EL PASO, TX - Colin McDonald walks inside the border fence in El Paso, Texas. Ciudad Juarez, Mexico is in the background. SEPTEMBER 15, 2014 CREDIT: Erich Schlegel/Disappearing Rio Grande Expedition
EL PASO, TX - Colin McDonald walks inside the border fence in El Paso, Texas. Ciudad Juarez, Mexico is in the background. SEPTEMBER 15, 2014 CREDIT: Erich Schlegel/Disappearing Rio Grande Expedition

Nearly $100 billion in exports will leave Texas for Mexico this year, underwriting several hundred thousand jobs in the state. Culturally, no metro is more connected to our neighbor south of the border than San Antonio, a city enriched by every chapter of Mexican history. It’s no surprise, then, that the city was 63% Latino by the end of 2014, according to U.S. Census figures.

Mexico matters. San Antonio is a bridge city.

That’s why Tuesday’s presentation at the Pearl Stable by University of the Incarnate Word Distinguished Professor Raúl Rodríguez Barocio – who Henry Cisneros called “San Antonio’s ambassador to Mexico” – to the Asociación Empresarios Mexicanos (AEM) was so relevant and insightful.

Rodríguez’s presentation, titled, “Mexico’s Key Dilemmas in 2015,” was the inaugural speech in the Red McCombs Bilateral Lunch Series. McCombs was on hand for the occasion and while he remained seated due to a problem with his balance, he spoke at some length at the beginning of the program.

Red McCombs. Courtesy photo.
Red McCombs. Courtesy photo.

McCombs regaled the audience at the Pearl Stable with stories, saying, “Charline, my wife of 63 years, says, ‘Red, it’s a shame the condition doesn’t affect the way you talk, because we could do with a lot less. Don’t you know these stories you tell are old and you’ve told them all before?’

“Well, yes,” McCombs said he tells his wife, “but don’t you notice I change them each time and add new details?”

The series is co-sponsored by Marcelo Sánchez, A Mexican businessman who McCombs called his  “friend of many years.” Roberto Espinosa, president of AEM, served as the emcee.

Mexico is confronting disruptive change even greater than what is seen in the United States. Amid such upheaval, no one has their finger more firmly on the Mexican pulse than Rodríguez, who also serves as the chairman of the U.S.-Mexico Foundation, a bilateral philanthropic organization founded five years ago with offices in Washington DC and Mexico City.

A number of other prominent San Antonians also serve on the foundation’s board, including former Mayor and HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros, now executive chairman of CityView, Howard E. Butt III, President of Mexico Operations for H-E-B, Josê Villarreal, an attorney with Aiken Gump, and Roger Wallace, a vice president with Pioneer Resources.

For 12 years now, Rodríguez has delivered an annual address to the AEM, a presentation that has come to be seen as an essential briefing on the bilateral relation, and something even bigger, an honest examination of the U.S.-Mexico relationship that doesn’t tilt to one side or the other.

Rodríguez delivers candor with the deceptively easy manner of a true diplomat.

Raul Rodriguez Barocio, chairman of the U.S.-Mexico Foundation and distinguished professor of banking and finance at the University of Incarnate Word.
Raúl Rodríguez Barocio

“Time is of the essence for Mexico, which is aging rapidly, even as the birth rate drops rapidly,” he told his Pearl Stable audience Tuesday.

The AEM is San Antonio’s most under-appreciated business resource, a 1996 startup  by Mexican national business owners living here that has grown to become a major force in the city and now spread to cities in 22 other states. The expansion, while low-key, has been extraordinary, and today the organization serves as the leading gateway for Mexican businessmen and women coming to the United States and U.S. businesses that want to establish themselves in Mexico.

Rodríguez described a rapidly changing Mexico still challenged by corruption, patronage politics, the erosion of democracy, and dismal education results. He cited the efforts of Mexican philanthropists to support charter schools as key to improving education outcomes in the country, and the role of the foundation in helping establish Enseña Para America, Teach For America in Mexico, which now deploys more than 3,000 young teachers serving more than 20,000 Mexican students.

“The old slogans have absolutely no resonance with the new generations of Mexicans,” Rodríguez said, describing a country where a modern economy remains shackled by a dysfunctional political system.

Political violence and the homicide rate has ebbed overall, he said, but has actually grown worse along the Gulf Coast and in some southern states. The rule of law also remains a major challenge in a country where corruption, a lack of training and professionalism, and unequal enforcement of the law remain deeply embedded problems.

The most startling figures to emerge in Rodríguez’s presentation pointed to Mexico’s lagging global position in education attainment. He said an audit of the federally funded school system revealed more than 300,00 teachers on the government payroll who were not assigned to a school. Another 20,000 teachers on the payroll couldn’t be located, he said, and 420 schools being funded appeared not to exist.

In the southern state of Chiapas, largely populated by people of indigenous origin, 60% of the schools do not have potable water while in the state of Oaxaca, more than 80% of the schools do not have indoor plumbing. Less than 20% of Mexico’s schools have Internet access. The nation’s students rank 131 globally in math skills.

Rodríguez lauded the efforts of philanthropists on both sides of the border, many associated with the U.S.-Mexico Foundation, but he also said Mexico suffers from a culture where family dominates the social compact and most people with resources do not see community building as a shared obligation. The United States and Canada rank first and second in philanthropy, he said, while Mexico ranks 85th. There are 76,500 registered grant-making foundations in the U.S. versus 152 in Mexico.

The numbers go on. One of the few optimistic trends Rodríguez cited in his speech was Mexico’s declining birth rate. While that might decrease illegal immigration to the U.S., Rodríguez said it also spells future brainpower shortages for the country if does not accelerate education reforms. Rodriguez said greater civic engagement and education investment in Mexico are the keys to improved outcomes.

“Time is of the essence in Mexico, which is aging rapidly as the birth rate is dropping,” Rodríguez said.

Henry Cisneros, chairman of the San Antonio Economic Development Foundation and former San Antonio Mayor
Henry Cisneros

Cisneros, who Rodríguez described as a friend and mentor, spoke afterwards, and delivered a moving oral biography of McCombs and his enormous impact on San Antonio, from his ownership of professional sports franchises,  auto dealerships, ranching and his extraordinary philanthropy. The audience, dominated by AEM members, applauded both McCombs and Rodríguez warmly.

Rodríguez holds the Tom Benson Chair in Banking and Financing and is a distinguished professor at the University of Incarnate Word. He said Tuesday he will take a leave of absence soon to accept a temporary faculty position at his alma mater, Tecnológico de Monterrey, one of Mexico’s most highly-regarded research universities, to help launch a research center focused on improving the country’s lagging efforts in the areas of innovation and entrepreneurship.

*Featured/top image: EL PASO, TX –  Colin McDonald walks inside the border fence in El Paso, Texas. Ciudad Juarez, Mexico is in the background. Sept. 15, 2014. Photo by Erich Schlegel/Disappearing Rio Grande Expedition.

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Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard is co-founder and columnist at the San Antonio Report.