Watching the first U.S. presidential debate as an American in Mexico City.
I was at a party organized by Democrats Abroad for the many anxious Americans currently living in Mexico City. Attendees were registered at the door and then herded toward a large, metal trailer, hollowed out to serve as a kitchen, where they ordered brisket and ribs and coleslaw. A giant American flag blazed across one wall. Next to it were three enormous, neon letters: BBQ. Dozens of picnic tables were crowded with American families and young Mexicans who had donned Hillary Clinton 2016 T-shirts, purchased for 150 pesos. That was about eight dollars when the debate began; it was a little more just two hours later as the value of the peso rose along with Clinton supporters’ spirits.
And in Mexico City, Clinton supporters abound. Last week, the mariachi singer Vicente Fernandez—winner of eight Latin American Grammys—came out of retirement to release a song called El Corrido de Hillary Clinton. The video for the song begins with a shot of horses running free through an open field before cutting to an image of Fernandez, in traditional mariachi garb, leaning jauntily on the fence of a fine country ranch. “Your voice is your vote,” he says with a smile. “Together we can do it!”
As he starts to sing, video clips of Clinton greeting Latino staff at restaurants, hospitals, and factories plays over his plaintive call to get out the vote: “I am Latino down to my bones and proud of it,” he sings, “and I’m here to remind you, brother, that we must go hand in hand until Hillary Clinton has secured her victory.”
Roughly eight million American citizens live abroad, a not inconsiderable voting bloc. Nearly a million of those live in Mexico, by far the largest in any single nation (the U.K. comes in second, with about 200,000, according to the 2011 census): expatriates, dual citizens, or citizens born in the U.S. to Mexican parents who have since returned to live and work south of the border. Nearly 200 of those voters came out on the night of the first presidential debate at the largest screening in Mexico City, held at a barbecue joint called El Pinche Gringo, or The Fucking Gringo. Leering from a half dozen screens positioned around the edges of a closed-in patio was the biggest fucking gringo of them all, and the evening’s main attraction: Donald Trump.
Though the event was technically non-partisan, as the restaurant’s owner made a point of telling me, there was no mistaking the mood of the crowd. To be in Mexico is to support Hillary Clinton; or, more precisely, to loathe the man that called residents south of the border rapists, murderers, and drug dealers, and generally blamed them for all the woes, imagined and otherwise, currently gutting the United States.
The first order of business was laying out rules for the evening’s drinking game, which were simple. “Any time a candidate says Mexico, we’ll raise our glasses and say salud!” said the restaurant’s owner. “If someone says wall, well, you can do what you want.”
Within Trump’s first couple of sentences (if his jumbled clauses, non sequiturs, and fanciful numbers pulled from the arithmetic ether can be called sentences) Trump lamented, “Our jobs are fleeing to Mexico.” Beers—of the craft variety, of course—were lifted skyward. The room erupted in cheers. Within the first five minutes, he must have said Mexico six times. The bar stayed busy for the better part of the next two hours.
In Mexico, Trump’s rise has been received with much the same mixture of amusement, followed by consternation, followed by horror, as it has in large swaths of the United States. But while Americans seem, above all, disheartened by the choice facing them in November, Mexicans have been galvanized.
Rarely before has Mexico played such a central role in the U.S. election cycle; never has a candidate essentially announced his candidacy by accusing the entire country of criminality, nor built the better part of his campaign on the premise that Mexico had stolen America’s prosperity through a trade deal that he classifies only as “a disaster.” Speaking on background the afternoon before the debate, another American reporter told me, “You will struggle mightily to find anyone who’s ambivalent.”
That state of affairs seems enviable. As Americans wearily wring their hands over a battle between the two least popular candidates in recent memory, and many claim to have no intention of voting at all, the people of Mexico have expressed their feelings in no uncertain terms. Last November, fully a year before the election itself, when Trump was still more a joke than a candidate, a play staged in Mexico City depicted him throwing glasses of water on waiters and blowing rails of cocaine. Months later, in March, during a traditional purgative ceremony on the night before Easter, papier mache effigies were burnt alongside images of demons and Judas, a dubious distinction usually awarded only to Mexico’s most loathed politicians. Since summer, Trump piñatas have become commonplace.
At El Pinche Gringo, the only image of Trump was the one on the screen. As the evening wore on and his insults—first to Mexico and then to the collective intelligence of his viewers—piled steadily on, that image was met not with bats or flames, but with jeers. “To be semi-exact,” Trump said, before the rest of his sentence was drowned out by a thrill of laughter. The bizarre accusation that hackers waging cyber warfare on the U.S. might have been obese agoraphobes—“someone sitting on their bed who weighs 400 pounds”—was met with an audible gasp. At a table at the front of the restaurant, representatives from Democrats Abroad registered voters next to a table piled high with Hillary Clinton 2016 T-shirts. At their last registration drive, one of the volunteers told me, they registered 100 voters for absentee ballots; as I left, a woman from Indiana who’s been in and out of Mexico for years was registering for her first ever absentee ballot. “This time, I couldn’t miss it,” she said.
But despite that unilateral support, people here are not entirely inspired by Clinton. Jose Manuel Ruiz, a human rights lawyer who’d come to the event out of general interest, told me after the debate had ended, “NAFTA is complicated and it concerns me that they’re both talking about renegotiating treaties without talking about the complexities of those treaties.” Cesar Flores, another human rights lawyer and a friend of Ruiz, told me he was frustrated by how little Trump seemed to know about the economic situation of the country he blames for stealing American jobs. “Many of the factories that opened up north and made it prosperous have started to close down, too. We’ve also lost jobs to China.” Both preferred Clinton, of course, but worried that she would represent a continuation of policies that favored friendly discourse praising diversity and cosmopolitanism but that would continue Obama’s policies of mass deportation.
Trump would be torture
The crowd at El Pinche Gringo is in high spirits, but the Trump joke has worn thin. Shortly after Trump’s September visit to Mexico at the invitation of Mexico’s much-reviled president, Enrique Peña Nieto, a center-left senator named Armando Rios Piter introduced legislation that would make it illegal to use public funds on Trump’s border wall, that would enable retaliatory actions were Trump to confiscate or ground remittances to Mexico, and, most impressively, would allow the Mexican government to review all treaties and agreements ever made between the U.S. and Mexico, including the 1848 Treaty that ended the Mexican-American War and turned over half a million acres of land in the southwest to the United States.
Even in a country largely inured to corrupt leaders and incompetent leadership (ask people what they think about Peña Nieto or read up on previous presidents, like Carlos Salinas), Trump’s ascendancy is entirely incomprehensible. On my ride home, my driver, Alfredo, described Peña Nieto as an idiot and said, with a bored shrug, “I have friends who I grew up with who work in government, and even they say it’s all money and corruption.” I asked what he thought of our election, who he would support if he could vote. He didn’t hesitate. “Trump would be torture. Hillary would affect Mexicans less.”
Not the highest bar, perhaps, but a bar nonetheless.