When presumptive Republican presidential candidate John McCain brought his road show to Mexico City on the eve of U.S. Independence Day, he had one mission in mind: to have his portrait snapped with Mexico’s most popular pin-up, the Virgin of Guadalupe. Photographers caught the bald-domed senator in prayerful profile framed against the image of the Guadalupana, itself miraculously imprinted upon the “tilma” or cactus-fiber tee-shirt of the Indian Juan Diego, which hangs behind the alter at the Basilica of the Virgin in the north of the Mexican capital. The poster of the senator and the Brown Madonna is sure to be a hot item on the campaign trail as McCain vies for a potential 18.2 million U.S. Latino votes in an uphill battle with presumptive Democratic candidate Barack Obama, currently leading his opponent 59%-29% in so-called Hispanic preferences.
McCain winged in from Colombia where he was badly upstaged by the rescue of Ingrid Betancourt and 15 other hostages held by the guerrilla Revolutionary Armed Forces or FARC. During his whirlwind sprint through the Mexican capital, the Arizona senator huddled with President Felipe Calderon, whose own election in 2006 remains deeply questioned here (one cannot imagine a U.S. president receiving a Mexican candidate); spent a few hours with the Guadalupana at the Basilica (McCain claims to be a born-again Christian) where he reportedly shed a few tears (a first, if true); addressed Mexican industrialists and the American Chamber of Commerce to boost NAFTA; and visited the nerve center of Mexico’s War on Drugs out in Ixtapalapa, a rough Mexico City neighborhood.
The candidate was accompanied at all times by Washington’s ambassador here, Tony Garza, a Bush crony from his Texas days, and two Suburban loads of what knowledgeable observers identified as Blackwater World-Wide security personnel – Blackwater has contractual relations with the U.S. State Department which oversaw McCain’s junket.
If confirmed, the McCain accompaniment marks the first sighting of that much critiqued security firm inside Mexico – Blackwater recently opened an enormous western training center three blocks from the Mexican border on the Otay Mesa in San Diego. The Blackwater identification was made by Fernando Suarez del Solar, a San Diego resident, whose son Jesus was the first Mexican to die in the invasion and occupation of Iraq. Suarez, who labeled the Blackwater intrusion a violation of Mexico’s sovereignty, picketed the McCain visit along with Mexican anti-war activists.
As is de rigor for U.S. politicos when addressing Mexico issues, the presumptive Republican limited his rap to three subsets: immigration, drugs, and terrorism (the last two sometimes conflated as narco-terrorism.) When it came to confronting this triumvirate of evils, McCain’s mantra was “biometrics.” Biometric identification of all Mexicans will help the United States to be a safer country, he told a carefully culled press conference and then got back on the plane with the shot of the Virgin of Guadalupe under his arm. So ended another day on the Mexican campaign trail with a U.S. presidential candidate.
Although the photo with the Brown Madonna was clearly for U.S. Latino consumption, McCain’s visit was also aimed at a niche constituency here – Americans living abroad of which Mexico, with slightly under a million eligible voters, tops the list (Canada, with 600,000 runs a distant second.) U.S. consular officials here calculate that another 125,000 Mexicans with duel citizenship are also in the voter pool.
Although trying to figure out for whom Americans abroad vote is problematic – only 30% actually vote and their votes are counted in the states where they have legal residency – pollster John Zogby gave Democrats abroad a big edge on Republicans 58% to 35% in the 2004 presidential race. On the other side of the aisles, over a million of the 4.4 million U.S. citizens living overseas are military and government personnel who overwhelmingly vote Republican.
Despite their not-very-significant numbers, U.S. absentee voters out of the country cannot be overlooked – in 2000, George Bush was awarded Florida and the U.S. presidency by 500 overseas ballots from a military base in Germany.
U.S. presidential elections signal an all-year get-out-the-vote drive for the two parties’ front groups south of the border. Campaigners set up web pages and buttonhole potential voters at embassy functions. Both the Republicans Abroad and their Democratic counterparts are guaranteed a visit from someone close to the candidate – Al Gore campaigned for Bill Clinton in 1996 and John Kerry’s sister materialized in 2004 but McCain’s touchdown was a first for an actual U.S. presidential candidate in political memory here.
Last January, Democrats Abroad invited Fernando Lugo, then candidate for the presidency of Paraguay and now its president, to address a meeting at the swank Grand Hotel in the city’s old quarter. When Lugo, an ex-Catholic bishop who defends poor farmers, expressed his conviction that both he and Hillary Clinton were about to become the leaders of their respective countries, the banquet room – which was plastered with blue Hillary signs – erupted in wild cheers.
It should be noted that the Lugo event took place on the eve of the Iowa primaries when Barack Obama would first become a household name. The tide quickly turned to the popular Illinois senator. In the global Democratic primary held on the Internet February 21st, Democrats Abroad-Mexico registered 65.8% for Obama to only 32.7% for La Hillary. This month, Democrats Abroad will host a 2500 peso a plate dinner with Barack’s reportedly Spanish-speaking half sister, Maya Soetano.
While Americans living abroad seem seriously attached to their parties and their candidates, Mexicans see the “presidenciales” up in El Norte as a kind of three-ring circus. The prolonged duel between Hillary Clinton and Obama fascinated this reporter’s neighbors. Cutting hair in his stall at the Pino Suarez market, Lalo Miranda, 72, had one ear cocked to the noon news – the Mexican media covered the Democratic contest closely. “You can’t believe it! A woman and an Afro-American! It’s not possible in the United States!” Lalo exclaimed incredulously – only he didn’t use the word “Afro-American.” “Negrito”, with all its racist connotations, is the usual descriptive for Obama in the Mexican street.
Lalo’s bewilderment is an accurate measure of the Third World’s disbelief at this unlikely turn of the political wheel. “Can a black man (“negrito”) really be the President of the United States?” Carlos Diaz, leaning on the counter of his restaurant in the city’s Centro Historico, asks an American friend. “Won’t they kill him first?”
Blacks and Latinos have not always been political allies and the divide has deep scratch on both sides of the border, surfacing in telling and sometimes comical ways. Last week (July 9th) a Houston Texas Wal-Mart pulled the Mexican comic book “Memin Penguin” whose title character is an extraordinarily stereotypical black adolescent, off its racks because of objections from Afro-American customers. Quannell X, the Houston spokesperson for the New Black Panther Party and an Obama supporter was specifically agitated by a recent issue (actually a reprint – the strip has been long out of circulation) whose cover depicted Memin with grotesquely thick lips and bulging eyeballs, holding aloft a sign that was inscribed “Memin for Presidente!” which Quannell X took to be a not-so-veiled racist attack on the presumptive Democratic Party candidate. The complaint was backed up by Obama’s Houston office, which claimed the comic book was a McCain plot.
Memin, a beloved Mexican pop icon enshrined in the pantheon of peoples’ art here that includes cowboy crooner Pedro Infante, the pacifist super hero Kaliman, and El Santo, the crime-busting masked wrestler, has been in trouble with U.S. Afro-Americans before. After the Mexican government issued a stamp bearing Memin’s likeness in 2004, even the Bush White House felt called upon to express its distaste. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton flew to Mexico City to remonstrate with President Vicente Fox who compounded the brouhaha by complaining that Mexicans in the U.S. work at jobs not even black people would take.
The Memin issue sold more stamps than any other in Mexican history – there were lines around the central post office. To assuage hurt feelings, Fox ordered that none of the Memin stamps be used on letters sent to the U.S.
Indeed, U.S. black perceptions of Memin are based on assumptions not born out by the strip’s content. Memin is a typical teenager, a leader and an inveterate prankster among his friends, all of whom are light-skinned, middle-class Mexican kids. Memin does not speak in a stereotypical dialect and his mom, Dona Eufrosina is not a maid.
Indeed, “Memin Penguin” is often a platform for speaking out against racial discrimination. In one adventure, Memin and his teammates travel to Dallas Texas to play American football. When a waitress refuses to serve Memin an after-game hamburger because he is a “negrito”, his pals make a big fuss and are dragged off to jail.
Mexico has a small Afro-Mexican population – probably 100,000 or less (Mexico does not census by race) – living in the mountains of Veracruz and strung out along the Costa Chica in Guerrero and Oaxaca states. Mexico was a slavocracy (slavery was abolished when Mexicans achieved liberation from Spain in 1821) and fully a third of the population during the Colonial era was black. Their chromosomes are still on display every day in the many colors of “La Raza.”
Although Mexicans don’t make many political distinctions between candidates for the White House, Obama’s complexion is sure to carry the kind of weight that John F. Kennedy being a Catholic had back in 1960.
Now that the scuffling between “Hilaria” (who had deep backing in the Latina community) and “Baracko” has mellowed with the consolidation of an Obama candidacy, it appears that for the first time in U.S. electoral history, Latino voters, a mixed bag at best that includes Mexicans, Cubans, and Puerto Ricans, other Caribbeans, and Central Americans, and split along generational and class lines in addition to national origins, will overwhelmingly vote up an Afro American candidate. Even McCain’s enlistment of the Virgin of Guadalupe in his cause, will not get the Arizona senator anywhere near the 40% of the Latino vote George Bush claimed in 2004. Indeed, until the Brown Madonna lent her support, McCain’s only creds in trying to win the vote of the U.S.’s new Numero Uno minority was his status as a border state senator, and a kind of “some of my best friends” chauvinism.
On the other side of the ballot, Obama’s dismal Spanish, limited to expropriating Cesar Chavez’s “Si Se Puede” (“Yes We Can) theme song, isn’t his strong suit among Spanish-speakers.
If American Mexicans have a stake in 2008, Mexican Mexicans don’t see much difference between the Democrats and the Republicans. Both Obama and McCain voted for an immigration “reform” (the bill carried McCain’s name) that mandated 700 miles of border wall and would have shipped half a million “paisanos” home to Mexico, the most drastic forced repatriation in the history of the Americas. Both candidates laud Plan Mexico, the so-called “Merida Initiative” that will supply some of the most abusive security forces on the continent with advanced weaponry and eavesdropping equipment. Both McCain and Obama favor the privatization of petroleum and increased access to Mexican oil for U.S. producers. McCain is a big NAFTA booster, a trade pact that has forced 6,000,000 Mexican farmers and their families off their land. Obama says he wants to re-open the treaty but not the chapters that allow corporate U.S. growers to dump 10,000,000 tons of duty-free corn in Mexico each year.
As Berta Robledo, an activist friend, laughs both want to be the president of the biggest criminal gang in the world.
Some observers of power politics here consider that the coming U.S. election is so critical to the immediate future of Mexico that Mexicans should be allowed to vote. Asked for who she might cast a ballot in November, Sylvia Insunsa, the proprietor of the Paper Tower, a news stand in the Mexican Journalists Club, was right on point. “Why of course for the Negrito – Memin Penguin!”
JOHN ROSS is in the heat of the first draft of “El Monstruo – Tales of Dread and Redemption In The Most Monstrous Megalopolis On The Planet Earth” (or something like that.) These dispatches will be issued every ten days until the heat subsides.
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