Mexico City Blues

Half a continent away, anger simmers over Arizona law

It was late afternoon and we were on the bus bound for nowhere. In a classic Mexico City mash, our driver was facing off with a panel truck, which had turned crossways against a sea of cars.

Years before, looking down upon the madness from a roadside perch was Cuitláhuac, an Aztec leader best known for his valiant, last-ditch stance against the Spanish conqueror Hernán Cortés.

That doomed rally occurred in 1520.

Nearly 500 years later, Cuitláhuac the statue, now oversees impasses of another sort, namely the motorized mosh-pits on tree-lined Paseo de Reforma. Today's traffic jam, by turn, is the direct result of a political protest blocking part of the main thoroughfare. This tactic for getting attention and boosting official blood pressures is legal in Mexico City and subsequently quite popular.

But for us, it had the curious effect of installing our bus squarely before a banner that referred—and none too warmly—to our own stomping grounds. "Repudio a la Ley Anti-immigrante de Arizona," the banner read. Which essentially translates to: "Repudiate Arizona's Anti-Immigration Law."

So it was that we had endured three airports, a hair-raising cab ride and smoke-belching busses, all for a 12-day respite from the ugliness of Arizona politics. Unfortunately, it seemed that Arizona was not so easily shed.

That's not to say that Mexico isn't preoccupied with a few problems of its own. Mexican tabloids have a striking lust for gore, and newsstands are a crimson riot of severed heads, twisted limbs and bullet-ravaged bodies. Yet rarely do you read that this narco-savagery is largely driven by America's appetite for altered states.

But while the mechanics of supply and demand don't make for snappy headlines, they do comprise a constant discussion in this sophisticated and chaotic city. That's why the spirit behind SB 1070, our new state law granting police broad powers to combat illegal immigration, strikes many here as a touch ironic.

I was told as much earlier that day by Enrique Peralta, a genial security guard at downtown's Diego Rivera Mural Museum. "I think the Arizona law is a little bit racist," said the 45-year-old father of two who has laid carpet in Colorado and built houses in California. His current residence in Mexico City proves an important point: "Mexicans don't go to the United States for life, or to create problems," he said. "They just go there to work."

That labor may keep the American economy afloat, he says. "But even when Mexicans travel there with permission, they face discrimination."

However, SB 1070 is hardly the only outrage in this city of protests. There are an estimated 10 demonstrations here each day, highlighting grievances that range from faulty sewers and buckling streets to Byzantine college admissions. So widespread are these street gatherings that the city runs an Internet alert, telling commuters which routes are likely to be blocked on any given afternoon.

Today, for instance, there are remnant demonstrations in favor of Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the former Mexico City mayor who claimed fraud after losing the 2006 presidential election to Felipe Calderón. The day Calderón was sworn in, Obrador led a colossal march along this very street.

Four years later, fleets of blue-black police vehicles have several times screamed past, toward some budding rally in the city center. The militarized processions included endless, bus-sized personnel carriers filled with cops and batons and rifles mounted against welded posts.

Police also addressed dwindling, but still bitter protests against the firing of 44,000 electrical workers in October, when President Calderón closed the state-owned Luz y Fuerza del Centro power company. At the demonstration's peak, several workers began a hunger strike that endured for 80 days, until they were hauled off to the hospital.

Critics saw the move by Calderón and his conservative National Action Party as an attempt to weaken the powerful Mexican Electrical Workers Union, or SME.

It's not that protests are unique to Mexico, either. Even as we sat on the stalled bus, demonstrations against SB 1070 were unfolding in Phoenix, although a federal judge had already blocked key provisions of the law.

Finally the traffic loosened, and we rumbled back to our hotel. But that banner stuck in my mind. I was still pondering it a few days later, as we were touring the mysterious ruins of Teotihuacán, home to the enormously popular sun and moon pyramids.

Our guide, 50-year-old Arturo Guzman, gratefully counts a fair number of Americans among his clientele. But even in the middle of Mexico, SB 1070 stings. "The feeling here in Mexico City is that the (Arizona) law is a threat," said the professorial guide. "If other U.S. states were to do the same thing, it would be a major problem."

Guzman, who spent nearly a decade bouncing around Europe, said the law "oppresses the relationship" between the United States and Mexico, which is a shame, given that we're next-door neighbors. And like Enrique Peralta, he thinks SB 1070 has a racist underbelly. "We see it on TV," he said. The Arizona law "states clearly that people who do not look like Americans, they are the ones who will suffer."

Later, we stopped for dinner at a busy patio restaurant. That's where I met Sergio Rivera, a young ophthalmologist from the wealthy Mexican city of Monterrey. Sipping from a sweaty bottle of Negro Modelo, Rivera predicted that the despised law won't last. And he will not mourn the measure's demise. "It's not that I agree with illegal immigration," he said. "But this is not the solution. It is not the way to confront the problem."

Next to Sergio sat his sister, Karina Rivera. Part of the problem, she said, is that Mexico doesn't have enough jobs to keep its people from leaving for the United States. But as she pointed out, the topic of exports can quickly turn dicey. "After all, Mexico is also now dealing with drug trafficking," she said with a shrug. In other words, America's drug appetite has made the Mexican cartels a rich and very dangerous preoccupation. But Rivera was polite. "It's just very complicated," she said, and sipped on her beer.

A few days after I talked to Sergio and Karina, the 38-year-old, U.S.-educated mayor of Monterrey was kidnapped. A few days after that, cops found his body dumped on a rural road. His hands and feet were bound. He had received death threats from drug cartels.

I wanted to call the Riveras, to see how they felt about this latest casualty of our binational relationship. But in the end, I did not. There's really nothing more to be asked.

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