Former Mayor of Juárez returns to Oberlin, Inspires Debate

Julia Herbst

Members of the Oberlin community flocked to Craig Lecture Hall last Sunday to hear José Reyes Ferriz, mayor of Ciudad Juárez from 2007 to 2010, speak about U.S. Mexico relations and the 2012 elections.

According to Chair of Latin American Studies and History Professor Steve Volk, who introduced Reyes Ferriz that night, maintaining amicable relations between Mexico and the U.S. is of paramount importance for promoting the interests of both countries. However, deep and messy connections between Mexico and the U.S. make many issues, such as immigration, extremely complicated.

“These are two countries that are so tangled up that they cannot be untangled,” said Volk. “Even if you stopped trade, so much of our population is of Mexican ancestry. That’s something that will always be there. And so the U.S. is living through a moment of insanity … in which it attempts to build walls between two countries that cannot be separated. There’s just no way it can. To do that is to ignore the problem. I think we’re probably at one of the ugliest moments that I’ve seen in U.S. history.” Reyes Ferriz, who was invited back to Oberlin after lecturing last year, spent much of his talk providing the attendees with a sense of the major political players involved in Mexican government from the 1960s to now. After the refresher in Mexican politics, Reyes Ferriz shared some of his predictions for the 2012 elections.

“We have a very strong PRI [Mexico’s Institutional Revolutionary Party, of which Reyes Ferriz is a member], we have a very debilitated PAN [National Action Party] because of the security situation where everyone blames the president of Mexico, and we have a very debilitated Left that’s fighting amongst itself as to who will be its candidate,” said Reyes Ferriz. “The PRI has the best [candidate], politically speaking. He’s young and good-looking, [the] former governor of the largest state of Mexico, [an] extremely popular candidate named Enrique Peña Nieto. What will happen? I have no doubt that Peña Nieto will be the next president unless the PAN and the PRD [the Democratic Revolution Party] join hands against the PRI, which they have in several states.”

Reyes Ferriz said he anticipates that the outcome of the U.S. election will have a significant impact on future relations between the bordering nations.

“How the relations will be with the U.S.?” asked Reyes Ferriz. “If there’s a Republican president, they’ll be difficult. Mexico is very wary of the U.S., especially of Republican presidents. If a Democrat wins, they’ll be less difficult, but still difficult.” In addition to Sunday’s lecture, Reyes Ferriz spent the past week teaching a four-part evening lecture series to 90 students about the past, present and future of Ciudad Juárez.

“The mini-course came out of the idea that he could get into these themes [in a] more in-depth [way],” said Volk, who helped develop the mini-course. “One of the downsides of a single lecture when somebody comes to campus is that you never get a chance to pursue things beyond that hour and a half. So here was a chance to really allow a kind of dialogue between students and Mr. Reyes Ferriz about these topics.”

For Reyes Ferriz, this mini-course offered an opportunity to interact with and educate students on a more personal level. “What I hope to get from [the mini-course] is a better understanding of the students,” said Reyes Ferriz. “Some of them … will become Congressmen or a person in a position to make decisions about Mexico, and the fact that they’re well educated about what’s going on will help Mexico in the future. So that’s very important to me.”

Opinions about Reyes Ferriz’s lectures were mixed among students.

“I think he definitely speaks like a politician,” said College senior Daniela Medrano, who attended his lecture on Sunday. “He knows what to say and [you shouldn’t] necessarily believe everything that he says. He is a PRI politician … and I don’t exactly know if he’s corrupt or not but I do know that the PRI has a history of violating human rights in Mexico … but I think that it’s really important for us to have someone like that here because he did have a very powerful position.”

For College senior Hannah Joseph, who took the mini-course Reyes Ferriz taught, the differences between Reyes Ferriz’s opinions and those of many of the students were especially remarkable.

“The first [class in the mini-course] was just about the past history of Ciudad Juárez, but what I thought was interesting was the student response to what he said at the end of the first class. [The response] was highly critical. He had mostly spoken about the history of the city and then he went on to talk about the factors that cause a society to function such as relationships with family, with some sort of authority or police, and neighbors and religion. These are the factors that enable an individual to function within society. What he was arguing is that in Juárez, which is such a big city, all of those factors have sort of disappeared, … There’s all this [crime] … and there needs to be enforcement of petty crime in order to gain more control of the city again.”

“There was an uproar in the class about that because of what would be the unequal effect on the poor populations in Juárez,” said Joseph. “It just seemed to me … that the dialogue was really interesting because clearly he knows that there is poverty in the city where he was a mayor. [But] the way that Oberlin students think about this issue and the way that he thinks about it are clearly so different.”

However, the second class discussion, which focused on the war on drugs, was very powerful for many students, as Reyes Ferriz shared personal stories from his time as mayor.

“It was amazing,” said Joseph. “He ended on a story that he told last year of going to bed with this massive gun under his bed, thinking that he was going to die because he had heard all day that the cartel was going to target him. And that was the end of the chat. There were some interesting questions but [the students] were definitely a lot less critical after hearing that.” Despite the differences in opinion, Volk stressed the important perspective that Reyes Ferriz brings to a dialogue about U.S.-Mexico relations.

“Clearly what [Reyes Ferriz] brings is the personal perspective,” said Volk. “So it was on that basis that we invited him back. …What he can provide to Oberlin is not necessarily something that Oberlin students will agree with 100 percent. If fact, they’ll find some differences. But he was the one in the job, and so you have a lot to listen to in that sense.”