How Mexicans See the U.S. and Trump
The border fence is ‘a visible example of national paranoia,’ author Paul Theroux says. Yet he thinks Americans are right to be afraid.
By Tunku Varadarajan
Sept. 27, 2019 5:58 pm ET
If Paul Theroux’s new book on Mexico is a commercial success, he’ll have Donald Trump to thank for it. But the initial inspiration came from a young man who worked in a doctor’s office.
In 2014 Mr. Theroux visited a clinic in this Cape Cod town, where he spends his summers. The assistant who registered him made an instant and irksome impression. “ ‘Take a seat, Paul,” Mr. Theroux quotes him. “ ‘Fill in these forms, Paul. The doctor will see you shortly, Paul.’ It was Paul, Paul, Paul.”
Mr. Theroux, 78, recalls the incident with somewhat startling venom: “I’m in my 70s. I said to myself: ‘Why are you calling me by my first name, you punk?’ ” A stickler for life’s little formalities, he wanted to be addressed as Mr. Theroux. “I’d observed for years that the whole of American life caters to the 18- to 35-year-olds,” he says. “Books, music, education, TV shows, movies—it’s all for them.” Youth have become “empowered by their spending, and that’s created a kind of contempt for older Americans.”
He decided to get out of the U.S. and go somewhere with “a little more respect” for the elderly. He chose Mexico. In the course of seven road trips, each lasting six weeks, he took an old man’s delight in being addressed by everyone as Don Pablo.
The first trip was in 2016, when Mr. Trump had captured the American stage with his unflattering talk of Mexicans. “I’m working on a novel at the moment,” Mr. Theroux says, “and I put it away to take these trips. Because when Trump was talking about Mexico, I thought, ‘He’s going to sell my book. He’s my marketing guru.’ ”
Mr. Theroux, perhaps the hardest-working man of letters in the English-speaking world, has only rarely met a country he didn’t turn into an ebullient tome. His sojourns south yielded “On the Plain of Snakes,” out early next month. It’s his 56th book.
He describes the border as a surreal place. At McAllen, Texas, “you see the big fence. It looks like a prison fence. It’s the visible edge of the country.” He notes, however, that it is “easily climbed over or tunneled under,” making it a mere “symbol of exclusion rather than anything practical.”
America fears its southern neighbor, Mr. Theroux says. “There were people in Tucson”—Arizona’s second-largest city, 65 miles by car from the border at Nogales—“who’d never crossed to the other side.” Americans are “afraid of getting sick, stranded or robbed” in Mexico. A burly biker near McAllen told him, “No way am I going to cross that border. Mexicans would steal my bike and [expletive] me up.” Another biker said: “Driving into Mexico? You must be out of your mind, man. Don’t go there! You’ll die!”
In the book, Mr. Theroux calls the McAllen border fence “a visible example of national paranoia.” He says Americans are right to be afraid. The U.S.-Mexico border is “the front line of a war—a drug war, a turf war, a migrant war. . . . The cartels are in Houston, they’re in San Diego, wherever there’s money to be made.”
Opinion: Crossing Mexican Border Was an ‘Adventure’ Says Paul Theroux
His latest source of ghoulish fascination is the avocado cartels. Nineteen people were murdered last month in the western city of Uruapan by gangs seeking control of the business. “Can you imagine?” Mr. Theroux exclaims. “It’s guacamole that we’re talking about, but they’re beheading people.”
So yes, he says, “a lot of the questions Trump raises are fair questions. They’re not stupid questions. It’s just that he doesn’t have answers.” For one thing, while “it’s obvious that greater border security is needed,” a wall won’t work. The U.S. needs “sophisticated apprehension.”
It also needs less inflammatory rhetoric: “Stop harping on Mexico, stop bashing Mexicans. Mexico is capable of great friendship,” he says when asked what he’d tell the president if he had a meeting. “Worry about immigration, by all means—illegal immigration is a problem. But consciously or unconsciously, you’re making this a racial issue, and you shouldn’t.” He’d like Mr. Trump to “make a friend of Mexico in order to control the cartels. There’s no way we can control the drug trade without having Mexico on our side as an ally. . . . Stop the demonizing. They’re not demons.”
Mr. Theroux is also critical of the Democrats. “I’d like to sit down with Bernie Sanders, with Joe Biden, with Hillary Clinton. When Hillary said, in effect, ‘Let them all in,’ I said, ‘Yeah, really? Put them up in your house! Your daughter has a $10 million apartment in New York—there might be room for some there.’ ” Mrs. Clinton, he says, had no answer to America’s immigration problem. “It’s why people voted for Trump. And if he talks about border security in a serious way, he’ll be re-elected, because the Democrats haven’t come up with a solution.”
Some of them even deny there’s a problem. Mr. Theroux scoffs at the suggestion made by 2020 candidate Julián Castro to decriminalize unauthorized border crossings. “The idea of open borders—that this is America and we’re going to embrace you—is nonsensical. You need to regulate the border,” he says. “I don’t think people should walk across, swim across—that’s chaos. You can’t run a country that way.”
He observes that not all aliens making illegal crossings come from Latin America. They include “Syrians, Chinese, Nigerians, Pakistanis, Indians,” who pay “$30,000, $40,000” to smugglers to get them into the U.S. via Mexico. The cartels chafe under the harsh penalties for smuggling drugs. “Look no further than El Chapo,” Mr. Theroux says. “He’s done for.” In July a New York federal judge sentenced Joaquín Guzmán, former head of the Sinaloa cartel, to life in prison. It’s shrewd to diversify: “Human traffickers? You might get five years, 10 years at the most. Maybe not even that.”
He characterizes the U.S.-Mexico border as “a semipermeable membrane—we can go across but they can’t come the other way.” It’s a “piece of cake” for him to cross into Mexico, but “hell” for Mexicans seeking to come north: “There were people sitting in Nogales—I met them everywhere—thinking, ‘I used to live in California, I used to live in Poughkeepsie [N.Y.], I was a chef in Philadelphia, and I got kicked out.’ ” Some have girlfriends, children and houses in America and no real roots in Mexico. “They can’t get back. They look through the slats in the fence. They look across at the Emerald City. It’s a torment.”
As we speak, we look out on an expansive garden—tended, like other green spaces in this moneyed part of Massachusetts, by crews of Mexican immigrants. There’s a swimming pool, in which the trim Mr. Theroux does scores of laps each morning. His writing has afforded him material success. On one recent trip to Mexico, he offered a two-week workshop—gratis—to young local novelists.
“They weren’t just aspiring creative-writing students,” he says. “They were published novelists, and very good ones.” In a class of 28, only one had never been to the U.S. Mr. Theroux was struck by how few of them wrote about the impoverished parts of Mexico, “where the per capita income is the same as Bangladesh.” In the Mexican literary tradition, he says, “almost no one writes about the rural areas. There’s no William Faulkner, no Wright Morris, no Robert Frost. ”
So he told his class, “If you want to do something, go live in a small village in Chiapas. Live there like a Peace Corps volunteer, and write about the people there.” Mexico City, he says, is connected “more to the big world than to the hard-up hinterland”—a description that may sound familiar to observers of U.S. political culture.
As for his own politics, Mr. Theroux calls himself “a disappointed Democrat.” He’s also a heterodox one. “In my dark moments,” he says, “I think of government as a gang, running a protection racket they call taxation.” He also describes himself as “a gun-owning independent,” and he practically purrs as he shows me his Beretta 92FS pistol with a custom grip. His favorite politicians are dead, and he tells me their names in quirky pairs: Abraham Lincoln and Patrice Lumumba, the Congolese leader; Winston Churchill and Lázaro Cárdenas, Mexico’s president in the 1930s; Franklin D. Roosevelt and Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister.
Mr. Theroux reels off a list of opinions—all of which, bar the last, would place him in the Republican mainstream: “Washington is a swamp. The Chinese are eating our lunch. Towns all over America have lost their local industries. Chain migration seems unregulated, bridges and roads need serious repair, spending is out of control, and climate change is real.”
Mr. Trump has “called attention to much of this, but has done nothing to fix any of it.” Who will? “No one I see running for president on either side,” Mr. Theroux answers. “But I’ll vote for the person who looks capable of doing it.”
What do ordinary Mexicans think of the U.S. president? “They don’t like Trump,” Mr. Theroux says, “and they don’t like the things he’s saying. But they have serious issues with their own judiciary, with some very corrupt politicians, and their police.”
Americans in Mexico “tend to apologize for Donald Trump. We say, ‘It’s terrible, the things he’s saying.’ ” Yet on the road in Chihuahua or Guerrero or Oaxaca, he found that Mexicans worry about Mexico: “They don’t spend much time lamenting the abuses of the American government.”
Mr. Varadarajan is executive editor at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.