Forget Trump’s boorish lies: Mexico’s not just misery. Neither is the US
One night in Tijuana - where thousands of desperate people are stranded - will disabuse you of the hateful hype about a migrant 'invasion'
Like so many other leaders who are full of sound and fury that signifies nothing, the greatest and saddest problem with Donald Trump is that he makes the world forget what the US can be. Since his rise to power in 2016, Trump has turned the US into a joke on the global stage.
His actions at the G20 Summit in Argentina this weekend underline the boorishness of the man. He rants and raves. He insults and obfuscates. He manufactures facts and figures to suit his agenda. He tells untruths.
He supports the likes of Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi Arabian leader who has a direct connection to the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, while coddling and encouraging dictators and anti-democrats from the Phillipines to Brazil. In Trumpland, everything looks venal and corrupted.
The problem is that the world is not like that. The US is not like that. It is far more complex, far more interesting, far more colourful, than the stark binaries he forces so many of us who write about him and his country to take.
Last weekend, migrants moving from Honduras through South America right up to Mexico arrived at the Mexico-US border in Tijuana. I am not sure that I should call them migrants, really. They are refugees.
Those who come from Honduras, the second-poorest country in Central America, are fleeing from criminals who harass, torture and extort them into paying an arbitrary “war tax”. If you don’t pay you are killed. Local government officials are either complicit or absent in these cases.
El Salvador is exactly the same. In Guatemala more than half of the country lives in poverty, and 23% lives in extreme poverty. People don’t want to leave their families. They have to leave them or die.
They were stopped, teargassed, and are now stuck in Tijuana. The story of Tijuana is now therefore all about Trump and his fearmongering that this is an “invasion”.
The real story of Tijuana is what I saw when I visited some friends in San Diego, California, a few weeks ago. San Diego is the highly dynamic American city across the border from Tijuana.
We decided to go out to dinner. It wasn’t just a meal out, but we were heading out to Tijuana, across the border in Mexico. This is how the Toronto Star describes it: “Hopping between TJ – as it is commonly known by locals in Mexico and California – and San Diego is a way of life, as residents on both sides of the border criss-cross for work, school, medical appointments and nightlife. Pursuits range from the divey to the thrifty in TJ: American teenagers partying on Avenida Revolucion; families stocking up on cheap groceries.”
This is the busiest border crossing in the world, with 300,000 people passing through each day. Yet that Saturday evening it was the swiftest crossing I have ever made across any border anywhere in the world – and believe me I have been through many. There were four adults and five kids. South Africans don’t need a visa. We showed our passports and were waved through in seconds.
We then took Uber rides from the very clean and efficient (and safe!) official pick-up point through to Boulevard Agua Caliente where we arrived at the rather oddly named Oryx Capital, one of the newest and hippest restaurants in Tijuana. I wasn’t quite convinced when I heard the name – it sounded like a hedge fund rather than a hip restaurant and bar.
But it was. Started by chef Ruffo Ibarra, it is a classy joint which also has an ultra-chic cocktail speakeasy, called Nortico, hidden at the back. You should see it. You want to have a drink in there and instantly feel like one of the world’s coolest people. But we were there for the food. And we were hungry and adventurous. We had tequila cocktails (the adults) and then fell into a feast of blackened squid, prawns with coriander, ceviche, duck, shredded lamb tacos – all of it absolutely delicious – while the children absolutely loved the macaroni and cheese.
Service was excellent despite the language barrier. Then we hopped back into a pair of Ubers and walked across the border to the US.
What I am saying is this: Don’t always believe the hype. Mexico is not just poverty and crime. It is people, it is restaurants, it is schools and excellence and happiness. It is not what Trump says it is: desperation and crime that should be stopped with a massive wall. It certainly is not that way in the Tijuana I visited a few weeks ago. The Tijuana I visited made me feel happy and whole.
And the US is not Donald Trump. It will survive him.