This week President Obama will be visiting Mexico on Thursday en route to the Summit of the Americas. Given the timeliness of the President’s visit, Seneca has composed some thoughts about the creation of a Mexican-American lobby, which could enhance foreign policy with Mexico by easing differences and creating a better understanding between these two very intertwined countries.
Different Mexican Administrations since President Echeverria in the 1970s have openly sought to court the ‘Mexicans Abroad’ and the longer established US residents and citizens of Mexican heritage in the US. Plainly, the driving motive has been to create a pro-Mexico constituency in the US.
This idea is certainly not alien to the US political landscape. Ethnic lobbies have abounded in the US since before the Civil War. Besides the English and the Scott–Irish, the Germans in the Delaware Valley of Pennsylvania were the only other European population living in the original colonies that made up the US, along with thousands of slaves and Native American tribes. So, it was in the 1840s that the great European migration to the US began with the Irish and several of other nationalities. Many came from Middle Europe including Poles, Austrians, Czech, Slovaks and Hungarians. Scandinavians and southern Europeans also began to arrive. Southern Europeans, such as Italians and Greeks, continued to migrate to the US throughout the rest of the 1800s and into the 1900s. Several of these groups formed ethnic societies and organizations reflecting their country of origin; most were initially formed around their churches and religious affiliation. Some developed into political organizations representing the ethnic group’s domestic political agenda within the US political process. These groups often sided with their country of origin’s squabbles or conflicts in Europe. Financial aid and political support were usually forthcoming from the expatriate populations living in the US. Ireland, which did not achieve independence from Britain until 1921, had scores of Irish American groups openly supporting the independence struggle against the English occupation and repression. Financial assistance to the insurgent groups back home was one example of the expatriate’s support. As soon as the Irish Americans were politically enfranchised to vote in the US they began to ‘lobby’ the US government and public for support for Ireland’s cause. This political effort lasted late into the 1900s with the support for the IRA in Northern Ireland. In the late 1800s, the Italian-Americans clamored for political support of Italian unification and recognition of Italy. Later the Italian American groups became more domestic focused and ceased to seek political support for the political process or government of Italy. With time, these movements became mostly cultural affinity groups centered on the Catholic Churches in the old Italian urban areas of the US.
By the latter half of the 1900s, the most significant ethnic lobbies included: the Jewish groups helping Holocaust survivors and other humanitarian needs. The American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) emerged during this period as part of the pro-Israel Lobby to galvanize support in the US for the survival of the State of Israel. The motivation here is that Israel has continuously been under ‘siege’ by its Middle East neighbors. AIPAC is generally agreed to be the best financed and most influential ethnic lobbying effort in the US. The China Lobby existed prominently in the 1950s composed by a mix of prominent Chinese exiles from Communist China and influential Americans seeking to restore the old guard of Chang Kai Chek who had been displaced in 1949 by the Communist victory led by Mao Tse Tung. The fall of China to Communism was a rallying call for this lobby. These lobbying efforts also engendered an odious internal political witch hunt in the US known as McCarthyism. However, when Nixon went to China in 1972, the remnants of this lobby had ceased to exist. The Armenian-Americans’ lobbying group appears to advocate primarily support against anything that benefits Turkey. The Turks’ slaughter of millions of Armenians in the early 1900s is the driving force behind this lobby. The Greek lobby, one of the best funded groups, seeks also to deny Turkey any positive political benefit from the US. On the Cyprus division between Turks and Greeks, this lobby readily obtains effective support for the Greek Cypriots. The remarkable aspect of this lobby is the rather small number of Greek Americans (less than one million). Still another lobby, the Tibet, is primarily focused on the restoration of the Dalai Lama to his religious supremacy in Tibet, as well as liberating Tibet from Communist China. This lobby is made up of a few Tibetans but many American followers of the Dalai Lama.
The only Latin American group to have established an effective lobby in the US has been the Cuban Americans. Yet, their numbers are quite small in comparison to Mexican Americans. There are about 1.3 million Cubans in the US as opposed to 28 million Mexican Americans (out of 45 million Latinos). The reasons for the Cuban Americans’ success in organizing are varied. They fled a Communist take over of Cuba during the height of the Cold War. Hence, they were readily embraced by the US, especially among the politically conservative movement. The Cuban Americans have behaved politically like an ‘exile’ or ‘irredentist’ group, not as a traditional immigrant group. The driving force for the Cuban émigrés has been liberating Cuba from the Communist Castro regime. The Cuban American National Foundation (CANF) became the most effective vehicle for keeping the heat on Castro’s Cuba. The late Jorge Mas Canosa, founder of the Foundation was readily recognized by many pundits, political groups, senior government employees, and members of Congress as the most effective and successful Latino power broker in the 80’s and 90’s. No other Latino group has produced such a leader. When he visited Washington the white establishment of both parties eagerly sought him out. It was humorously described in Miami that CANF was the inverse of the AIPAC: it bought Republicans and rented Democrats. Mas Canosa reportedly noted that he wanted his Foundation to be as effective as the Israeli lobby. He reportedly admitted that he had hired two lawyers who helped the AIPAC to set up the CANF. Though their numbers were small overall, The Foundation delivered bloc votes in a key Presidential swing state, Florida, and raised significant amounts of money for politicians of both parties. The hard-fought 2000 election contest between Gore and W. Bush was the most critical. The Cuban Americans laid claim to the victory. The Cuban Americans have traditionally voted in-block for the GOP, but enough voted for Clinton and Obama to help swing a Florida victory for each of them. Hence, the strength of the Cuban American lobby has been to deliver a vital swing state in hotly contested Presidential elections. When both Clinton and Obama won the Presidency, the Cuban American Foundation in an almost bi-partisan way appears to have tilted to the winner. In 1992, it tacked to Clinton’s side and even more egregious in 1994 from a GOP point of view it backed the Democratic incumbent Governor of Florida Lawton Chiles’ successful re-election campaign against Jeb Bush, President George W. Bush’s brother. By 1998 when Governor Jeb Bush came to power, Mas Canosa had disappeared as leader because of an untimely death in 1997. The Foundation fractured and weakened with Jeb’s and GOP Congressman Cuban American Lincoln Diaz Balart’s influence. Since then, the political strength of the Cuban Americans in both domestic and foreign policy is beginning to wane.
Mexico’s attempts to help foster a Mexican American interest group or lobby in the US have met with disappointment by and large. First, any attempt to emulate the Cuban or Israeli lobby is not doable because Mexico is neither under ‘siege’ like Israel nor a ‘captive’ nation like Cuba. Yet Mexico’s current plight with organized crime and its enormous threat to the stability and well-being of the country is perhaps a good reason to explore the possibility of engaging the Mexican Americans. However, to galvanize Mexican Americans around a Mexico cause would be a monumental task.
The variety of US citizens and residents of Mexican descent makes this goal particularly onerous. The oldest established Mexican Americans are divided into those whose ancestors were here before the gringo conquest of 1848 (Tejanos, Californios and Hispanos from New Mexico and Colorado) along with those whose grand or great-grandparents came during the Mexican Revolution (1910-20). A second group came primarily in the 1940s during WWII up through the 1960s. The third group began arriving in massive numbers from the 1970s to the present. The members of the first group have largely assimilated into US society and speak English primarily. Those that belong to the second group are considered to be in transition but fairly assimilated. Whereas the more recent arrivals are less integrated and do not fully participate in the US political process. Clearly, the bounds keeping the Mexican American population’s identity together are tangled in history, language, ethnicity, religion, folklore, cuisine, music and the arts as well as being able to trace national origin to Mexico.
The descendants of many in the first group and some from the second spawned the social-civil–political activism of the 1960s and 70s called the “Chicano” movement. These Chicanos, self-identified as such, after concluding that they neither belonged to the dominant gringo culture nor to the prevailing culture of Mexico. They felt alienated by the Anglo-American ethno-centric society and the inability to relate to the country of origin of their ancestors. However, recently arrived Mexicans do not regard themselves as Chicanos but refer to the older established ones as Chicanos. Increasingly, these newer arrivals are becoming the majority.
The first two groups are the ones that are overwhelmingly US citizens and have potential political power at the ballot box. Recent studies suggest that well over twenty million Hispanics are eligible to vote, but only about 12 to 13 million are registered and well under ten million vote. These figures include all Latinos not just Mexicans. Latinos of Mexican descent comprise about 28 million of the 45 million Latinos in the US. Mexico’s political leadership in recent years has sought to reach out to the ‘brothers’ living in the north. Echeverria’s presidency openly courted the Chicano or La Raza Unida insurgent types of the 1970s. Up to this time only established Mexican American politicians like Henry B Gonzalez, Ed Roybal and Kika de La Garza had been recognized and invited to Mexico to be honored. Later, Raul Yzaguirre of the National Council of La Raza was honored as was Henry Cisneros and numerous other ‘prominent sons of Mexico’ living in the US.
Organizing a lobby-force Mexican American group that can influence the US public and the US Congress and other movers and shakers to favor or be sympathetic to Mexico’s agenda has been illusive. This would yield a more sympathetic Congressional Hispanic Caucus and more of Mexico’s agenda in the Latino advocacy groups’ efforts The recent contentious issue of immigration along with the vast numbers of undocumented Mexican citizens residing in the US has revived Mexico’s interest in helping foster pro-Mexico groups or entities in the US. Nonetheless, Mexico must be extra careful not to antagonize the American public at large by seeming to recruit Mexican Americans in a disloyal way. This will avoid a US backlash and minimize the sentiment against the lawlessness of illegal entry into the US from becoming an anti-Latino or anti Mexican expression. Moreover, the lack of passion among the targeted groups of Mexican descent derives from the fact that the Mexican political and judicial systems are largely held in contempt or disdain by these recent Mexican immigrants, as well as among the older established groups. Mexico is largely viewed as ‘corrupt’ or ‘inept’ or ‘insensitive to its poor masses’. Moreover, many of the US Mexican descent groups feel ‘dismissed’ or ‘disdained’ by an elitist attitude detected among many in Mexico. The use of the pejorative ‘Pocho’ describes a Mexican who has abandoned the patria (the Homeland) for el Norte and no longer holds any loyalty to Mexico. This is an example of the divisiveness that exists between those who remain in Mexico and those of Mexican descent who now reside in the US. Furthermore, Mexican Americans feel that Mexico’s elite manifests gratuitous contempt in class and racial terms. In Mexico, the derogatory word “Naco” is used to describe a fellow Mexican (usually with apparent mixed white and Indian ancestry) as socially inferior. The connotation is that he or she is attempting to behave more ‘cultured’ (white) but invariably betrays his origins. Too often this word is used to describe Mexican Americans. This further undermines the less than successful attempts by Mexico to garner support in the US among its émigré population.
Yet, in many parts of the US, especially in the Chicago area, Mexico has enjoyed success in promoting links between the Mexicans abroad and their former local municipalities or states in Mexico by having people-to-people exchanges, promoting investment in the Mexican municipalities or states’ development opportunities. Many Mexican Americans were exceptionally proud to see Mexico respond with direct assistance to the Americans affected by Hurricane Katrina. Sports exchanges and Spanish language television have also helped preserve cultural links with Mexico. Mariachi music, norteño music contests, salsa replacing ketchup, art exhibits, Mexican cuisine and Corona beer have all helped improve the cultural cohesiveness in the Mexican descent community abroad.
Mexico‘s efforts to reach out to the ‘Mexicans abroad’ and those of Mexican ancestry must be approached primarily through cultural endeavors like art, music, literature, folklore studies, language, historical writings, tourism and perhaps best of all through Mexican cuisine. Any attempt to promote political interest or support of the Mexican government will be Sisyphean. The Italian American experience should be studied as an effective example. The influential National Italian American Foundation promotes and extols the history, music, cuisine, language and general culture of Italy. It annually celebrates Cristofo Colombo day in October with a large gala event honoring all successful Italian Americans in film, music, sports, business, journalism, academia, medicine, law, politics, government and the military. The US President, his Cabinet members and scores of Congressional members, usually attend. The Italian government is always present and additionally helps to promote Italian culture and language through its Casa Dante cultural centers found in large metropolitan areas.
Mexico, as the most populous Spanish speaking country in the world, comprises the largest portion of the Hispanic population in the US. Moreover, its close proximity to the US and its NAFTA partnership nurtures an ever-growing relationship with the US. Yet, Mexico must carefully formulate a plan or strategy to reach the Mexican Americans in a more effective manner. The treatment of the immigration conundrum in the US and the building of ‘the fence’ along the border will become key issues that could engender as note above, either friction or closeness between the two countries. Mexico has ample opportunity to appeal to the Mexican Americans by approaching them as an equals and convincing these ‘Mexicans Abroad’ to help ameliorate the potential conflicts that arise between the two countries. But it must be a truly Mexican effort without the unrealistic expectation to become either an Israeli American lobby or even a Cuban American Foundation. Mexico stands to gain influence in the US political discourse, but it must first attract the cooperation and understanding of the large Mexican American community. Some of the more positive outcomes will be a more internationally aware Congressional Hispanic Caucus and more educated Latino advocacy groups.