Mexico had enough going on before the US President began labeling its inhabitants “bad hombres” and suggesting we tear up NAFTA. And who can forget the wall? To get a more clear picture of what is going, FPI Content Fellow Jennie Spector sat down with FPI fellow Alice Driver.
Dr. Alice Driver is a longform journalist and and an international speaker who focuses on human rights, gender equality, and migration in Latin America. She is currently based in Mexico City, and is partnering with Longreads Originals to produce a series of investigative articles on migration in Central America.
Let’s say someone had never heard of Mexico. How would you describe the country’s background?
One of the things that has most marked Mexico is that the land in the country is largely owned by about 8 families. There is a real history of non-democratic patterns in the country. The PRI, the ruling party, has basically had monolithic ruling over the last 80+ years, with the exception of one election. So with very few people owning the country’s land and essentially only one party ruling, there’s a lot of potential for corruption, because there aren’t checks and balances.
Looking at Mexico culturally or in other ways, it’s a country that I fell in love with when I was 19. The food and the history, especially the wealth of indigenous cultures in different states, is quite amazing. I live in Mexico, and there are obviously really wonderful, rich, cultural traditions here. Unfortunately, many Mexican citizens have suffered from the lack of strong institutions and diverse political parties in power.
What are the biggest foreign policy challenges facing the country?
One is press freedom, of which there’s very little in the country. The main news outlets are state controlled to a high degree, so no one’s getting too much variety in terms of the news. I think that’s a big issue.
Corruption, and the rule of one party for so long, is another. For example, the candidate who presented himself for mayor of Mexico City is the cousin of President Peña Nieto. And the person who’s the mayor of Mexico City almost always becomes the president. You have President Peña Nieto currently in power, with his cousin next in line. It’s quite problematic, especially because Peña Nieto has had so many ethical issues during his tenure. Also, police officials, the army, and drug cartels are all working together because drug money is what’s allowing politicians to rule with an iron fist.
Finally, the weakness of Mexico’s institutions is another huge challenge, and it is the outcome of only having essentially one party in power. The judicial branch in Mexico is extremely weak. It has trouble processing cases, there’s backlog, and people accused of crimes rarely ever go to jail, statistically speaking. There’s an environment of immunity, which I’ve covered frequently in terms of violence against women.
How does your work address these challenges?
I’m lucky in that I publish mainly in English, so I don’t feel constrained by the mainstream Mexican media’s rules and norms. It gives me both freedom and, in the sense, protection, because Mexico is a country that is very dangerous for journalists. Mexican journalists do face repercussions if they report truthfully on difficult issues, like entanglements between drug cartels and politicians, things like that.
In my work, I try to tell stories that are marginalized that I feel wouldn’t necessarily get told in the mainstream media in Mexico. As for corruption and weak institutions, through the testimony of people who’ve experienced injustices, I try and show how the system is failing them and what can be done to make it better.
Tell me a bit about your work and the projects you’ve been working on.
Right now, I’m working on a series of articles on migration for Longreads.
I just finished the first article, which is about my experience living in a migrant shelter in Juárez, Mexico. I wanted to get a sense of what daily life is like for migrants. The main thing I learned while living in the migrant shelter is that every story I was told related to human trafficking. I think that people, especially in the United States, don’t think about migration with that lens. Migrants are fleeing extreme violence – threats against their families, against their children, against their own lives, domestic violence. They’re not going to stop migrating just because the US President says that he’s shutting down the border and building a wall. So what happens? They’re still migrating, but it’s more difficult to cross the border, which means that traffickers are involved, making a lot of money getting people across the border. In the mix, traffickers are also kidnapping people, funneling them into prostitution, into packing drugs, or sending them to work on coffee plantations – it’s a modern day slavery.
Migrants are traveling with nothing – they have no money, they don’t have any identifying documents. Seeing the degree to which all these stories related to human trafficking was a surprise, because it wasn’t what I initially thought I would be writing about.
Do you have any opinions or hopes for how you could see that issue in particular being addressed by the foreign policy community?
That’s a good question, because migration is obviously an issue everywhere – I would say that it’s the issue of our time. It’s not just the US-Mexico border that we’re talking about.
Unfortunately, it seems that many countries are opposed to migration regardless of the situation of individual migrants. I wish that countries would focus on the reasons that people are migrating and attempt to resolve those issues, rather than blaming their closest neighbor, saying that “Mexicans are violent” or “Central Americans are violent.” Instead, we should see migrants as people who’ve experienced violence and are fleeing it. Why would you blame those people for the problems in your country?
Ultimately, I think it requires a shift toward looking at the root of the problem when we discuss migration.
Being based in Mexico City, how has the area responded to the US shift in foreign policy?
The people I interact with on a daily basis, many have told me that they refuse to travel to the United States – not for vacations, not for anything. Previously, the US was a place where a lot of Mexicans want to travel – they wanted to visit the Grand Canyon, national parks, museums, things like that. I completely understand that shift.
I think that President Peña Nieto has had an interesting reaction to the US shift in foreign policy – he’s not very well liked, and has been surrounded by scandals in the past. When he met with Trump, I thought he would lay down the law and say “No, we’re never going to pay for a wall.” But he didn’t! He didn’t actually come out and say that. I don’t quite understand it.
Didn’t Peña Nieto have a couple of tweets that were very sassy, that went viral? But it sounds like when he actually had the opportunity to meet with Trump, what he’s been saying online didn’t match what he was willing to say in person?
Actually, because he didn’t say it in person, he tweeted it. After his and Trump’s meeting, Trump did a “yay, mexico is paying for the wall” tweet. Then Peña Nieto said “uh no, we’re not doing that.” But it’s pretty unbelievable that he didn’t say that first thing, in person.
You mentioned that you fell in love with Mexico when you were 19. How did that come about, and why did you choose to base yourself in Mexico City?
I was a Spanish major in college and I studied abroad in Mexico. I had two wonderful professors at Berea College in Kentucky who took me to Mexico as part of a class. I talked to them the other day and told them that they’re the reason I live here. For someone like me who loves Spanish language and culture, especially literature and film, there is no better place to be than Mexico City. The other day I ran into one of my favorite writers, Elena Poniatowska, in the street. I chased her down and told her I loved her work, and she invited me to lunch at her house. When I asked her what the most difficult part of writing so many books had been, she said, “The most difficult part wasn’t writing, it was conquering myself. That is always the most difficult part.”
What challenges and opportunities exist in Mexico?
There’s such an incredible wealth of stories to tell here. I’m drawn to stories that are off the beaten path. When we talk about reporting in Latin America, US outlets are always saying “it’s a violent hellhole, blah blah.” So for me, covering migration but covering it from a different angle, that’s the kind of thing I want to be able to do, to take a story and look at it from a different point of view. I also really like reporting and publishing in Spanish, and I think it’s really important as well, to do my work in both English and Spanish.
Do you notice any challenges or opportunities that exist around being a female journalist in Mexico?
I think the opportunity is that women, in terms of reporting anywhere, are underrepresented. Generally we make up 30% of TV appearances or major bylines, so it’s 70% men, let’s say, in general. The stories that are being told reflect that. I often cover women who are victims of violence, who are victims of human trafficking, and I can access those stories in a way that a man very likely cannot.
What advice do you have for fellow and upcoming interrupters?
The first thing I would say is to make peace with rejection, and to keep doing your work. There are so many men who are dominating the conversation who don’t live in the region, don’t speak the language, don’t have the experience. I think that women often have trouble with feeling confident, and ask themselves whether or not they should be speaking publicly. The answer: you should be speaking publicly, there’s such a lack of female voices on so many issues. It’s often a matter of persistence. I feel like I’m still trying and I’ve been doing this for a decade, working on writing and traveling and studying and language. You have to slowly put together something that works for you.
Any book/film recommendation for people hoping to learn more?
The photography book Plaza de la Soledad by Mexican photographer Maya Goded, as well as her documentary film by the same name that came out in 2017. Goded has spent the past decade living with and photographing sex-workers in La Merced area of Mexico City, and these two projects capture sex work with dignity.
Also, Las soldaderas: Women of the Mexican Revolution by Elena Poniatowska. It is important to rescue women’s crucial role in historical movements in Mexico, and Poniatowska does a brilliant job of this. Poniatowska, who is 84-years-old, is prolific, and I would recommend any of her books.
Reporter Melissa del Bosque’s, who covers US-Mexico border issues for The Texas Observer, has a forthcoming book Bloodlines: The True Story of a Drug Cartel, the FBI, and the Battle for a Horse Racing Dynasty. It is on my reading list.
Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay In 40 Questions by Mexican author Valeria Luiselli is a beautifully crafted essay that asks us to examine the refugee crisis and what it means to be an immigrant.
Throw us one or two non-FP related fun-facts that you feel people should know about Mexico or another country or the region as a whole.
1. There are 1.4 million citizens of African descent in Mexico, but the census didn’t recognize them until 2015. Jonathan Blitzer of the New Yorker wrote a profile of a photographer who made portraits of the Afro-Mexican community, and they are stunning: “We Are Not Used to People Thinking We Are Beautiful.”
2. Because Mexico has so many vibrant indigenous populations, the food in the country is incredibly rich and varied from region to region. In Oaxaca, I once profiled chef Andrew Zimmern and we ate chicatanas (large ants that are toasted and made into a salsa), as well as grasshoppers and a Zapotec drink called tejate.