In ordinary times, a photo of an athletic Mexican woman adeptly climbing a wall would not strike an observer as significant. But these are not ordinary times, not for Mexicans anyway. The photo is from a recent trip to the northern Mexican city of Monterrey. My family history stretches back to this part of Mexico. My dad's family came through Monterrey hundreds of years ago on their way to Texas. My mom's family is from the area too. I currently have an uncle and lots of cousins there. I go there often.
Monterrey is far from the beaches of the Mayan Riviera, the cobblestone streets of San Miguel, and the Michelin star restaurants of Mexico City. The city of 1.1 million people is known for its conservative values and politics. It is unpretentious and gritty, entrepreneurial and industrial. The city boasts a world-class university, a stunning museum of contemporary art, and it is home to numerous multinational corporations. The past few years have been difficult. Cartel violence hit northern Mexico particularly hard. But the people of Monterrey are tough. They build and they climb.
Although only four hours, by car, from the US border, Monterrey, like most of Mexico, remains an enigma to much of the US. In 1922, a magazine writer from New York, Wallace Thompson, published The Mexican Mind: A Study of National Psychology. Thompson tried to figure out Mexico for US readers. This was one of several books that Wallace wrote about Mexico and Latin America. The publisher was the Boston-based Little, Brown, and Company, that described itself as “one of the country’s oldest and most distinguished publishing houses.” The Mexican Mind was considered a serious book one hundred years ago.
To describe Thompson’s book as racist would be generous. As college students, my brother Raul and I howled with laughter at the idiotic claims in the book. As a teenager, it struck me as funny. Today, not so much.
Here is a typical excerpt from the book: “Observation of the Mexican in his emotional states will go far to convince even the believer in the genuineness of Mexican sentiment that this is exactly what he deliberately seeks to accomplish. The outstanding example is, of course, the satisfaction of the sex instinct, to which the typical Mexican devotes approximately three-fourths of his intellectual energy.” Thompson sketches an image of Mexicans as untrustworthy and over-sexed.
Recently, our president, a man with an apparent fondness for porn stars and whose ex-wife claims he once raped her, riffed on much the same theme as Thompson when discussing a caravan of migrants traveling across Mexico toward the US border. “And yesterday it came out where this journey is coming up, women are raped at levels that nobody’s seen before,” he said. For the record, there were no rapes reported by migrants on the caravan. The theme of the over-sexualized Mexican played well to his base when he launched his campaign so why not stick with what works? Trump followed up with a recent reference to some undocumented immigrants as “animals.” The president’s message was clear: The barbarians are at the border! Lock up your wives and daughters, brown-skinned rapists are coming. Build a wall!
The cynic in me thinks that across the country millions of people nodded their heads in agreement as they watched the president on Fox news or read about him on their Russia created Facebook groups.
I want to believe that these are not ordinary times and that the past year is not representative of who we are as a nation. But what if I am wrong? It is possible that today’s fear of Mexicans was lurking under the surface all these years, and was never entirely getting stamped out. Looking back, should I have laughed so hard at The Mexican Mind? I confess that I laughed at the idea of Trump getting elected too.
Trump's wall—if it ever gets built—is doomed to fail. Why? Because of ambitious, hardworking Mexicans like the woman in the photo. People intent on making a better life for their themselves and their families will find a way around, or over, a wall. If unforgiving desert heat, the threat of incarceration, and bandits does not stop people from attempting to cross the border, what will a few more miles of wall accomplish?
I took the pictures of the young Mexican woman climbing the wall before the US election, but after the infamous “they are not sending their best” line from then-candidate Trump. There was already talk of a “border wall” in the press here and in Mexico. I did not, however, connect the political dots while watching the young woman scale the wall. At the time, I was amazed (and, as a parent, horrified) by the daredevil quality of her feat. When the young woman climbed sufficiently high enough, she turned to mug the camera. She then continued up the wall, as though she were invincible. It wasn’t until I was back in Boston that I read the photo as an act of political theater.
In ordinary times, the photo would be of a young, playful woman showing off her strength and youth. In the current zeitgeist, the photograph is of a woman sending a message to people in the United States, from Trump Tower to the so-called heartland. “Go ahead, build your wall. We Mexicans are climbers.”