Prodigal father

For decades, Mexico has looked down on Mexican- Americans, but its new president is challenging the nation to look to them instead.

Published December 7, 2000 9:00AM (EST)

In the Bible, it's the prodigal son who realizes his error and is welcomed home by his loving father. In Mexico, it's the father who needs to ask forgiveness from his child.

This week, in his first public ceremony at the presidential residence, Mexico's new president, Vicente Fox, apologized to his country's children who, for decades, have been scorned for going to the United States in desperate search of work and for survival. "The times are gone when Mexico viewed the emigrant and the emigrant's children with resentment," Fox said.

As a biblical confession, Fox's statement wasn't all that much. But in the history of Mexico, here was an important admission. For generations, Mexico has tended to cast itself as a victim in history and, thus, an innocent in the great world.

Mexico has most famously imagined itself in the figure of the Indian maiden, ravished by the 16th century conquistador. After independence from Spain, three centuries later, Mexico suffered various European invaders. Worse than any European was the United States -- the Gringo -- who absconded with half of Mexico's territory.

Poor, poor Mexico, the nation sighed. And with good reason. But its self-pity also allowed Mexico to ignore the role it played in its own history -- the corruption of its prodigal ruling class and the violence of Mexican against Mexican.

In the early 20th century, Mexico preferred to call its civil war a glorious "revolution" against foreigners. But it was this civil war that caused millions of Mexicans (my own parents among them) to escape to the U.S. Through the decades following, as Mexico turned itself into an oligarchy, other millions of Mexicans went to El Norte, looking for work.

Mexico wrapped itself in patriotic robes, refusing to acknowledge the reasons why so many of its own children had fled. Mexico played the sorrowing mother and pretended not to know why her children were consorting with her rival, the Gringo.

Mexican-Americans today number around 28 million, 70 percent of the entire population of Hispanics in the U.S. We are statistically better-educated and wealthier than our relatives in Mexico.

For decades, Mexico hated it when Mexican-Americans would return "home" with dollars, and with children who no longer spoke Spanish. Everything Mexicans hated about themselves -- their victimization by a foreign culture, the loss of self-possession -- Mexico saw in us. The Mexican-American who returned, speaking English, was like the 16th-century Mexican-Indian who ended up speaking the conquistador's Spanish.

But Mexico reserved her special loathing for the migrant workers -- the peasants who traveled back and forth between the United States and Mexico. For decades, the migrant worker was the most cosmopolitan figure in Mexico. The peasant was bilingual, fluent in dollars and pesos, multicultural. But he was scorned for his new Gringo ways by his village and he became a target among strangers.

The border between the U.S. and Mexico for most migrant workers remains a hurdle -- in either direction. But while there are dangers in coming to the U.S. illegally, the journey back into Mexico has often been even more dangerous. Mexican workers have been routinely shaken down and humiliated by Mexican police; not a few have arrived "home" with their pockets empty.

This week, as Mexican workers in the U.S. began their journey south for Christmas, Fox promised a change: "We're going to make sure that [workers] are not blackmailed, cheated and that they're received with the honor that each of them deserves."

It is to his credit that Fox would express such candor. But it is appropriate, too, that he would recognize the Mexican emigrant's dilemma. Fox represents the coming of age of a new generation in Mexico -- a generation that has grown up largely influenced by U.S. pop culture, by the lure of American dollars and by the ascending visibility of Hispanics north of the border.

Fox was famously an executive for Coca-Cola in Mexico. Less well known is it that Mexicans now drink more Coca-Cola than Americans, even though Mexico has a quarter of the U.S. population. Put bluntly: Mexicans have a thirst for America.

At the presidential residence in Mexico City, Fox greeted a contingent of Mexican-Americans, including actor Edward James Olmos. He accepted a San Diego Padres jersey.

He played the prodigal father with a wide grin. Informal in an open shirt, friendly to his audience, Fox praised the contribution of migrant workers to the nation's economy. He also praised the economic success of Mexican-Americans and promised a future in which Mexican and Mexican-American would work "side by side."

Times have indeed changed. In generations past, the Mexican-American (who had "lost" his culture) was a scorned figure in Mexico, a reminder of all that Mexico hated about its own past. Today, the Mexican-American may well foreshadow all that the Mexican feels himself becoming. The Mexican-American may well be Mexico's future.

© COPYRIGHT 2000 Pacific News Service

By Richard Rodriguez

Richard Rodriguez is the author of "Brown: The Last Discovery of America."

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Immigration Latin America Mexico