When stereotypes define borders

In 2000, scholars from Canada, Mexico and the United States met to try to make sense of noticeable changes influencing relations between the three North American countries. The group, connected with the Research Center on North America (known by its Spanish acronym as CISAN), concluded “new actors” were shaping decisions on security, energy, the environment and the transnational economy.

Now add children to the list of actors.

It all came to light with the May 31 release here of “A Snapshot of Children Living on Mexico’s Northern Border” by Red por los Derechos de la Infancia en Mexico (Children’s Rights Network in Mexico). The study is part of the acclaimed Kids Count project, supported by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, to promote better public policy.

Previously, government-to-government relations were believed to control nearly exclusively how North America was developing. Instead, a wide network is influencing policy directions. The list now includes religious organizations, regional commercial interests, neighborhood associations and non-profit advocates.

Getting a fix on border regions all over the world is difficult. Borders have a cultural dynamic all their own, although often overshadowed by national perspectives.

Mexico’s northern border, home to many transnational companies, is actually the final destination for much of that nation’s internal migration. Together, these add to significant industrial growth, career opportunities and economic stability. The often-reviled border cities Ciudad Juarez, Mexicali, Nuevo Laredo and Tijuana rank among the top 10 in Mexico for employment opportunities.

The 2000-mile-long border embraces six Mexican states _ Baja California Norte, Sonora, Chihuahua, Coahuila, Nuevo Leon and Tamaulipas. Their 16.5 million people make up 17 percent of Mexico’s total population, of which 6.2 million are children under 18.

Services on the border are often better than in the rest of the country. Education is an increasingly valued concept. The border states have among the country’s lowest illiteracy rates, 3 percent to 5 percent in some municipalities, while 9 percent nationally. Eight out of 10 children starting secondary school finish. School achievement ranges from 8.1 to 9.2 years, while the national average is 7.9 years.

The number of children living in poverty decreases by half on the border, 24 percent as opposed to 43 percent nationally. (Poverty is defined as less than twice the national minimum wage.) It’s even lower, 15 percent, in 90 percent of 37 border municipalities.

Significantly, 80 percent, or 4 million families, in the northern Mexican states maintain traditional male-headed families.

Mexico’s border children have far better access to housing infrastructure (toilets, plumbing and electricity) than their counterparts in the rest of the country, with less overcrowding.

Out of 4 million occupied housing units in the border states, 3 million are owner-occupied. And in the 37 border municipalities, 73 percent of them are fully paid for. This is a lot of private equity that offers tremendous asset-building opportunity when capital is made more accessible and lending is liberalized.

But still burdened by stereotypes, Mexico’s northern frontier represents what many U.S. citizens think they want to be protected from. Its overwhelming image is of gangs and violence that call for fences, walls and even military support to keep the other side out. So deeply etched are those images in our collective mind that the real border is invisible.

Perhaps blocked by Mexico’s scalding sun are the region’s numbers, its vitality and the study’s vision of its promise. There’s material in the report for a whole new script, with bilingual, bicultural and, in many instances, binational children as its principal actors.

(Josede la Isla writes a weekly commentary for Hispanic Link News Service. Email joseisla3(at)yahoo.com.)