Number 39, Fall 2002

Neighbors' interdependence increases
by Juan-Vicente Palerm

Since its inception, the most common and persistent question posed to UC MEXUS has been, “Why Mexico?”

Juan-Vicente Palerm
Juan-Vicente Palerm

In the more than 150 years since California was annexed to the United States, its relationship with Mexico has passed through myriad social and political upheavals. The historical and cultural ties have endured but the economic interdependence of the two regions has increased and the need for them to cooperate on issues of common interest has never been more pressing.

In economic terms, California has benefited tremendously by expanding its relationship with the country that is its top trading partner.

Unofficial figures for 2002 predict that, for the fourth consecutive year, Mexico will be California’s largest export market, Doug Smurr, managing director for the Americas, in the Governor’s California Office of Trade and Investment, tells us.

In 2000, California sent a record $19 billion in goods to Mexico, setting a new record for exports to a single country. In 2000, total trade between California and Mexico ($37 billion — $19 billion in Californian exports to Mexico and $17.6 billion in Mexican exports to California) exceded Mexico's $31 billion in trade with the European Union, Latin America, and Asia combined.

In the first seven years of NAFTA, California exports to Mexico have increased nearly 192 percent or $12.5 billion. Today, California exports to Mexico directly and indirectly support approximately 228,000 jobs in the Golden State, with more than 150,000 of them resulting from export growth under NAFTA.

Mexican exports to California are similar in value and growth rate, creating a balanced partnership that benefits both entities. And the much denigrated migrant labor force is, in fact, an integral part of the state’s vibrant economy and affluent lifestyle.

Rather than neglecting this important trade partner, as has happened in the past, California needs to cultivate the relationship so as to conserve and develop this beneficial arrangement.

In social and geographic terms, California and Mexico share a border, a people and a history that constitute the ingredients of the society and culture that now exists in both regions.

The rich culture of Mexican Americans is woven into the fabric of California. In the border region, a fragile and irreplaceable natural environment inhabits an area teeming with people attracted to the boom in economic opportunities. Cooperation and coordination are essential to ensuring a viable and sustainable economy along with a concern for human and environmental welfare.

For many years, California has been the preferred destination for Latino immigrants entering the United States seeking jobs and better lives. California has accommodated them and its economy has profited as a result.

Nearly half the births in the state are registered to Latino families, many of whom will continue to maintain strong kinship and emotional ties with Mexico, their families and hometowns. Almost 45 percent of the children in our schools and a third — ten million – of California’s inhabitants are now Latino, most of them of Mexican-origin with legitimate claims on both California and Mexico.

California and Mexico, of course, also share a common history extending far beyond the birth of this country. As a result they share a cultural heritage with substantial sociocultural elements and traditions. Even today, thousands of Californians and Mexicans view the political concept of a border as an inconvenience that complicates centuries of migration between the north and south.

In recent times, these commonalities have served more to separate than to unite. Indeed the shared spaces, peoples and histories have regrettably been sources of conflict and dissent. Such discord harms all segments of society. We need to work together to transform these commonalties into points of strength and attachment rather than of weakness and alienation.

Yet while groups have been trading barbs and accusations, government and business have been trading accords to achieve a more effective economic integration. Over the last few years, California Governor Gray Davis has labored hard to repair and improve relations with Mexico and with the state’s Latino population. His actions are directed not only toward ensuring that California and Mexico gain from integration of their economies, but also toward molding a new consensus and understanding regarding their shared environment, people, culture and future, in equal partnership and for mutual benefit.

This is not only a job for government and business but, equally important, for California’s academic institutions. Our intellectual and scientific communities must become critically engaged. Indeed, it is the universities that will need to train another generation of leaders capable of managing and developing the California-Mexico relationship and affairs in government, trade, and culture. And it is our scholars who need to develop the knowledge and understanding necessary to find lasting and felicitous solutions to shared problems and challenges.

To this end, the $5 million budget allocation that the UC Regents, the California state legislature and the governor approved in 2000, provided the University of California with the means to invest in active engagement of the University’s vast research and educational resources with Mexico’s institutions of higher learning and research. Together they can – and are beginning to – address issues of interest and concern to both California and Mexico. Projected over the next six years, this endowment will allow the UC to invest up to $30 million – a sum to be matched by Mexican institutions, which are equally committed to the task. This is, undoubtedly, a historical opportunity to shape how our institutions interact and what our best minds can together contribute to the advancement of knowledge, culture, and the resolution of societal problems.

The mission of UC MEXUS coincides with the one that the Governor and the State of California is urging UC to accomplish. The UC-CONACYT Agreement and the activities it fosters have become models of international academic collaboration that are being copied all over the country. UC MEXUS, armed with new budgetary resources, is building and developing new programs and activities.

The Institute has embarked on the vital mission of fostering and developing research and educational activity through the integration and partnering of our best academic and scientific institutions, and our best minds. Each year, the Institute facilitates a greater number of investigations, endorses a greater number of binational research collaborations. And each new partnership engages other bright young minds in the work.

As UC MEXUS moves forward from this solid foundation under new leadership, it faces an ever-expanding vista of opportunities to bring together the hearts and minds of the academic community and those they serve on both sides of the border.