For most of us, Donald Trump’s bloated rhetoric on a ‘big, beautiful wall’ separating the US from Mexico is just that.
But not for Ricardo Menendez March, for whom the wall, and before that the fences, separating his home town of Tijuana from the US was an ever present reality that ultimately shaped the person he is today.
‘The house I spent most of my years in Tijuana was less than 200m from the border—a couple of blocks away,’ Ricardo says. ‘You don’t really realise how weird it is to grow up in a city like that.
‘There was a park on the other side of the fence and families would meet for picnics with the fence dividing them. You could see through the fence and you could almost touch each others’ hands. That was closed down and now it’s pretty much impossible to meet.
‘What happens when you grow up in a city like Tijuana is that [the wall] is like a piece of furniture. This is how I managed to not be aware of what it meant at a political level. But it does shape who you are. It shapes your identity and your daily routine.’
Ricardo came to NZ as a student in 2006, but quickly discovered how expensive it is to live here as an international university undergrad. His father, a medical doctor, had invested almost all his savings to give Ricardo a chance—what Ricardo describes as a ‘traditional Mexican immigrant story of carving out a slightly more prosperous life and helping out your family back home.’
But Ricardo was forced to find work. He got jobs in hospitality for a few years, became a NZ resident, went back to uni to finish his studies, and then entered politics. Once he was there, he wished he had done it sooner.
‘It actually took me eight years of being in the country to become politically active,’ Ricardo says. ‘It took time because I was trapped in hospitality and low income work, and also in situations where I didn’t feel like I could become politically active.’
Part of that was being aware that some people believe immigrants in NZ politics are ‘claiming a space that’s not mine’. But he describes a moment when that didn’t seem to matter as much anymore.
‘I had a moment the first time I went to Waitangi when I got to learn more in depth around the history of this land,’ he says. ‘That was my moment when I was like, my place here is as somebody who has both some responsibility to honour that history and to ground myself in that history.’
Not only that, the struggles he fights for are shared struggles. Issues he campaigns for in NZ are also happening back in Mexico. Turns out we are not as different as people would like to think.
‘My political whakapapa comes from my parents,’ Ricardo says. ‘My dad was politically active and my dad’s partner was very active, so I grew up with stories of what it was like to fight for interests in Tijuana. I always had a strong sense of justice.’
These days Ricardo works full-time for Auckland Action Against Poverty, an advocacy and education group in the city. He ran as a Greens candidate in the seat of Mt Roskill in the 2017 national election and is open to running again.
‘I am really heartened by (Greens co-leader) Marama’s platform, which resonates quite deeply with me. I think it’s always good to keep your options open. You never know what the polls are going to look like in the next three years.’
And as for Trump’s big, beautiful wall, Ricardo has some words of warning for anyone who thinks the political rhetoric emanating from the US is too far away to impact NZ.
‘What I see in Trump’s comments is an agenda beyond the wall. Mexicans are his scapegoat because we’ve always been in the spotlight as a migrant community. I guess the real danger is that some of the violence that Mexican communities in the US or migrant communities abroad experience as part of what happened when Trump got elected, comes as a wave around the world. And which NZ is not immune to.
‘I find the most dangerous comments from politicians are the ones that come across as benign. The ones that start off with, “I’m not racist but”. That’s what we get here in NZ.
‘I genuinely believe some people truly, honestly believe that what they’re saying is causing no harm. But they still need to realise that as figures with a platform, they have a responsibility to not continue the harm.’
Look out for Ricardo at Crave, which he describes as a meeting point for political issues and discussions.
‘Lots of scheming has happened in this cafe.’