PUERTO VALLARTA, Mexico — In repudiation of U.S. President Donald Trump, locals plastered the downtown bandshell last weekend with posters. Starring Trump, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, the border wall and migrants, the messages stirred a far different mood than the joyous vibe orchestrated by the musicians who kick out danza music for couples dancing under the moonlight. One cartoon depicted Trump wielding a club alongside a swastika.
Remaining into the week, the posters attracted passerby with somber looks on their faces. “I don’t think Mexico should pay,” declared onlooker Maria Jesus de Rodriguez, in reference to the border wall. “I don’t think it should divide two beautiful brother countries.”
A life-long resident of Puerto Vallarta, Rodriguez was visibly pained by the images and words charting the present course of U.S.-Mexico relations. “(Foreigners) are welcome to Vallarta. There has to be ties of friendship,” the elderly woman said. “We have to ask God that all comes out well. We have to have faith.”
Fourteen-year-old Ruben Tovar also surveyed the posters. “It’s a very bad thing about Trump. He shouldn’t run the Mexicans out,” Tovar contended, adding that an uncle is threatened with deportation from Utah. Trump, the border wall and immigration are topics informally talked about among his classmates, he said. In 2017, Ruben and his classmates are getting hard lessons in current events that weren’t planned as part of the official curriculum.
Trump’s presidency has struck a raw nerve in Puerto Vallarta. For better of worse, the Mexican Pacific coastal resort and the U.S. share a million bonds. Puerto Vallarta, for instance, enjoys sister city relationships with Santa Barbara, Calif., and Highland Park, Ill.
While large colonies of U.S., Canadian and other expats have settled in the city and greater Banderas Bay region, many locals like Ruben Tovar have relatives who’ve migrated to the U.S. In Vallarta these days, one can spot anti-Trump T-shirts and hear a local rock band popular among both Mexicans and foreigners belt out a version of a Molotov song insulting Trump and Peña Nieto. A restaurant sign in the tourist-saturated, white-hued Olas Altas district boasts, “The Best Damn Burger This Side of Trump’s Wall.”
Mexico vibrates, not explodes
The Trump-inspired scenes in Puerto Vallarta constitute a slice of Mexican national sentiment, which was awkwardly expressed on the streets in polemical demonstrations held on Sunday. In Mexico City, two separate initiatives organized by middle- and upper-class organizations and individuals grappled not only with the goal of denouncing Trump but whether to incorporate demands against the administration of Peña Nieto as well.
One of the movements, Vibra Mexico, was supported by the rector of the National Autonomous University of Mexico, Enrique Graue, who quickly came under fire by some faculty and students for not adequately consulting the university community prior to signing on UNAM with Vibra Mexico. A second grouping, fronted by prominent anti-crime activist Isabel Miranda Wallace, drew widespread criticism for its pro-government posture.
To varying degrees, both movements subsequently tried to distance themselves from the Mexican president, arguing that their marches were for a nation as a whole and not a particular individudal. Ultimately, Vibra Mexico incorporated general demands of curbing poverty and internal corruption. “Beyond the discrepancies, it’s indispensable to massively repudiate Trump,” wrote La Jornada columnist Gustavo Gordillo, who said he would march in spite of the controversies and contradictions swirling around the demonstration.
Yet the biggest Sunday marches in Mexico City (18,000-20,000) and Guadalajara (15,000), according to Mexican media reports, paled in comparison to the nationwide protests staged last month against the Peña Nieto administration’s gasoline price hike and other policies. As it turned out at last weekend’s anti-Trump actions, demands for Peña Nieto’s ouster were heard, while Isabel Miranda was forced to flee the Mexico City march after she was confronted by angry demonstrators.
In an unusual practice for commercial television, Milenio ran pre-demonstration sports for Vibra Mexico, but wound up giving a negative review to anti-Trump Sunday.
Milenio News anchor Azucena Uresti began a broadcast talking about the recent immigration arrests in the U.S. and “the climate of terror” descending on migrants there, but soon led into Milenio News’ coverage that concluded Vibra Mexico fell short of expectations. “It showed disunity in the face of Trump’s attacks,” pronounced a reporter.
“I am honestly worried,” wrote columnist Jose Pablo Ruiz in Puerto Vallarta’s Tribuna de la Bahia newspaper. “If Trump can’t unite us, I don’t know what will wake up this great country so it will come together around what we all are: Mexicans.”
Noticeably absent from the mobilizations were the militant teachers’ union, small farmers, popular organizations and indigenous communities which form the backbone of Mexican protest politics. The new Mexican nationalism that’s simmering in like a good hot caldo de res, or beef stew, has yet to finish cooking.
The Mexican presidential election comes to the U.S.
Sunday was also the occasion for the effective kick-off of the 2018 Mexican presidential election — in California. On that day, early frontrunner Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador took his roadshow to Olvera Plaza, the historic heart of Los Angeles’ Mexican community.
Speaking to a crowd of hundreds, Lopez Obrador tailored his speech both to the ages and contemporary times, beginning with a quote from the Bible about not exploiting the humble workers and the poor. Humanity is grounded in migration, the presidential hopeful said, starting with the first humans who left Africa for other continents.
In hard-hitting comments sprinkled with references to Hitler and the Jews, AMLO, as he is called in Mexico, tore into Trump and denounced outbreaks like the incident in Texas when a couple scrawled an anti-Mexican message on their restaurant tab. The former Mexico City mayor criticized economic inequality and stagnation in both the U.S. and Mexico, blaming it in part for Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton.
“If it were true that the North American Free Trade Agreement only benefited Mexico, our economy might not be stagnant and there might not be migration,” the former Mexico City mayor said.
Delving into the annals of U.S. history, Lopez Obrador praised the likes of Franklin Roosevelt, Martin Luther King and Cesar Chavez. The leader of Mexico’s Morena party announced plans to defend migrants in El Norte, the formation of outreach committees to the U.S. public, and his intention to back a human rights complaint against the Trump administration in the United Nations if the Mexican government does not do it first.
Lopez Obrador has plans to visit other U.S. cities in the coming weeks, including an expected visit to the border city of El Paso, Texas, during the first week of March. He was accompanied at his Los Angeles appearance by Father Alejandro Solalinde, a leading defender of migrants in Mexico.
Power to the people
For some, Sunday’s marches were a distraction from the mass movement against the Peña Nieto administration that arose after a 20 percent gasoline price hike, known as the gasolinazo, went into effect on Jan. 1. Fernando Sanchez, an activist in Puerto Vallarta with the anti-gasolinazo movement, called the recent media and government focus on Trump a “smokescreen” to conceal the gasolinazo and suppress the movement surrounding it.
Sanchez and other supporters of Vallarta Unido, new civil society activist group that opposes the gasolinazo and proclaims independence from political parties, expressed support for the struggles of Mexican migrants and disgust at the “racism and xenophobia” of Trump, but stressed that their fight is at home.
“We believe that if we are well on the inside, there won’t be a necessity for Mexicans to migrate to other countries, especially the U.S.,” Sanchez said. “The first step is to have the Mexican government do things right. We are upset about the gasolinazo.”
Half-jokingly another man said, “Let’s hang our own first, and then Trump.”
At its essence, the anti-gasolinazo movement cuts far deeper than anger over pricier gasoline. Higher gas prices mean steeper costs for other basic products movement, activists say. Government corruption, human rights violations and the growing divergence between wages and the cost of living are other core grievances.
Meeting in the parking lot of a Sam’s Club, Sanchez and about 20 other members of Vallarta Unido spent Sunday combining consciousness-raising and direct action with what they term “peaceful civil resistance.” One activist carried a sign: “Education is the vaccine against violence and ignorance.”
Splitting into groups, activists fueled up at different PEMEX gasoline stations and the politely refused to pay the approximately 36 percent of their bills that goes to taxes. Conversing with gas station workers and managers, resisters explained their reasons for withholding the portion of the bill dedicated to government taxes. At one station, the female attendant was perplexed by the action.
“This is nothing against you. We are against the people at the top,” resister Fatima Bedollo told the woman worker. Soon, a supervisor, Benjamin Rodriguez appeared. “We can’t do this because the manager is not here… if you don’t pay, (the workers) will have to,” Rodriguez said.
“In the final analysis, we are helping you all out too,” Bedollo retorted. “I always fill up here. If gas goes up on February 15, I can’t give (the female attendant) a tip.”
Like other resisters, Bedollo gave the gas station employees her election identification card and personal phone number in case the manager decided to take a hard line, vowing Vallarta Unido would provide support employees if management held them responsible for the 36 percent withheld. After more dialogue, smiles flashed and Bedollo and fellow resisters drove off from their successful action.
At another PEMEX station, outsourced to the Alfaro Group, things did not go quite as smoothly. A lengthy standoff ensued when the operators threatened to charge the activists with robbery and several police units showed up, briefly hemming in a score of resisters.
“Who is your leader?” demanded a municipal police commander. “All of us,” the group shot back.
Vallarta Unido justified its action by producing copies of papers based on the Mexican Constitution, national law and a government document that says the IEPS gas tax which consumers are charged at the pump is meant for producers, processors and importers. Of special importance to the resisters was the inclusion of Article 39 of the Mexican Constitution that states power arises from the people.
“All public power comes from the people and is instituted for their benefit,” the article reads in part. “The people always have the inalienable right to alter or modify the form of their government.”
Looking over the papers, the policeman determined, “These aren’t signed by a judge.”
For nearly two hours, an emotional debate involving resisters, station management and police ground business at the pumps to a halt. During one tense moment, the group chanted “Gas yes, taxes no!” A police official assured the group his officers were there not to repress the action but only make sure people stayed safe. “We are affected by (the gasolinazo) too,” he said.
“Don’t we have a right to peaceful civil resistance?” a protester questioned a station representative. “What you don’t have a right to do is enter private property and not pay for a product,” the unconvinced man argued. He recommended resisters they should take their cause to the gates of PEMEX, and questioned why they didn’t protest taxes on other products like tequila.
“You don’t have to buy tequila,” a woman resister answered, arguing that higher gas prices impact everyone. Appealing for a common front between protesters and gas station operators against the price hike (similar to a Wednesday morning strike by gas stations in the border state of Tamaulipas), Fernando Sanchez elicited a cool response from the station rep. “If you don’t pay the full amount, we’ll file charges against you,” the man insisted.
Facing a criminal complaint, the resisters reluctantly decided to pay the full bill. Nonetheless, they fine-combed constitutional and moral arguments which were rejected by station operators but greeted with some sympathy by the police.
Instead of dispersing after the protest, as is typically the case in the U.S., the group reassembled at the Sam’s Club parking lot to evaluate the evening, analyze mistakes and successes and debate future tactics. In today’s Mexico, it’s in unlikely places like a Sam’s Club parking lot where the forging of a nation’s new identity might well just be underway.
Kent Paterson is an independent journalist who covers issues in the U.S./Mexico border region.