Hundreds of Mexican ex-pats from across the U.S. gathered yesterday at the Renaissance Hotel to see President Felipe Calderón kick off the annual conference of the Institute for Mexicans Abroad, and the ballroom echoed with lively greetings and anticipatory chatting. Everyone was dressed for El Presidente, in suits and pressed shirts and bright ties. One woman wore a long, traditional Mexican dress, white with embroidered flowers in pink and orange.
Many of the conference-goers were talking about what they had planned to recommend to the group’s board -- and, not surprisingly, the treatment of Mexican immigrants was high on the list. Dallas activists Carlos Quintanilla and Rene Martinez spoke in the lobby about the recent raids at the poultry plant in Mount Pleasant. “We went out there last week and met with about 100 folks to hear what was going on,” said Martinez, a LULAC member and DISD staffer who planned to brief the Consul about the raids during the conference. “We met with two men who are American citizens who were falsely arrested -- it’s an environment of fear and intimidation.”
Inside the ballroom, where Tom Leppert introduced the president a short time later, Anne Marie Weiss-Armush of DFW International Community Alliance chatted with what seemed like the entire room. There were hugs and kisses all around and updates on relatives and friends.
Except for the flank of television cameras in back, it seemed more like a family reunion than a political event. Former LULAC president Hector Flores shook folks' hands on one side of the room, while, nearby, activist Luis de la Garza, wearing a navy pinstriped suit, entertained folks in the front row by nearly tripping and pratfalling over a chair.
And then the ballroom door opened; Calderón appeared, and the crowd fell silent. No more twittering about the weather or the long-awaited opening of the Mexican Consulate’s new Dallas headquarters or so-and-so’s shocking divorce (“It was like being just another beautiful object in his home!” one woman exclaimed to her friend behind me).
As Calderon walked into the room, accompanied by some half-dozen Mexican governors, everyone stood and clapped. The reverential reception was ironic, considering that for months after his election Mexico was gripped by violent protests and squatter’s camps because so many people despised him and were certain he stole the presidency from his populist opponent. But no matter: The mood was all positive, downright inspirational.
The coterie of politicians and state-side immigrant representatives satt down at a long table before an enormous backdrop printed with with an Aztec temple. Then Leppert began the litany of introductions and thank-yous and lengthy pontifications. Wearing a pink tie, a translation earpiece and that trademark long-chinned grin, the mayor was most definitely the palest guy in the room. At first he looked a little uncomfortable, but he nodded and smiled as he settled into this host role.
A panelist from San Antonio gave the most stirring speech, drawing the crowd to its feet. Standing at the podium in a red and black dress, Maria Antonieta Gonzalez asked the president to listen to her message “not as a message on paper, but as a message from the heart.” She lambasted the border wall for causing social chaos and environmental degradation.
“A physical wall won’t change the fact that Mexico exists side by side with the most powerful nation of our time,” she said, “and there are profound inequalities.”
“Mr. President,” she implored to wide applause, “Don’t forget the Dream Act!”
Since there’s little the Mexican government can do for its compatriots here while Congress fails to overhaul the country’s immigration laws, the requests were merely pleas for continued lobbying and diplomacy. Calderon took notes, smiled, nodded.
At one point, Gonzalez actually broke into song: “Naci en la frontera," she sang, which means, "I was born on the border.” And then she was suddenly defiant. “Where there’s a Mexican patriot, there’s Mexico!” She gave the president a compass in a wooden box. “Remember: We may be in El Norte, but our roots are in Mexico!”
Nearly an hour later, we were still listening to long, heartfelt speeches. Then, finally, the president took the podium and gazed out at this group, most of whom fled the country he now leads. They are an example, he saids, of struggle and courage.
“I admire you for the courage to risk everything to go to a land that’s not yours,” he said. He mentioned that earlier, he spoke with President Bush about the importance of trade and immigration to both their countries. Labor and capital, he said, are “like a shoe and a sock.” And then he walked that difficult line: While nodding toward the immigrants’ accomplishments and their importance, he also insisted he’s working hard to make sure that his people don’t have to leave their homes.
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“I don’t want to grow old watching Mexicans die swimming across the Rio Grande and crossing the desert,” he said. “We must work hard so that one day there isn’t one Mexican who has to leave his home."
The crowd was animated -- this was what they’d been waiting to hear. There was some scattered applause; nearly everyone was nodding.
“I miss you very much," he continued. "All of us in Michoacán have a relative, someone we know, on this side -- [eople we know we won’t see again until the law changes." He made his usual endorsement of increased, not decreased, trade “to achieve a stronger and more vibrant economy. ... We’ll keep working elbow to elbow, arm to arm, to make sure that Mexico is no longer a place that people have to flee from hunger.”
Big applause. Plenty of bravos. These things, after all, are what the immigrant advocates and business leaders are here to work toward this week. But, as with all political speeches and official fanfare, the question is what will actually happen. A friend of mine who is one of those who risked his life to come here from south of the border tells me he’s not impressed by Calderón's promises. “He didn’t convince me,” my friend told me later. “They always say the same things, but not much actually changes.” --Megan Feldman