Midwest Mariachis and Marching Bands

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There was a mariachi band. Never mind that it alternated with the University of Toledo marching band performing Jimmy Buffett’s “Cheeseburger in Paradise.”

Or maybe that was the point.

President Bush briefly brought Mexican President Vicente Fox to the U.S. heartland Thursday--far from the border towns where their countries’ cultures have blended for generations--to underscore how intertwined the economic and social fates of the two lands have become.

Everything about their journey was perfectly normal--and perfectly strange.

For a U.S. president, it was the most routine of trips: A speech in a gymnasium filled with cheering students and local residents. The college football team formed a hulking backdrop for the presidential podium. Indeed, cried the fast-talking radio disc jockey serving as an emcee, “It’s starting to feel more like a tailgate party than a state visit!”


But it was rare, of course, that the president was accompanied by a foreign leader. And it was rare for the audience to include several hundred migrant workers from Mexico--many undocumented--who had taken a day off from picking tomatoes to listen to their own president speak in a place where they had come to make the living they couldn’t in their own country.

So here in a Democratic stronghold in a political battleground state--one that Bush carried narrowly in November--the marching band played the Mexican national anthem. In the university’s Savage Hall, oversized flags of the two nations hung beneath banners marking athletic triumphs and touting Wonder Bread and Sears.

Slipping easily into campaign mode, the two presidents worked the crowd, shaking hands for five minutes. And in their speeches, each promoted the benefits of free trade in a community where the advantages are not readily apparent to workers facing layoffs and job-flight across a distant border.

Bush and Fox also visited the Aurora Gonzalez Community Center in a lower-income, predominantly Latino neighborhood--part of a Mexican American community that dates back to the 1930s. They spoke to children learning about insects (a mealworm was under inspection at that moment). They shot hoops. Bush went 1 for 3 from the foul line; Fox was 0 for 5. And they attracted protesters. (“Don’t give our jobs away,” said one sign, a reference to the travails associated with the North American Free Trade Agreement).

Fox, however, in his remarks at the university, said that lowered trade barriers between the two countries served U.S. interests as well as the Mexican economy.

“Mexico is buying products and services from the United States more than France, Italy, Spain and Germany are doing together. That is being partners,” he said. “That is creating jobs.”


Both presidents pointed out that the trade between the two countries amounted to $250 billion a year.

Bush, whose political advisors have targeted Latino voters as key to his reelection chances in 2004, paid homage to the hardships faced by Mexicans.

“Family values do not stop at the Rio Bravo,” he said to several thousand people who nearly filled the university’s field house. “There are mothers and dads in Mexico who love their children just as much as mothers and dads in America do. And if there [is] a mother or dad who can’t find work, worried about food on the table, they’re going to come and find work in America.”

Bush said trade will create more jobs in both countries, with the aim of expanding a Mexican middle class able to “feed their families.”

Noting that Americans are known for working hard, he urged his listeners to “think about the Mexican worker who walks 500 miles across a desert to find work. Those are hard-working citizens.”

Bush said he and Fox shared Ohio roots, noting that one of his grandfathers was raised in Columbus and that one of Fox’s grew up in Cincinnati.


“I guess you could kind of say we’re Ohioans--except it’s kind of hard to tell by our accents,” he said.

Toledo was chosen for the trip, a White House official said, because of its vibrant Mexican American community and because it “represents the possibilities that exist to expand trade.”

But many Toledoans, including several participants in the day’s events, said that promise is yet unmet under NAFTA, which they argue has cost high-paying U.S. jobs while doing little to improve working conditions in Mexico. Baldemar Velasquez, president of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee--a 7,000-member union of migrant workers--met Fox and Bush at the Toledo airport to express such concerns.

“I told them we stand in support of [Fox’s] call to legalize [undocumented] workers in this country,” Velasquez said. “I also told them we wanted to push for internationalization of labor rights and labor standards.”

Rep. Marcy Kaptur, a Democrat who has represented Toledo for two decades, accompanied Bush and Fox on Air Force One--and distributed a letter to reporters aboard inviting the leaders to take a “NAFTA impact tour.”

“Let us freely hear from the workers,” wrote Kaptur, a staunch foe of the trade pact. “Let us for the sake of the common good explore openly the dimensions of NAFTA that must be repaired. Let us do what is just.”


The presidents declined her offer.


Times staff writer Megan Garvey in Washington contributed to this report.