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By the time Mexican politician Andrés Manuel López Obrador arrived at Manhattan’s Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe on Monday evening, every chair, pew, windowsill, stair and ladder in the church’s basement auditorium had been spoken for.
“Morena,” crooned the mariachi song blaring through the speakers on stage, the Spanish-language ode to a brunette, which doubles as a theme song for López Obrador’s National Regeneration Movement, or MORENA.
“I wanted to come down here to see the future president of Mexico live,” Rogelio Felipe said in Spanish from atop the emergency staircase to the right of the stage. Below, nearly everyone in the room scrambled to position themselves with cameras and smartphones outstretched in anticipation of López Obrador’s entrance.
“I like him,” the 32-year-old Felipe said of López Obrador, who is often referred to as AMLO. “He wants … to make the country for all citizens.” Felipe, a native of Guerrero, Mexico, who has lived in New York for 14 years, said he plans to give López Obrador his first absentee vote in Mexico’s upcoming presidential election.
Although the populist former mayor of Mexico City and perennial presidential candidate is already leading preelection polls, according to Mexican laws it’s still too early to begin officially campaigning for 2018. So despite having plastered his face across every wall and column in the church basement, López Obrador began his speech Monday by insisting that his visit to New York — part of a cross-country speaking tour of U.S. cities with large Mexican immigrant populations — was “not an act of electoral politics.”
“We did not come here in search of votes,” the white-haired López Obrador stated in Spanish, his calm yet commanding tone quickly silencing the enthusiastic crowd before him. “The purpose of this” visit, he continued, “is to express our support for, our solidarity with you, the migrants. Those who, for necessity, not for preference, have abandoned your pueblos, your places of origin, to come look for life with honest work in the United States.”
Reflecting on New York City’s long history as a haven for the world’s persecuted, López Obrador argued that Mexican immigrants have been victimized twice over by the presidents on both sides of the U.S.-Mexican border. He said they were first knocked around by the neoliberal policies of Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto and his long-reigning Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI. López Obrador argued that those policies drove Mexicans over the border by failing to create jobs and bolster security while allowing the spread of poverty, hunger and violence throughout the country.
“Immigration is the clearest and most painful evidence of the exclusionary character of the neoliberal model,” López Obrador declared. What’s more, he continued, those who managed to escape violence and poverty in Mexico are now facing persecution by President Trump, who has vowed to aggressively crack down on illegal immigration.
“I have said it in other places and I’ll repeat it now: it is a [low blow] by Trump and his advisers that they [refer to] Mexicans like Hitler and the Nazis referred to the Jews,” he said.
Enrique Diaz, who attended the rally with his mother, said that while neither of them can vote in Mexico’s presidential election, he hopes to promote López Obrador’s populist message on social media.
“I want to influence people who can actually vote in Mexico,“ the 24-year-old told Yahoo News, adding that his support for López Obrador is bolstered by his distaste for current Mexican President Peña Nieto, who, he said, “is the face of corruption.”
Diaz, who studied forensic psychology at CUNY’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice, moved to New York from Mexico City with his parents at age 7 and has a work permit through former President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA. So far, President Trump hasn’t taken any explicit action to dismantle DACA but, Diaz said he is “pretty anxious” about what could happen in the next two years, when his permit is set to expire.
His mom, on the other hand, has no legal documentation. “She’s very scared,” he said, vowing that if either of his parents were to be deported to Mexico, he would go with them. “If my parents made the sacrifice of moving to a country they didn’t know, I guess I’m going to do the same for them. If they have to leave, we’re all going.”
Though he said he personally has never felt persecuted as a Mexican immigrant in New York City, Diaz said he thought López Obrador’s overall message was “beautiful.”
“López Obrador, from my point of view, brings hope to the country and that’s what we need,” he said.
López Obrador’s anti-Trump rhetoric was a big hit with the crowd, who applauded emphatically at such statements as “’America First’ is fallacy” and “it is absurd to close this great country to foreigners, because the United States of America was built with the efforts of men and women from around the world.”
In reality, López Obrador and Trump aren’t exactly polar opposites. Both have well-documented qualms about the North American Free Trade Agreement. Obrador has a history of blaming past presidential defeats on voter fraud, a topic Trump frequently visits with gusto despite winning his race. López Obrador also once hired former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, a top Trump ally, to help craft a “zero-tolerance” policy to clean up crime in the Mexican capital.
Trump and López Obrador also share a populist approach to campaigning, presenting themselves as outsiders ready to take on corrupt politicians and return their respective countries to the masses.
However, if López Obrador were on a mission to present himself as the Mexican anti-Trump, he closed that deal through his response to an interruption by a couple of protesters.
López Obrador was attempting to tell the crowd about his plan to deliver a petition to the U.N. this week against Trump’s proposed border wall, when simmering tension between a couple of protesters and the rally-goers surrounding them reached a boiling point. Rather than have the men dismissed as Trump did across countless campaign events, López Obrador reminded the crowd that “we are talking about liberty” and “they are free” to express their views. He even reprimanded a supporter who grabbed one of the protester’s signs, reaching into the audience to retrieve the homemade poster and return it to his critic, who’d since joined López Obrador on stage along with a swarm of feuding protesters and supporters.
“This is OK. No pasa nada,” he assured his outraged fans, making one final attempt to finish his speech before regaining control of the frenzied crowd by leading them in a closing chant of, “Viva Mexico! Viva Mexico!”
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