Eighteen minutes of history condemned Mexico to live in the shadow of its northern neighbor. The year was 1836, and the scene was a tallgrass prairie between Buffalo Bayou and the San Jacinto River. Mexican Gen. Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna was brimming with confidence: He had sacked an army of Texian rebels at the Alamo and, if he could stamp out the remainder of the rebellion, he would soon have the keys to North American empire — the mouth of the Mississippi River Basin, at the port of New Orleans — within his grasp. But as fate would have it, Santa Anna's siesta in a field one spring afternoon turned into a deadly ambush as Gen. Sam Houston led his exhausted, demoralized and outnumbered troops to an unlikely victory that would change North America's course forever.
In the Texas Capitol in Austin, a famous oil painting shows a wounded Houston lying against a tree holding out his hand in respect to a solemn Santa Anna standing above him, ready to surrender. Over hits of opium, the two battle-worn generals sat down together to negotiate an end to a war that would eventually pave the way for Texas' annexation by the United States and raise the question of whether the U.S.-Mexico border would be determined by the Nueces River, as the Mexicans argued, or the Rio Grande, as the Americans insisted. When money and diplomatic pressure failed to sway the Mexican government in negotiations a decade later, the United States invaded its southern neighbor, bringing the country to its knees in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848. Mexico ceded nearly a million square miles comprising present-day California, Arizona, New Mexico and parts of Colorado and Nevada to the United States, fulfilling U.S. President James Polk's Manifest Destiny dream to extend America's continental domain "from ocean to ocean."
The Battle for Empire
This is a history that is easily romanticized in the United States. It is also one that breeds deep resentment in Mexico. Both countries were infant republics in the early 19th century, and each arguably had a shot at claiming the North American empire. They hadn't yet succumbed to their own civil wars, and they were each a product of Old World intrigue, one spawned from Anglo-Saxon Protestantism and the other from Hispanic Catholicism. The United States gained its independence nearly four decades before Mexico did, but it was still a largely untested republic trying to build an empire from a clean slate once it could clear out American Indian tribes. Mexico, on the other hand, had roots in ancient civilization well before the Old World colonists arrived.
But even as a fledgling republic, the United States had the upper hand when it came to geography.
As the Old World exhausted itself with its wars and became unable to mind its distant colonies, the United States negotiated land purchases from the French (Louisiana Purchase in 1803) and the Spanish (Florida in 1819), reaching beyond the Appalachians and securing the continent's core: the Greater Mississippi River Basin. Cheap river transportation, large tracts of arable land that supported an ample grain supply, and the ability of private citizens to own and develop their own land not only allowed for rapid industrial development and population growth but also helped to foster a common national identity and purpose. As Alexis de Tocqueville observed in the mid-19th century, Americans had the leisure to "devote their energies to thought and enlarge in all directions the empire of mind" in exploring the wilderness of the New World. With land and liberty intertwined in the American psyche, the empire was already spilling across the Rockies and ravenously eyeing the blue waters of the Pacific.
Mexico, by contrast, was barely holding itself together. There simply was no time or space to foster a national calling toward continental supremacy. Geography was partly to blame: The core of the country was split between the high plateau of Mexico City, where the more temperate climate can support grain growth and a large population, and the tropical port city of Veracruz on Mexico's eastern shore. Desert in the north, jungle in the deep south and mountain chains running along both of the country's lengths made development and transport very costly in Mexico relative to the United States. Mexico City's writ barely extended into its dry, bandit-ridden northern territories while its inability to defend Veracruz from maritime powers provided would-be invaders with a direct path to the country's capital. If Mexico City were to claim the North American empire for itself, it would have to stretch across the northern deserts, seize the Mississippi Basin and hold the territory while defending its rear from Veracruz with a naval presence that could dominate the Gulf of Mexico. This was a tall order for a newly independent, cash-strapped state that was still rigidly stratified between wealthy Spanish landowners trying to preserve their fiefdoms and indigenous Mexicans denied the rights to life, liberty and property that their American counterparts enjoyed.
Mexico coped with losing its chance at empire. But to this day, it has not been able to shake off its deeper paranoia of America's intentions. From Mexico City's point of view, the United States may have sealed its North American domain, but what would stop it from dismembering the Mexican state altogether? After all, under multiple presidents and in multiple interventions, the United States has adopted a patronizing attitude toward what it saw as an unruly southern neighbor. Perhaps the best illustration of the ease with which the United States could invade Mexico came in 1914, when Mexican federal forces accidentally arrested a group of U.S. naval officers at Tampico Bay. Mexican Gen. Ignacio Morelos Zaragoza apologized twice for the mistake, but the United States demanded a written apology as well, in addition to a 21-gun salute to the U.S. flag where the soldiers had been arrested. Morelos Zaragoza said he would do the salute, on the condition that the United States recognize Mexico's sovereignty with a 21-gun salute to the Mexican flag. That nationalist retort did not sit well with U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, who promptly ordered an invasion of Veracruz. Within two days, U.S. troops had arrived at the coast.
A History of Friction and Fusion
This is a history that remains deeply ingrained in many Mexicans. Long before Donald Trump made it into the presidential primaries, conversations I had with Mexico City's elite were filled with anxious, seemingly naive questions such as "Do you think the United States would go to war with Mexico again, or try to cripple its economy?" But these questions are not so outlandish to anyone who knows the storied history of the two countries' ties.
Security cooperation framed the U.S.-Mexico relationship early on. The men charged in 1851 with the perilous task of surveying and demarcating the nearly 2,000-mile border separating them could barely eke out a dotted line on the map. Battling Apache raids, disease and miles of unforgiving desert, they were able to only sporadically stake out markers across the treacherous territory over the course of three years, hoping that the politicians in Washington and Mexico City could handle the particulars of dividing the sovereign space. But that was easier said than done, of course. As Rachel St. John explains in her book Line in the Sand, the United States and Mexico quickly learned that they needed each other to tame their restive borderland. Apache and Comanche tribes never recognized the freshly (albeit poorly) delineated border and raided freely, pitting U.S. and Mexican forces against each other. Bands of American land pirates, meanwhile, took advantage of the lawlessness and wreaked havoc across Sonora and Baja California. If Mexico were to finally gain control over its northern territories, and if the United States were to secure its new southern border, they would have to work together. Through military cooperation, the confinement of American Indians to reservations, and cross-border agreements permitting the hot pursuit of bandits, prisoner exchanges and joint patrols, the United States and Mexico were able to pacify the borderland by the 1880s. More than a century later, both countries arrived at a similar conclusion and mutual dependency in battling drug cartels across the border.
Immigration confounded authorities on both sides of the border. In the wake of the Mexican-American War, Mexico was rightfully worried that the United States would make additional land grabs in the north, especially since America was still eying Baja California. To preserve Mexico's territorial integrity, President Jose Joaquin de Herrera used tax exemptions and land grants to incentivize Mexican colonists to resettle in the country's northern regions. But rumors of riches flowing from the California Gold Rush in 1848-55 kept pulling Mexican workers farther north into the United States, depleting the population in Sonora and leaving valuable territory to eager Americans looking to buy it up. That economic draw to the north persists to this day and remains the primary driver behind Mexican immigration to the United States.
Over time, the United States grew wary of cheap labor coming across its borders and displacing American workers. But at first, Mexicans were not the main targets of U.S. immigration authorities. With the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which barred Chinese workers from entering the United States, more Chinese migrants tried to illegally cross into the United States from Mexico to find work. At the same time, the United States was dependent on Mexican workers for agricultural labor and for building a sprawling rail network (Mexicans made up 60 percent of U.S. rail workers by the early 1900s). So, it deployed "Chinese inspectors" to routinely weed out Chinese immigrants from their Mexican peers. At the same time, Mexico tried to pass the cost of unwanted Chinese migrants and other foreigners onto U.S. authorities by turning a blind eye to their illegal migration northward — not unlike Mexico's attempts today to pass the burden of handling a growing number of Central American, Asian and African immigrants to U.S. authorities.
But with the onset of the Mexican Revolution in 1910, fears of the conflict's spread limited cross-border cooperation, and the United States began to tighten its defenses. Strips along the border were cleared for customs and immigration agents to set up shop, wire fences were erected and human walls were formed as U.S. and Mexican border troops stood side by side in the absence of a permanent physical barrier. It was during this chaotic period that Mexican nationalism burned fervently and U.S. prejudice grew toward what it saw as a barbarous and broken nation. As the governor of the Northern District of Baja California proclaimed in 1919, "Intervention is shortly coming, and when it does, every patriotic Mexican is expected to seize a rifle and drive the gringos from Mexican soil." Meanwhile, Washington vacillated between the parties waging war, first backing Pancho Villa before supporting his chief rival and former ally, Venustiano Carranza. When Villa began attacking Americans in Mexico and across the border, U.S. troops unilaterally intervened in 1916 to try to capture the rebel leader.
U.S.-Mexico relations had reached a new low, but the great power intrigue of the First World War only exacerbated distrust between them. In 1917, it became clear with the revelation of the infamous Zimmerman Telegram that Germany was trying to coax a Mexican rebellion to reclaim its former territories of Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. Washington's fear of distant adversaries exploiting its southern neighbor would later re-emerge, first during the Second World War and then during the Cold War as Mexico City became a hotbed for Nazi and Soviet espionage and propaganda.
Throughout the first half of the 20th century, seedy border towns that profited off of American drug and gambling vices earned a terrible reputation among border locals and authorities. In a tone echoing the "bad hombres" rhetoric we see in today's political climate, an Arizona Ranger captain wrote in his 1932 memoir that "cattle thieves, murderers and the worst hombres of the United States and Mexico made their headquarters" in border towns like Douglas, Arizona. Over eight decades later, the United States' massive consumer market for drugs and Mexico's ongoing struggle to contain cartel activity are reminders of the fact that security threats in the borderland are a product of Mexican supply and U.S. demand.
Of course, cross-border business ties extended well beyond illicit drugs. As transcontinental railways were built in the late 19th century to connect the United States from coast to coast and link Mexico to the burgeoning U.S. market, the two countries formed a capitalist codependency. Cattle ranchers, copper miners, irrigationists and private investors were among the many enterprising businessmen who fused the U.S.-Mexico borderland together with the power of the greenback and cheap Mexican labor. During the Porfiriato, an era in Mexico's history from 1876 to 1910, President Jose de la Cruz Porfirio Diaz Mori (who famously uttered, "Poor Mexico, so far from God and close to the United States!") forced the country to reckon with the uncomfortable fact that Mexico's unavoidable thirst for capital would at times come at the cost of its own sovereignty. Indeed, it was Porfirio Diaz's ineluctable pragmatism and capitalist spirit that planted the seeds of nationalism that later spawned the Mexican Revolution, the 1938 nationalization of the Mexican oil sector under President Lazaro Cardenas, and decades of shaky ties with the United States.
The U.S.-Mexico relationship is not a story of ever-deepening cooperation, nor is it a tale of endless friction.
Instead it ebbed and flowed over the decades as both sides tried to figure out what border measures were necessary to control immigration and facilitate trade. The United States needed low-wage labor, but it also went through periods in which it regarded that labor as a threat to the security of American jobs. Mexico, for its part, needed a way to develop its own industry so that Mexican workers would not have to seek opportunity to the north. Mexico experimented with free trade zones in the north in the late 19th century, only to be met with the protectionist McKinley Tariff of 1894.
The United States also experimented with ways to control the flow of immigrants, with mixed success. During the Great Depression, when American opposition to foreign labor was at its highest, the United States deported Mexican immigrants en masse. As the need for low-wage labor revived itself in the 1940s, the United States introduced the Bracero temporary worker program, only to see another reversal in 1954 under "Operation Wetback" ordered by U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower to forcibly repatriate Mexican immigrants. Mexico's postwar population boom led to a surge in immigration to the United States. Unnerved by the rise in immigrant traffic, Washington responded with the Immigration Act of 1965, placing a quota on Western Hemisphere immigrants for the first time. This critical legislative turn forced many Mexicans to either wait years for a visa or resort to illegal entry. With illegal immigration now a much more exposed and emotive challenge for the United States, this remains a burning political issue for American politicians to this day. While immigration policy followed an uneven path, the rise of the maquiladores assembly plants along the border in the 1960s, the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994 and a rise in cartel violence with the war on drugs in the early 21st century have only deepened the mutual reliance between the United States and Mexico.
Nationalism Burns on Both Sides of the Border
But the path ahead looks just as rocky as the road already traveled. Waves of nationalism and protectionism are part and parcel of the two countries' history. The costs those times carried are remembered well by many Mexicans, and perhaps less well by some Americans. Economically, the United States and Mexico are deeply intertwined through energy, transportation, labor, agriculture and extensive supply-chain links. From automobile parts to agricultural produce, 80 percent of Mexico's exports are destined for the United States, and U.S. content makes up 40 percent of those goods. In fact, Mexico's trade relationship with the United States is more balanced than many of Washington's other trade partnerships: The U.S. trade deficit with Mexico stands at $58 billion, while the U.S. trade deficit with China stands at $367 billion, more than six times that of Mexico. And regardless of whether NAFTA is renegotiated, replaced with bilateral trade agreements or repealed altogether, causing trade to resume under the World Trade Organization's rules for Most Favored Nations, trade and integration between the United States and Mexico is bound to persist in the long run.
Nevertheless, the prevailing economic uncertainty attached to the uneasy negotiation unfolding between Mexico City and Washington will have economic, political and social costs on both sides of the border. Embedded within the trade frictions is the White House's national security argument that Mexico is not doing enough in — or is simply incapable of — getting its house in order. The sentiment recently resurfaced when U.S. and Mexican media outlets claimed to have portions of the transcript of a phone conversation between Trump and his Mexican counterpart, Enrique Pena Nieto, in which Trump, in so many words, allegedly threatened to send U.S. troops into Mexico to deal with "bad hombres down there" unless the Mexican military does more to control them itself. The rumored transcript raises a serious — and very familiar — question for Mexico City: Will the United States once again resort to taking unilateral action across its southern border?
The prospects of U.S. incursions and damaging trade wars are fuel for nationalism in Mexico, where left-wing populist leaders like National Regeneration Movement chief Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador are gaining traction ahead of Mexico's 2018 elections. Mexico is already a country of deep socio-economic cleavages between the Mexican elite of European descent and the indigenous and Mestizo working classes. As the country saw in the 20th century, the combination of nationalism and perceived social injustices can make for a volatile mix that could spill over into the United States.
This should give pause to leaders in Washington as they try to imagine the shape U.S.-Mexico relations will take in today's evolving climate. The two countries are not only joined at the hip economically. They are also linked by blood. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Hispanics constitute 17 percent of the U.S. population — the nation's largest ethnic or racial minority. More than 64 percent of Hispanics in the United States are of Mexican origin. It is not uncommon to find Mexican-Americans of multiple generations who say with deep conviction that their home is in the United States, but their heart remains in Mexico. Unlike immigrants from India and China, who have also come to America in large numbers, Mexicans in the United States find the source of their cultural identity just across the border, where the government in Mexico City feels responsible for the well-being of its compatriots in the north. Just as Mexico can look to its history to understand its paranoia about America's intentions, the United States will need to look to its future to understand the cost of aggravating this long-standing social fault line.