Almost immediately, the road quality deteriorated. Cars surrounding us were no longer the sleek, modern models that characterized southern California, instead replaced with dirtier, older and more polluting vehicles. Graffiti-covered infrastructure was in need of repair, and occasional odors suggested a looming lack of sanitation.
In comparison to the clean, well-kept American streets that surrounded me just minutes prior, Mexico seemed relentlessly foreign. Craning past my brother to look out the window, I saw the physical barrier, the wall, that marked the entrenched separation between these countries.
This world of difference has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and Mexico’s questionable leadership.
According to the New York Times, Mexico was one of the only major economies that did not substantially increase government spending to address the wide-reaching economic effects of the pandemic. Instead, President Andres Manuel López Obrador has made budget cuts, rejected debt relief and encouraged austerity on part of the Mexican populace, the L.A. Times reports.
Consequently, the New York Times reports that by the end of 2020, an additional 3.8 million Mexicans fell into destitution, contributing to a distressing poverty rate of 44%. In comparison, the US Census Bureau reports that 12.8% of Americans are poor.
When my family’s car hit traffic in the disorganized streets of Tijuana, I noticed waves of street vendors selling everything from Mazapan, a traditional Mexican peanut candy, to sombreros.
Run-down roads were bustling with amputees, elders in wheelchairs, and children wearing ragged clothes. It was heartbreaking to see these individuals — Mexico’s most vulnerable — selling in the relentless sun simply to survive the day.
A key socioeconomic difference between the US and Mexico is informal employment — jobs that are neither taxed nor monitored by the government — such as street vending.
According to the International Labour Organization, 60% of Mexican workers hold informal jobs. Egregiously, the Banco de México finds that even formal companies employ workers informally in order to skirt payroll taxes and ignore labor protections. Due to a lack of labor rights, individuals working informal jobs often face harsh conditions. Further, informal work usually lacks insurance, pensions, and benefits.
The New York Times finds that roughly 5.2 million students dropped out of school during the pandemic, around 14 percent of all school-aged children in Mexico. Many of Mexico’s youth left school in order to support their family economically, usually through informal jobs that allow them to work without regulation.
The pandemic devastated the informal economy. Despite recommendations to stay home, risks of getting sick, and a slowed supply of customers, many informal workers had no choice but to continue working.
“If I don’t sell, I don’t eat. It’s as simple as that,” Leonardo Meneses Prado, a hamburger vendor in Mexico City, told The New York Times.
My family continues to visit Mexico often. I always love to spend time with my family by exploring Baja California, finding Mexican salsa to bring to the US, and eating at our favorite taquerias. During these trips, I get to see my country’s vibrant and welcoming culture. But I also witness the hardships of normal Mexicans: the informal workers and the struggling poor. Everything I’ve seen in Mexico has given me an understanding of the privileges that come with living on this side of the wall.