Whatever happened to the new American continent?
Mexicans must be the only people who brag about the food on their national airline
ANDREW POTTER | Feb 5, 2007 | 17:04:15
After I'd introduced myself around at a New Year's party I managed to crash in Mexico City, I was approached by a young Chilango. "You realize," he told me, "that 'I'm Canadian' is a pickup line around here, don't you?" In truth, I did not. But while I wasn't tempted(chubby, bearded Mexicans are not really my type), I did feel flattered. Could it be, I thought, that his Canuckophilia was the early fruit of continental integration, the expression of some new sort of pan-NAFTA affection? That fleeting hope was quickly chased away by my new friend's confession that what he liked about Canadians was that they are just as anti-American as Mexicans.
There are two widely accepted lines on NAFTA. The first is that while it bound both Canada and Mexico more tightly to the United States, it did not do much for Canada-Mexico relations. The second is that unlike Canada, which has done quite well under NAFTA, Mexico has had a tougher go of it.
Neither is entirely true: trade between Mexico and Canada has flourished since NAFTA, more than tripling in value in the first 10 years of the agreement. Yet there is no question that Ross Perot's "great sucking sound" caused by jobs fleeing the U.S. to Mexico completely failed to occur, and think tanks and activists continue to argue over the impact of NAFTA on Mexican unemployment, income and productivity, especially in its crucial agricultural sector.
Nevertheless, it is true that even as Canada-Mexico trade has increased, the two countries remain politically and culturally estranged. As far as most Canadians are concerned, Mexico is little more than a warm-weather tourist destination or a cheaper retirement alternative to Florida.
There was supposed to be more to it than this when NAFTA was signed in 1994. No one expected North America to turn into the EU overnight, but NAFTA was heralded as the first step toward the creation of a new, if still undefined, North American political community. By 2000, the continentalist energies were at their peak, with a great deal of public debate turning on the question of "NAFTA-plus." Would the next step be a common North American currency, an agreement on the free movement of labour, or even an outright customs union? Those were heady times.
The New York Times correspondent Anthony DePalma tried to capture this spirit with Here: A Biography of the New American Continent. Released in the summer of 2001, the book was an attempt at thematizing this emerging yet still inchoate continental identity. In its concluding pages, DePalma wrote: "Whenever I fill out an immigration form at an airport, I hesitate for a moment, just long enough to consider simply writing in the word 'here' for place of residence. I have come to feel like a Newlander, a citizen of North America, with all the opportunity for starting over that the concept entails."
The attacks of 9/11 put an unceremonious end to that kind of talk. The question we face now is what, if anything, might replace it? Assuming it is even plausible, is the idea of a North American identity the sort of thing we should welcome, and try to build upon? I asked a few Mexicans if they "felt North American," and was met with snorts of laughter. Mexicans, they replied, did not feel North American, nor did they feel Latin American. They were just Mexicans.(And weirdly proud of it: Mexicans must be the only people on earth who brag about the quality of the food on their national airline.)
They were right to laugh -- the question was fatuous. North America is first and foremost a geographical designation. Bolted as Mexico is to the southwestern half of the U.S., there is no question it is a North American country. But as for the question of identity, well, identities are only as good as the uses to which they are put.
In that light, what appears to unite Canadians and Mexicans is their instinctive but largely impotent anti-Americanism. Like Canadians, Mexicans know their economic, political, and even cultural future is umbilically tied to that of the U.S. Both countries retain a fair amount of foreign policy elbow room, with both Jean Chrétien and Vicente Fox declining to join George W. Bush's coalition of the willing for the invasion of Iraq. But in many ways, the waving of the elbows is just a way of drawing attention away from the fact that the torso is largely immobile.
It would be a shame if Mexicans and Canadians came to share nothing more than a half-heated resentment of the United States. The big risk we face now is not that North American integration is happening too quickly, but that it has ground to a halt.
Anthony DePalma's "Newlander" fantasy was always a bit much, the sort of thing only an American(or maybe just a reporter from the New York Times)could imagine. Yet DePalma also had a more modest hope, that his kids would one day be able "to consider a job opening in Manhattan, Montreal or Monterrey as just another opportunity." That is a dream well worth pursuing, and it is unfortunate that it remains a long way from Here.
Read Andrew Potter's weblog, Potter Gold
To comment, email email@example.com