Saturday, July 7, 2012 | 2 a.m.
While the civil rights organization National Council of La Raza has its annual conference this weekend to explore the advancement of Latinos in the United States, another organization piggy-backed on La Raza’s presence to gather politicians, business leaders, community organizers and members of nonprofit organizations to discuss what Mexican-Americans can do for Mexico.
The U.S.-Mexico Foundation, a nonprofit group that coordinates philanthropy and collaborative efforts between the United States and Mexico, staged a conference Friday that attracted many La Raza conference attendees and Las Vegas community leaders interested in strengthening ties with the United States’ southern neighbor.
Mexico and the United States are inextricably linked, Martha Smith, U.S.-Mexico Foundation president, said in opening the conference, and improvements in Mexico’s economy, education and quality of life will also benefit the United States.
The United States is Mexico’s largest trading partner and biggest investor. Mexico is the United States' third-largest trading partner and is the second-largest supplier of oil to the United States.
The foundation has established a pilot program between San Antonio and a community in the Mexican state of Chiapas, in which professionals from the Texas city are helping to develop health care and educational programs. One purpose of the conference Friday at Mandalay Bay was to sign up Las Vegans who are interested in participating in a similar program with a different community in Mexico.
“Is there a critical mass, is there a sufficient number of Americans of Mexican descent who want to engage and are willing to put their talents, their skills, their money and their energy to work in constructive ways with organizations and leaders in Mexico who are trying to build and strengthen the civil society of Mexico?” asked U.S.-Mexico Foundation trustee Maria Echaveste, former adviser to President Bill Clinton. ”Because our destinies … are tied, and the connections are very deep. So we are trying to be more intentional, more focused and more strategic in the types of organizations we work with, and have an eye toward systemic, deep changes that can improve life and opportunity in Mexico.”
The 200 people in attendance broke into work groups led by local politicians, business leaders and community organizers. The topics included binational educational partnerships, cross-border journalism and social media, voter education and civic engagement, health and family planning, sports and youth development for at-risk youths, substance abuse, social entrepreneurship and rule of law.
State Sen. Ruben Kihuen, who emigrated from Guadalajara, Mexico, with his family when he was 8 years old, addressed the importance of diaspora communities continuing to support the country where they were born.
“Our largest Latino population here in Nevada is the Mexican-American population, and it’s growing very rapidly. We’ve become a force not only economically but also politically,” said Kihuen, who led a work group on sports and at-risk youths. “Millions of our family members depend on the remittances that we send them each month ... a lot of people’s livelihoods in Mexico depend on us being successful economically here in America. So, if we have a strong America, we are going to have a strong Mexico.”
The organization also bestowed its first Hermandad Award, for commitment to building bridges between the people of the United States and Mexico, to Raul Yzaguirre, U.S. ambassador to the Dominican Republic and former president of the National Council of La Raza.
To close the conference, Henry Cisneros, former mayor of San Antonio and secretary of Housing and Urban Development under Bill Clinton, moderated a discussion between the Mexican ambassador to the United States, Arturo Sarukhan, and his counterpart in Mexico, Earl Anthony Wayne, who joined the discussion via Skype.
The two ambassadors concurred with an idea that was repeated throughout the conference: While Mexico and the United States have made great progress in terms of economic ties (such as through the North American Free Trade Agreement), much work remains to be done in forging bonds between civil society in the two countries.
Since NAFTA implementation in 1994, U.S. exports to Mexico have nearly tripled and Mexican exports to the United States have more than quadrupled, according to the U.S. State Department.
“Regardless of the issue of the day, whether it's immigration, or trade, or drugs and thugs, the single most important challenge in this bilateral relationship is making sure that citizens on both sides of the border understand that they are connected in each other’s success, well-being and prosperity,” Sarukhan said. “We will fail or succeed together, and it is this connectivity between everything from Boy Scout troops to basketball teams that will change the face of this relationship.”
In a fitting end to the conference, Sarukhan threw out an ambitious, but crowd-pleasing, suggestion.
“One of the things we should put on the table is that Mexico and the United States need to co-host the World Cup,” the ambassador said to loud applause. “Imagine not only the bonds that this would trigger between both our countries, but the powerful message this sends to the rest of the world about how these two countries understand their future together.”