Few neighboring countries have as intense, fruitful, and complex a relationship as Mexico and the United States: united by a shared border, trade, and demography yet divided by legacies of history, culture, and conflict. Even as ideas and influences converge and goods are exchanged, each side retains distinctive character and a strong sense of identity while often harboring misperceptions about "the other side."

Intellectual and political elites in Mexico City hurry to distance themselves from their troublesome neighbor to the north, while U.S. elites tend to waver between fascination and forgetfulness of their southern neighbor. But average citizens in each country seem to have more pragmatic assessments of the other, based on their day-to-day interactions with each other, though Mexicans seem to be more conscious of American issues than the other way around.

Perceptions and misperceptions can help or hinder bilateral relations in an instant, but they also shift over time depending on the political climate and individual circumstances. On February 27, the Wilson Center's Mexico Institute, in conjunction with Letras Libres magazine, convened journalists, diplomats, and businesspeople from Mexico and the United States at a conference exploring how both countries view and interact with each other.

A Cultural Chapter in NAFTA
Keynote speaker Enrique Krauze, founder and editor in chief of Letras Libres, noted that Mexican President Vicente Fox and U.S. President George W. Bush both sought closer relations at the beginning of their terms in office, continuing a trend of more than a decade. But the events of 9/11 ended this era of coming together as the United States redirected its attention to security matters, while Mexican political leaders found themselves unable to express public solidarity with their northern neighbor.

"Are we condemned to be victims of our prejudices, stereotypes, and ghosts?" Krauze reflected. He said such prejudices are rooted in the Latin American collective memory: Spain's defeat in the 1898 Spanish-American War and U.S. 20th-century support for regional dictators fostered nationalism and animosity toward U.S. interventionism.

"Mexico has to overcome its most ancient and maligned illness, which is resentment," said Krauze. "The United States also has to overcome its most problematic trait-ignorance of the southern neighbor that all too frequently leads to arrogance, to a sense of superiority that really harms the relationship.

"What we need" Krauze suggested, "is a cultural chapter in NAFTA." Through music, art, film, history, and writing, he said, both peoples can rekindle cultural ties and create a more complete portrait of each other.

Writing about Each Other
Writers and journalists from both countries discussed ways that Mexicans and Americans have represented and understood each other through the written word. Although Mexicans tend to be more aware of America, American authors have written in, and about, Mexico with much greater frequency than Mexican authors about the United States, said Christopher Dominguez, a novelist and literary critic. The few Mexican authors who have addressed the United States, he said, generally write about Mexico as under siege from American imperialism. Additionally, Mexico City intellectual elites rarely address themes relating to northern Mexico or Mexicans in the United States.

Author Richard Rodriguez, an American of Mexican descent, claimed Mexican-Americans live in a "zone of ambiguity," often perceived by Americans as too Mexican and by Mexicans as too American.

"America is an East-West country," Rodriguez said. "The idea of the south does not come easy to us." He praised Octavio Paz's Labyrinth of Solitude, but disagreed with Paz's characterization of Mexican-Americans as trapped between two countries. Rather, Rodriguez asserted, they are decidedly American, but have connections through culture and heritage to their ancestral land. Ironically, Mexico now finds itself in its own "zone of ambiguity," both in North America and in Latin America.

Peter Hamill, bestselling author and journalist, is an American who lives part time in Mexico. He described Mexico as brimming with a rich popular culture, from music to cartoons to holiday celebrations, but noted the void in literature on Mexican popular culture, which deprives Americans of learning more about it.

Hamill, a New Yorker born to Irish immigrant parents, described New York as a living testament to immigrant heritage. He described New York as "an alloy," a strong fusion of different groups who have built the city through hard work over successive generations.

Jesús Silva Herzog-Márquez, a law professor at the Tecnológico Autónomo de México, addressed the role of the U.S. media during the process of democratic transition. Silva-Herzog, who is also a Mexico Public Policy Scholar at the Wilson Center, said the U.S. and international press had played an important role during the last years of Mexican authoritarianism by offering a channel to critique the regime. Later, the desire of the Salinas administration to gain international legitimacy and win NAFTA approval helped further the Mexican government's responsiveness to the international press.

Mexicans often criticize U.S. press coverage as relegating Mexico to a minor story or as promoting Mexico's connection to drugs and illegal immigration. However, Silva-Herzog noted, recent U.S. press coverage of Mexico has become frequent and surprisingly nuanced. Similarly the Mexican press, which sometimes stereotyped the United States, now offers complex ideas and perceptions, leaving behind the caricature of "the enemy" to the north.

Working with Each Other
The United States and Mexico have found in each other partners in NAFTA and democracy, which draw both countries closer together. Still, when two different cultures interact in business and politics, this undoubtedly presents numerous challenges.

Complicating relations is that each country has substantially different institutions, economic structures, and cultural heritages. Such differences, and an at-times contentious common history, have slowed the pace at which Mexico and the United States relate to each other, said Jesús Reyes Heroles, former Mexican ambassador to the United States and executive president of the independent consulting firm, Grupo de Economistas y Asociados.

Reyes Heroles said public perceptions have become less ideologically driven in recent years. Americans tend to list poverty and cultural aspects most often in polls about their perceptions of Mexico; Mexicans tend to emphasize "money, work, and security" in referring to the United States, followed by "progress, power, and industry." In polls, drugs and corruption do not dominate Americans' view of Mexico, nor does imperialism dominate Mexicans' view of the United States. The perceptions each country's citizens hold of the other appear to reflect real differences rather than stereotypes.

Jeffrey Davidow, president of the Institute of the Americas and former U.S. ambassador to Mexico, said, since NAFTA, more formal structures have been established to accommodate the daily interactions between the governments and businesses in both countries. Davidow argued that focusing on one high-profile issue hinders progress in other areas. For example, the United States concentrated on drug trafficking in the 1990s and the Fox administration has focused on migration to the detriment of other bilateral issues.

Cooperation and understanding is vital, insisted José Antonio Fernández, chair of the board and CEO of FEMSA, Mexico's largest beverage company, and co-chair of the Wilson Center's Mexico Institute. Understanding one another, he said, "requires both a historical framework and the will to build a partnership for the long term, incorporating our differences as well as our commonality."

"The more we trade, the more we grow together," said Brian Dyson, former vice chair of Coca-Cola. He believes, however, that growth in economic relations must be anchored in an equal growth of understanding and respect for each other's culture. Mexican businesspeople sometimes consider Americans arrogant and blunt, prone to short-term relationships and cultural insensitivity. American businesspeople, however, often complain that Mexican business is too bureaucratic, corrupt, and less sophisticated. Dyson said, "I think a healthy skepticism on both sides is not a bad idea, as the common phrase is, 'Trust, but verify.'"

Fernández recounted, "I tell my American friends: your neighbor is at the door. He is young, eager, and willing to learn and work hard in peace...he has proven a quick study, to be a good friend, a very strong ally. He will do so again. And he will always be your neighbor."