by Jason Frerichs
It’s generally thought that the older a person gets, the more conservative they become. Winston Churchill famously said, “Show me a young Conservative and I’ll show you someone with no heart. Show me an old Liberal and I’ll show you someone with no brains.” The idea is that as you age you acquire wealth. This causes you to lose your idealism because you now have “skin in the game.” I guess I never got that memo. As I’ve gotten older I’ve earned a degree, obtained some credentials, and now have a very solid skill set and resume. I still seem to be moving further and further to the left. I have the typical Iowa City liberal upbringing. Both my parents are degree holders who worked for the University of Iowa. They are very left wing. Iowa City is the most left-leaning city in Iowa. I was encouraged to think critically and read as many books as I could get my hands on. The neighborhood I grew up was like the UN. It was mostly young families starting out and grad students. I played with kids from all over the world.
In 2002, I moved to South Padre Island, Texas. In addition to being a Spring Break hotspot, it’s only 20 miles from Matamoros, Mexico. I decided that since I was living so close to the border it would be tragic if I didn’t take advantage of this opportunity to learn Spanish. I immediately got a job waiting tables at a very nice seafood place right on the Laguna Madre Bay. I spent two days learning the Spanish words for all the items in the restaurant and the proper questions to ask to take an order. I started venturing into Matamoros on a regular basis and striking up conversations with anyone willing to talk to me. One day I ended up in a 30-minute conversation while I was waiting for my truck to be washed. It suddenly dawned on me that I could actually speak Spanish. I took a Spanish 101 course to polish my grammar and I was ready to travel.
During my various trips, I really got off the beaten path. The most remote place I went to was a little mountain town of about 1500 people, La Defensa, Veracruz. It’s about a 20-minute bus ride to the closest city, Martinez de la Torre. For the first time, I saw the crushing poverty of a rural town in a developing nation. I spent several nights in a house with a partial dirt floor. I learned what a “bucket bath” is. By this time, I was proficient in Spanish so I started talking to people and asking questions. I learned that a large number of the town’s able-bodied men were in the United States, earning money to send back to their families. This money was used to educate children, build homes, and start small businesses. I questioned how these missing father figures impacted the familial structure. I learned both through research and from talking to Mexican families the disastrous impact NAFTA had on small family farms. NAFTA flooded the market with cheap imports, small family farms were unable to break even, let alone turn a profit. It quickly became a choice of starvation or illegally crossing a border. This really opened my eyes and forced me to question and research what exactly happened during the Clinton Administration. Once I learned the truth and saw first-hand how bad this trade deal was, my opinion of the Clinton Administration completely changed. These trade deals are harmful. Many aspects of his presidency were harmful.
Another reason that issue is very personal for me is that I married into a Mexican family. Even though we are no longer together, my ex-wife remains one of my closest friends. She is from a very rural village about three hours north of the Puerto de Veracruz. I met people from her village that had come to the US as undocumented immigrants. I met people who were sending money home to build a house a piece at a time. I met people who were saving up to have enough tuition to pay for college. I met people who sent money home in order to start a small business. Most jobs in rural Veracruz are through the informal economy. There aren’t any benefits or wage protections. I met people who lived on less than $200 a month so they would send most of their money back home. The undocumented people I met were the most undefeated of the poor. They embodied what we’ve been taught is the American dream.
Due to NAFTA, two million Mexican farmers have been forced to leave their farms, wages have fallen, and the price of consumer goods has increased. Twenty Million Mexicans live in food poverty. This policy has harmed millions of working class Mexicans. For what? So a wealthy bi-national conglomerate can line its pockets while people starve? Our greed and our corruption have harmed our Southern neighbors. The increase in poverty has led to an increase in organized crime. Many of the young children fleeing to the US border are doing so to escape gang violence. There is a saying that when the US sneezes, Mexico catches a cold. Our own mismanagement of resources, combined with the failure of NAFTA, has caused great harm to the Mexican economy. The rejection of Neoliberalism must be part of a world-wide political revolution.
Chair of the Iowa Democratic Party Progressive Caucus