People on the beach near a fence splitting the U.S. and Mexico border.

The Complex History of U.S.-Mexico Relations

174 years ago today, the Mexican-American War ended with the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. In the contemporary United States, the right views Mexico as a foreign threat. Liberals sometimes reduce its citizens to objects of pity. Both views are inherently racist and obscure the long, complicated relationship between the two countries. 

In the words of Eduardo Galeano, “for the world, America is nothing more than the United States. We inhabit, at most, a sub-America, a nebulous, second-class America. It is Latin America, the region of open veins.”


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What Was the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo? 

The 19th-century idea of Manifest Destiny proclaimed white Americans’ divine right to expand across North America as an “army of Anglo-Saxon emigration,” influencing U.S.-Mexico relations from the start (NBC News). The U.S. used a skirmish along Texas’ disputed border as a pretense to wage war on Mexico (History). Mexico was forced to sign away 55% of its territory, which became Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, Nevada, California, Colorado, Wyoming, and Texas (National Archives). 

Some wanted to annex all of Mexico, but that would presumably mean making Mexicans U.S. citizens. Senator John C. Calhoun argued against putting “savage people… on an equality with the white race” (Teaching American History). 

What’s Happened Since the American Invasion? 

U.S. investment in Mexico started during the authoritarian reign of Porfirio Díaz. “Poor Mexico,” said Díaz. “So far from God and so close to the United States” (Oxford Reference Encyclopedia). “The US and Mexican economies were knitted together,” while for Mexicans, “democratic and civil rights were sacrificed on the altar of economic growth” (History Extra).  

The U.S. helped the Mexican government suppress 1960s student protests. When hundreds died in the Tlatelolco Massacre, the U.S. supported the Mexican government’s claims that the protestors were a communist conspiracy (National Security Archive). Through the 1970s, the U.S. supported the PRI’s one-party rule as it tortured, murdered, and disappeared hundreds of progressive and student activists (World Atlas, Reuters). 

In the 1980s, Mexico was forced to gut social programs to pay off U.S. debt (Oxford Reference Encyclopedia). The 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement decimated Mexican agriculture, which couldn’t compete with American mega-corporations. Over a million Mexican farmers lost their jobs (The Nation).

The U.S. government sent hundreds of millions of dollars of military aid for a brutal Mexican War on Drugs (ASU, In These Times), resulting in hundreds of thousands of deaths and 79,000 missing persons (The Guardian). Narcos fight over the immense U.S. drug market using American guns (BBC News, In These Times). The Zetas, a Mexican cartel, were even trained in Georgia (Spire).

What’s the Relationship Between the U.S. and Mexico Today? 

Mexico is the second-largest trading partner of the United States, which is Mexico’s largest source of foreign investment (Dept. of State, Wilson Center). 

Mexico depends on chicken, beans, and corn imported from the U.S. thanks to the “geopolitics of plunder” (The Nation). Walmart is the country’s largest retailer (Yes! Magazine). U.S. corporations exploit Mexican resources and cheap labor while “international economic relationships were revised in such ways as to guarantee continued subordination of Latin America” to the U.S. (Encyclopedia). 

Around 100,000 Mexicans crossed the border each month to “donate” plasma in the United States. Donors were left with migraines, weakness, and numb limbs but were able to pay for food, power, and diapers — until the Biden administration prohibited it last year (ProPublica, ProPublica). The men of entire towns cross the border to work American carnivals each year (N.Y. Times, Washington Post). U.S. farms suffered a labor shortage when rising wages in Mexico meant fewer people were forced to emigrate (Fwd). 

Because of pressure from the Biden administration, Mexico now deports thousands of Guatemalan asylum seekers so they can’t make it to the U.S. border (Times of San Diego). 

Why Does This Matter? 

Commentators in the U.S. sometimes talk as if the U.S. and Mexico occasionally bump into each other on a few disputed topics. Other times, the U.S. is held up as having mastered economic development, which Mexico hasn’t quite gotten right. 

The U.S. has exerted control over Mexican politics and economics for generations, allowing U.S. citizens to benefit from Mexico’s poverty and instability. If you’ve been to a carnival, you’ve benefited from exploited Mexican workers. If you’ve had a blood transfusion, you may have been given Mexican blood. 

However, structurally racist institutions like the U.S. government and corporations benefit the most, while also exploiting and marginalizing people of color in the U.S. (Encyclopedia). U.S. development depends on Mexican underdevelopment

What Can We Do? 

There’s a long history of U.S.-Mexico solidarity. In 1911, American union members crossed the border to fight in the Mexican Revolution (Portside), while in 1937, 5,000 Mexican union members marched to support a strike in Laredo, Texas. Some present-day American labor unions only exist because of early international solidarity from Mexican workers (Truthout).

In 2018, Americans attended the Women in Struggle summit convened by Indigenous women in southern Mexico (TeleSUR). As the Independent Workers and Peasants Urban and Popular Movement wrote in a statement to Occupy Wall Street, “we need to keep fighting beyond borders and growing our collective strength in our communities, our lands, and our regions” (Occupy Wall Street). 

The “Take Action” items at the top of the page feature grassroots Mexican organizations dealing with the fallout from U.S. policies and practices: inequality, uneven development, and police repression engineered in concert with the United States (USA Today, Stop Urban Shield).

Solidarity can’t stop at the Río Grande. As beneficiaries of neocolonialism, U.S. residents should provide direct support to movements fighting for justice in Mexico. As people face some of the same oppressive corporate and governmental structures, they should work with Mexican social movements to fight for a dignified life for the oppressed on both sides of the border.


  • The U.S. stole over half of Mexico’s territory to create Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, and Wyoming.
  • The U.S.-Mexico relations have been controlled by the United States.
  • U.S. corporations benefit from Mexican resources and the U.S.-Mexico wealth gap. The U.S. government acts to support them. 
2400 1590 Andrew Lee

Andrew Lee

Andrew Lee is a writer and organizer plotting a better world in Philadelphia. His work has previously appeared in Notes From Below, Perspectives on Anarchist Theory, Plan A Magazine, ROAR Magazine, and Teen Vogue.

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