'We used to be like brothers'

Natasha Fatah ask why can't our hospitality be more like the Mexicans.

Mi casa es tu casa. It isn't just a cliché inscribed on Mexican hospitality souvenirs, it's the reality when you live here.

Nine years ago I moved to Mexico City for a while to work at a public relations firm, helping them with their English-speaking clients.

It afforded me the chance to get acquainted with our other North American neighbour, the one we often don't even think of as North American.

One of the things that struck me about Mexico was how welcoming people here are. Their home really is your home and they want you to know that.

I wouldn't want to over-romanticize the culture as being that different from our own back in Canada. 

Theirs may be ultimately more welcoming in some respects. But, until recently, we have always had an open-door policy for our Mexican friends.

We could come and go freely between the two countries. And many of my Mexican friends told me that they preferred visiting Canada to the United States, because they felt our country was just as wonderful but more open-minded and less paranoid.

Unlike the U.S., we didn't require them to get visitor visas to enter Canada.

Times changed

I used to work two blocks away from the American embassy in Mexico City and everyday I saw scores of people lined up outside it hoping to get their visas to visit America.

Mexicans gather outside the gate of the Canadian embassy in Mexico City in July 2009 to hear about the new visa requirements. (Associated Press)

Thank goodness we Canadians didn't do that to our friends, I remember thinking.

But that changed last summer when Canada announced that it, too, would require visitors from Mexico (and the Czech Republic) to obtain visas.

Ottawa said there had been a surge of refugee claimants coming from Mexico and visas were the best way to manage the situation. 

The Mexican government was clearly upset and disappointed with Canada's decision but they resisted the impulse to impose the same restrictions on us visiting their country.

Which is part of the reason I went to Mexico City this month to visit friends there. I knew it had become much more difficult for them to come see me in Toronto.

A slap in the face

"Canada and Mexico used to be like brothers, but not anymore," says my friend Jeancarlo Aldana, the editor of Vortice, an arts and culture magazine. "It's definitely an offence."

Jeancarlo has come to Canada in the past as a tourist and as a journalist, which used to be easy enough.

But now these trips have been made more difficult. And while he is frustrated at Canada for what he considers an unnecessary requirement, he's equally annoyed by Mexico for not standing up to us and mandating the same visa requirements in return.

In a country that is still sadly riddled with corruption, Jeancarlo knows that it will now become that much more difficult for ordinary people to obtain visas.

Both governments, he feels, will try to ensure that only the "right type" of visitor enters Canada — meaning those with money and connections. And those seasonal workers who will likely have to pay even more for the right papers. 

The average José will face yet another set of hurdles to travel abroad. Mexico City is already divided along economic and ethnic lines, the visa process is creating another division.

A different view

Another good friend of mine, Monica Molina, a television producer living in the trendy Condesa neighbourhood of Mexico City, has a different view.

She says that maybe it's a good idea to have visa requirements, that maybe Mexicans are causing a problem for Canadian authorities. She feels uneasy saying this and is trying to give Canada the benefit of doubt.

She knows that many poor Mexicans want to leave and find a better life so perhaps these are the tough measures that Canada had to take.

Monica's right in that there has been a surge in the number of Mexicans claiming refugee status in Canada in the past few years; and the Canadian government is right to say that this isn't fair to the those other Mexicans who are trying to emmigrate through the normal channels, which can take years.

Melisa, a photographer who spends much of her time outside of Mexico, falls somewhere in between these two positions.

She doesn't blame the Canadian government for imposing visas, allowing that maybe Mexicans were taking advantage of the open policy.

But at the same time, as she travels around, she says has noticed a sad phenomenon that Canada is not immune to: "Why is the First World so afraid of us people from the developing world?"

Why the fear?

Melisa says it almost feels that Canadians are afraid of these brown people coming and taking over the country, when there are so many Canadians who come here to Mexico all the time and are treated with warmth and hospitality.

The well-appointed Coyoacan neighbourhood in Mexico City, where Trotsky once lived as well as artists like Frida Khalo and Diego Rivera. (Natasha Fatah/CBC)

She is absolutely right about that.

Canadians come to Mexico by the planeload every single day.

Can you imagine all those silver-haired Canadian retirees who have winter homes in San Miguel de Allende standing for hours in line and waiting for visas to enter Mexico?

What about those Mayan Riviera-bound honeymooners? Or those throngs of party-hardy university students headed to Acapulco or Cancun? 

I can't either.

So many of us come here and enjoy what Mexico has to offer. The country has a history of taking outsiders from around the world — artists, poets, writers, Communists, Jews, those seeking refuge, those wanting a better life, people who aren't accepted in their own lands.

All have been welcomed in Mexico. Because for Mexicans, their home is our home.