That is so obvious it hardly needs stating. Greeks, Jews, Poles, blacks, and other Americans with Old World ties don’t allow their loyalty to be questioned when they act politically in the interests of their landsmen. But Chicanos, sensitive to the Anglo-Texan paranoia that projects the formation of a Mexican Quebec in the Southwest (and that conveniently forgets the many Chicano defenders of the Alamo), pull in their horns when they are challenged on such grounds.

Syndicated columnist Georgie Anne Geyer, who seems to understand the aspirations of Latin American caudillos and guerrillas much better than she understands those of ordinary Americans who happen to be of Mexican ancestry, says that “we need another ethnic lobbying group, particularly on an issue fraught with the passions and extreme dangers of the illegal-alien problem, about as much as we need Russian frogmen in the Mississippi.” What Geyer fails to see are the separate, independent interests of Chicanos that are threatened by the Carter immigration proposals and that would have mandated Chicano opposition to them regardless of the Mexican stand. “We” may not need a lobby in those circumstances, but the Chicanos do; without one, their interests would be subject to the mercies of the growers, the employers of illegal aliens, the population-crisis people, the police agencies, the unions, and the xenophobes, all of whom do have lobbyists in Washington working on the immigration bill.

On the face of it, it would seem that Chicanos have much to gain by curbing illegal immigration:

● The illegal immigrants work very hard for very little, in U.S. terms, thus depressing wages and conditions generally in the markets where they are employed most heavily. They also displace many Chicano workers who might otherwise take those jobs; employers prefer illegals precisely because of their status – they can’t complain or afford to go elsewhere.

● The constant renewal of the immigrant stream forestalls the acculturation and assimilation of those who have come before them. Some Chicano nationalists might argue that that’s a good thing, and it may well be true that it’s better to be a Mexican in an alien land than a Chicano adrift between cultures, but there is no question that economic and political advancement is conditional upon acculturation.

● U.S. citizens of Mexican ancestry and Mexican nationals legally in this country are often hassled in street searches, area sweeps, and raids on workplaces conducted by immigration agents. Arturo Lopez, deputy director of the Illinois Migrant Council and a fourth-generation U.S. citizen, had been stopped and questioned – arrested – by immigration agents three times before he filed suit against the INS and got a Federal court injunction restricting the practice and forcing the INS to get search warrants prior to raids. “Just because of the brown skin, they think you’re a wetback,” he complains.

Despite all that, Chicanos have opposed the Carter bill to curb illegal immigration, and one must wonder why. It is certainly not simply because the Mexicans asked them to. Raul Yzaguirre says he’s been trying to get the Mexicans to understand how Chicanos feel about this issue. “We have some areas of agreement and some areas of disagreement,” he says. “The Mexican government is interested in a bracero-type program, and we have some problems with that. We think that the way to resolve the problems is to have economic development in Mexico.” But the Mexicans look to economic development as a long-range, not a short-range, solution.

At a simple level, one must understand that half of the legal Mexican aliens resident in this country were once “illegals,” and so were the parents or grandparents of hundreds of thousands of native-born Chicanos. Millions of Chicanos have relatives in Mexico, and many of those relatives are among the mojados, the wetbacks. Chicanos in barrios and colonias all over the United States daily put into practice the precept mi casa es suya, giving protective coloration, shelter, and sustenance to each day’s allotment of illegal immigrants. For most Chicanos, the new immigrants are not “more of them” but “more of us.”

Beyond these considerations, specific provisions of the Carter proposals are denounced by the Hispanic Ad Hoc Coalition on Immigration because they threaten the rights of Chicanos and other Latinos. The proposal to impose sanctions on employers of illegal aliens, for instance, is rejected on the ground that employers might simply refuse to hire any brown-skinned or Spanish-accented person to avoid getting into trouble, and that the only way to avoid that consequence would be a de facto national identity program for minorities only, an equally unpalatable alternative.

Because Chicano opposition to the bill was so vociferous, and because proponents did not push very hard for it, the bill died in the last session of Congress and is unlikely to be revived. D Magazine has learned that Senator Edward Kennedy, who will become chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee in January, has advised the administration not to submit an immigration bill next session with the expectation that there will be early hearings. Kennedy, in fact, wants to have a high-level commission appointed to revamp the country’s immigration laws from top to bottom, a project that could take years.

So, thanks to the Chicanos, Mexico has got its reprieve from the burdens of its own population growth, maldistribution of income, unemploment, underdevelop-ment, and official corruption, to recite the litany of Jorge Bustamante. It would seem to be Mexico’s turn now to provide some goodies that the Chicanos can bank on – like import licenses for Chicano businessmen, retainers for Chicano lawyers to handle Mexico’s business in the United States, and other items that would nudge along the process of capital formation in the Chicano community.

At the very least, Chicanos have now moved out of the nonentity category. Rick Bela, the San Antonio business consultant, remembers ruefully his days as a young anti-poverty lawyer in Lyndon Johnson’s Washington. “We had a bunch of young Chicano activists in various organizations, and we said, Hey, let’s go over to the Dieciseis party at the Mexican embassy. So we went to the embassy to celebrate with them and we got our asses kicked out. Things have changed tremendously.”


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