PUEBLA, Mexico - Puebla is an absolutely charming, tranquil city that has faithfully maintained Spain's colonial legacy. The city has a quaint and welcoming feel: more than 70 churches and thousands of colonial buildings are comfortably intertwined with a more modern but still quaint commercial center. Sadly, my commitments at NAFTA's Commission for Environmental Cooperation meeting, which is being held well outside of the city center (closer to the Volkswagen plant for which Puebla is also famed), kept me from spending more than one night exploring the city. During my night on the town, however, I did get to stroll the streets, enjoy the plazas, collect my thoughts and strike up a few conversations with the locals, the most interesting of which took place during my cab ride out of the city.
After discovering that I was from the United States, the cab driver was eager to share several experiences from the three-and-a-half years that he lived in New York City. He was there legally on a visa, living in a crowded apartment and working 12-hour days at least five days a week in a large cosmetics factory with fellow Mexicanos, Dominicanos, Guatemaltecos and Salvadoreņos under managers who spoke no Spanish. He described his amazement at the biting winters of New York City, his feelings about being there during the terrorist attacks of September 11, and his constant state of exhaustion. He returned only when his visa expired.
As I listened to his story - one only too common here in Mexico - I couldn't help but consider how his situation compared with my own experience as a foreigner trying to make a productive life for myself here in new country. Did he miss his family and friends? have moments when he was uncertain of his purpose and ability to achieve his goals? miss the familiarity and routines of life among loved ones? When I asked him these questions, the answer was always yes. Yet despite long winters and isolation that my new friend felt in New York, and his unpleasant working conditions, he affirmed my final question without hesitation: yes, he would do anything to get back to the States.
"Why, when you have a family, a job and a home in Puebla?" I asked.
"The opportunities in America are simply too great to pass up," he answered.
While he and I both have left our own countries in search of a new opportunity or experience, there is a striking difference between our two experiences. I can return to the comforts of home and maintain access to opportunity and options. But to make a better life for himself and the generations to come, my driver has to leave behind his home and his family. The few days that I've spent here trying to find my way in a foreign land, combined with my experiences abroad in the past, have entailed discomfort and uncertainty, but I know full well this a temporary condition. For him, such experiences will in many ways be perpetual. That gives me pause, and certainly instills a great respect for the struggles of those who leave their home in search of something better.