Mexican farmer's daughter: NAFTA destroyed us

Mexicans protest gas hikes
Mexicans protest gas hikes

If you ask President Donald Trump, Mexico won the lottery almost 25 years ago when it signed NAFTA, the free trade deal with the United States and Canada.

"It has been a one-sided deal from the beginning of NAFTA with massive numbers of jobs and companies lost," Trump tweeted on Jan. 26.

But if you ask Griselda Mendoza, the deal nearly destroyed her family and her community of corn farmers in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca.

"Before NAFTA, everybody here grew corn. People didn't make much money, but nobody went hungry," says Mendoza, 23, sharing common lore from her region. She was born just after NAFTA was signed.

As cheap American corn came pouring in from the border, it had a devastating effect on her family. Her father, Benancio Mendoza, couldn't compete and make a living wage selling corn. He had to give up and move to the United States looking for a job. He took up a job as a cook in Tennessee, saving up money to send home so his kids could attend school.

"He went north looking for a job and I didn't see him again for 18 years," says Mendoza, who now works as a secretary for the local government.

While NAFTA did boost Mexico's manufacturing industry, it gutted many farming towns -- especially mom and pop corn farmers like Benancio's.

Related: Trump isn't Mexico's biggest fear for now

Mexico lost over 900,000 farming jobs in the first decade of NAFTA, according to data from the United States Department of Agriculture.

Mendoza says her small town of Santa Ana Zegache is now inhabited mostly by women and the elderly because working-age men went to the United States looking for jobs -- the vast majority crossing over illegally.

NAFTA opened the Mexican market to U.S. corn producers who were subsidized by the U.S. government.

That led to a boom in U.S. corn exports to Mexico -- and a bust in Mexican farming jobs like Benancio's. In the first decade of NAFTA, U.S. corn exports to Mexico quadrupled while Mexican corn prices fell 66%, according to Tufts University professor Tim A. Wise, a trade expert.

The U.S. is the world's number one producer and exporter of corn - and Mexico is its number one export market.

Indeed, some of NAFTA's biggest winners were U.S. farmers.

chart us corn exports

Related: Mexicans threaten to boycott U.S. brands

In 1995, the year after NAFTA went into effect, U.S. corn exports to Mexico were $391 million. In 2015, American corn farmers sent $2.4 billion south of the border, according to U.S. Census and Agriculture Department data.

Not surprisingly, Trump's threats to build a wall, renegotiate NAFTA and possibly slap a 20% tax on Mexican goods has American farmers worried. They fear Mexico will retaliate and slap a tax on U.S. corn.

"It probably would cost corn jobs," says Kurt Hora, president of the Iowa Corn Growers Association. "Mexico is a huge market for us...any disruption in trade for corn would be very detrimental to U.S. farmers."

American agriculture businesses know their NAFTA gains are at risk. In a recent letter to President Trump, 130 U.S. agriculture companies, including Cargill, touted the gains of NAFTA for American farmers.

Related: Trump wants to speed up NAFTA talks

"In the 20 years since NAFTA was implemented, the U.S. food and agriculture industry has become increasingly efficient and innovative—growing to support millions of jobs," according to the letter.

Corn exports to Mexico alone support lots of American jobs. In Kansas, where 99% of corn goes to Mexico, 48,000 jobs depend on trade with America's southern neighbor. In Iowa, 53,000 jobs rely on trade with Mexico, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

But south of the border, those farming jobs are few and far between.

Benancio Mendoza returned to Mexico a few years ago and started farming corn again as a hobby. But the family knows farming as a way to sustain the family isn't in their future anymore.

"Young people like me have gone to school, we want other things," says Griselda.

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