c o m m e n t a r
Why Some Mexicans Have Mixed Emotions About 9-11
by John Ross | September 19,
The two terror attacks on New York City and Washington, DC, have touched Mexico in many curious ways.
How many Mexicans are buried beneath the rubble of the World Trade Center
may never be determined.
A dozen kitchen helpers who worked in the 107th floor "Windows on
the World" restaurant are missing, and as many as 500 are thought
to have toiled in and around the twin skyscrapers that were dismembered
by a kamikaze attack on Black Tuesday, Sept. 11.
The Mexican consulate has no census of its countrymen and women who worked
at the toppled towers, but given the swelling Mexican population in New
York City, the numbers are sure to devastate feeder communities back home.
MEXICAN MIGRANTS, COMMUNITIES AFFECTED
At least a quarter of a million Mexicans have migrated to the New York
City area in the past decade from the dirt-poor altiplano of south-central
Mexico–Puebla, Tlaxcala, and Oaxaca states–to become the fastest growing
minority in a city of minorities.
Many who arrive are undocumented workers who survived deadly desert treks
across the border, the persecution of immigration authorities, and the
disorientation of a 3,000-mile passage to the First World.
Mexicans become part of a city that is run, built, and served by immigrants–and
the sons, daughters, and grandchildren of immigrants who preceded them
to its islands.
Like those who came before them, they begin to make their livings from
the bottom rung: washing cars and dishes, sewing all day in below-minimum-wage
sweatshops, slaving as off-the-books day laborers and kitchen workers,
or stocking the shelves of 24-hour Korean-owned green grocers that dot
the Manhattan area.
Many work as night cleaners in the shimmering financial complexes like
the doomed World Trade Center at the southern tip of Manhattan Island.
A few years back, this reporter was covering a wild carnival fiesta in
a small Tlaxcala town, Papalotla, when a young man approached wearing
an "I Survived the World Trade Center Bombing" tee-shirt.
Indeed he had.
Manuel had been slapping sandwiches together in a delicatessen on the
subway level when Bin Laden’s great fertilizer bomb went off in 1993.
I worry that he did not survive the second.
LOSS OF LIVES DAMPENS SPIRIT
Mexico’s Independence Day fiestas Sept. 15 and 16 were more somber than
in previous years, and celebrants jumped skittishly whenever a firecracker
The traditional military parade proved a painful reminder that Mexico’s
neighbor to the north is on the brink of war.
In his weekly radio broadcast, Mexican President Vicente Fox suggested
that the loss of Mexican lives in New York made Mexico a part of the U.S.
Fox, who, ironically, was speaking at Mexico City’s own relatively low-slung,
28-story World Trade Center on the morning the building’s Manhattan mates
were leveled, called the terror attacks "a crime against humanity."
He extended his condolences and moral support to his good friend, U.S.
President George W. Bush, who, just a week before Black Tuesday changed
the world forever, was entertaining the Mexican president at a gala White
House state dinner.
Fox’s support of Washington was backed up by his whip-tongued foreign
minister, Jorge Castañeda, a dark-horse candidate to succeed his
boss in Los Pinos, the Mexican White House.
Justifying what he called the U.S.’ "right to revenge" during
an appearance before the Mexican Congress, Castañeda was accused
by the opposition majority of "annexing" Mexico’s foreign policy
to the Yankees.
But many Mexicans clearly do not display the same compassion as Fox and
Castañeda for the policies of the government to the north, a world
power that has invaded, annexed, and vexed Mexico for four centuries.
For a lot of Mexicans, despite the North American Free Trade Agreement
(NAFTA) and the Fox-Bush embraces, the United States of North America
remains the bully of the neighborhood.
MEDIA COVERAGE STRESSES IDEALOGICAL IMPLICATIONS
Chilangos, as Mexico City residents are called, followed the malignant
events of Black Tuesday step-by-step as the two main TV networks transmitted
CNN saturation coverage with Mexican anchor men and women providing local
Some of the commentators, such as Televisa’s Joaquín López
Dóriga, unsuccessfully sought to conceal their mirth as the twin
towers crumpled to earth. "The symbol of world economic power is
no more," Dóriga yapped excitedly as re-runs showed the destruction
on a seemingly endless tape loop.
Later, the star newscaster would boast that prior to this terrorist version
of Pearl Harbor, only Mexico had ever had the audacity to attack the United
States on its own turf, remembering how Pancho Villa invaded Columbus,
NM, for a few hours during the Mexican Revolution.
The devastation depicted on the TV screens looked remarkably like the
destruction wrought by the 1985 killer 7.8 earthquake here in Mexico City,
which buried unknown thousands of people beneath the rubble of ill-constructed
buildings, prompting the capital media to loudly lament the loss of life.
But in this case, not only the middle-of-the-road television broadcasts
but also the left-leaning media expressed veiled satisfaction over the
synchronized assault on the symbols in New York and Washington.
La Jornada , the national left-center daily, editorialized that,
while it could not endorse the slaughter the paper well understood its
root causes–multiple U.S. crimes against the world.
The influential publication devoted pages to the 1993 Oklahoma City federal-building
bombing, which killed 163 and is attributed to right-wing militia operative
Timothy McVeigh and his associates, in an effort to raise the possibility
that the U.S. had actually bombed itself.
Columnists cited the U.S. role in the 1898 blow-up of the battleship
Maine in Havana harbor, the 1964 "incident" in the Gulf of Tonkin
that served as pretext for the first bombings of the Vietnam war, and
the Nazi-set fire in the German Reichstag of 1935 as circumstantial evidence
of U.S. complicity in the events of Black Tuesday.
CAPITAL RESIDENTS’ REACTION, A COMPLEX MIX
In the streets, initial reaction ranged from shocked sadness over the
waste of civilian lives to revelry over the destruction of the icons of
I sat at my desk in the old quarter of Mexico City, staring in horror
at the fuzzy images of the disaster. Suddenly, a brass band from impoverished
Oaxaca state began to aggressively toot its horns beneath my balcony,
as if in celebration.
Many Mexicans sent messages of sympathy to their U.S. friends, supposing
that their grief was worse than that at home.
Meanwhile, one activist got so giddy that he went to the U.S. Embassy
on Reforma Boulevard and handed out a list of Yankee imperialist war crimes
that included Hiroshima and the genocide of North American Indians. In
the new spirit of Mexican democracy, police promptly hauled him off.
I ran into Pepe G. in the Vascona Bakery. I know Pepe from years of covering
demonstrations in which he often participates in the great central plaza
a few blocks away.
He was grinning from ear to ear. "How beautiful!" he said.
Pepe did not mean the bread rings and the pineapple tarts and the creampuffs.
He meant he was glad that someone had finally dealt a major blow to the
Colossus of the North. "What balls the pilots had!" he marveled.
Such reactions may feel callous and off-the-cuff, but they are nonetheless
rooted in the history of mistreatment Latin America has had at Uncle Sam’s
And while many Mexicans make a clear distinction between U.S. policy
and the U.S. people, just as they do regarding Mexico’s policy and its
people, their resentment can sometimes be transmitted at the personal
EXPRESSIONS ROOTED IN HISTORY OF U.S. DOMINATION
I have been covering social strife in Latin America for many years. I
am tall, white, and often distrusted and looked at as the gringo
enemy by the short brown people whose stories I am relating.
Indeed, when the compañeros are friendly, I get suspicious. Their
resentment, part historical, part class, and part race, is understandable
and always included as subtext to my reportage.
Whenever Tío Sam stomps his seven-league boots on the sensitive
tissues of Latin America, the hatred bursts white hot.
Because of that, I watched my back during 1961’s Playa Girón,
which the Yankees fittingly tag the Bay of Pigs, and when the CIA and
Bolivia’s current ambassador to Mexico Gary Prado captured and executed
Che Guevara in the Bolivian outback Oct. 8, 1967.
When a lame news boy hobbled aboard a Cuzco-bound train in Peru in 1986,
hawking a paper headlined "Yanks Kill Quadaffi’s Baby!" the
anger in my fellow-passengers’ eyes was unmistakable.
And tension sat at the counter of the Cafe La Blanca on the morning former
U.S. President George Bush Sr. took it upon himself to invade Panama back
This Sept. 11, the younger President Bush was much too preoccupied to
reflect upon the fact that the terrorist attack on the United States took
place on exactly the same date as the 1973 overthrow of the legally elected
Allende government in Chile by Henry Kissinger and the CIA, an event that
was accompanied by its own share of lost human lives.
The terrorists’ revenge for perceived U.S. crimes against the rest of
the world and the unbelievable loss of life that accompanied it reveals,
like an x-ray, the empire’s vulnerability. And that is going to change
relations–among them, Mexican-U.S. relations–very quickly.
MEXICO’S CONCERNS FORGOTTEN
Just days ago, Fox and Bush were locked in a long, loving embrace and
the U.S. president was toasting Mexico as "our most important foreign
relation." But in the light of the perceived loss of U.S. world control,
Bush is going to forget Fox fast.
So Mexico’s hopes for Fox’s push for U.S. immigration reform may as well
be forgotten, too. Immigration restrictions do not loosen up when xenophobia
rages in the United States, as it has been in the past few days.
And although Bush has vowed to veto any congressional legislation that
bars Mexican trucks from plying North American highways–a privilege granted
by NAFTA that the U.S. government has not honored–Mexican carriers will
not be crossing the militarized U.S. border in the foreseeable future.
In fact, as I write these lines, the free transfer of goods and services
across that border has slowed to an unprofitable crawl, due to beefed
up boundary security in the wake of the attack.
And forget about the United States and Mexico as partners in economic
prosperity. The blasts that toppled the twin towers [also] torpedoed economies
already in free fall–Mexico being just one example, with a stock market
decline of 10 points in the two weeks prior to Black Tuesday.
Now the terrorist attack will cripple tourism, Mexico’s second source
of dollars; it already has helped drive one of the nation’s two airlines
to the edge of bankruptcy.
In the coming months, economic recession and psychic depression are going
to sink bilateral relations.
Yes Pepe, symbols of U.S. militarism and the globalization of greed have
crumbled into dust. But untold thousands of people, many of them working
people and people of color, including an unknown number of Mexicans, had
to die for it.
John Ross, author of The War Against Oblivion–Zapatista Chronicles
and Against Amnesia , a new chapbook of poetry, is a frequent
contributer to borderlines .
This commentary is a product of the Interhemispheric
Resource Center’s Americas Program .
All rights reserved.
Recommended citation: “Why
Some Mexicans Have Mixed Emotions About 9-11,” Americas Program Commentary,
(Silver City, NM: Interhemispheric Resource Center, September 19, 2001).
Web location: http://www.americaspolicy.org/commentary/2001/up010911.html