• World

The Rise of Donald Trump Sparks Anger and Laughter in Mexico

6 minute read

When Donald Trump launched his presidential bid in June by calling Mexican migrants “rapists,” artisan Dalton Avalos made what was likely the first piñata of the white haired red-faced tycoon. From his family workshop in the border city of Reynosa, the 28-year old added thick layers of papier-mache so the piñata, a hollow figure that is traditionally hung at fiestas, could be whacked especially hard.

Photos of the Trump piñata rapidly became a media sensation, and copies were made across Mexico and in many migrant communities in the United States. They show how many here are angry at Trump for his discourse, but also see him as a joke. “We like to laugh at people like him and the nonsense that comes out of his mouth,” Avalos says.

Such a mix of indignation and mirth characterizes the reaction to Trump’s rise by many in Mexico, who take offense at his comments on immigrants but don’t believe he is a serious contender. This attitude has largely continued despite Trump’s surge at the polls, such as this week’s CNN/ORC survey finding him 6 points behind Hillary Clinton as a preference for president. Trump’s opinion have filled Mexican news shows, making him a well-known figure south of the Rio Grande. But many here think someone with views that seem to them to be offensive and unrealistic could never be the president of their powerful northern neighbor.

“Donald Trump is loco (mad),” says Angelica Cortes, a 37-year old architect coming out of an office block in a middle class Mexico City neighborhood. “The people of the United States would never put him in charge. What he says makes me indignant. He attacks people who are just trying to make a living, to feed their families.”

Even migrant activists, who represent the community most threatened by Trump’s proposed policies, refuse to believe that Trump is a credible challenge. “His ideas are so ridiculous that they could never happen,” says activist Jorge Mujica, who is originally from Mexico City but now lives in Chicago and is part of the Mexican American Coalition. In a policy paper released Sunday, Trump proposed ending birth right citizenship and seizing money sent by migrants from the United States to Mexico among other measures. He has also called for Mexico to pay for an extended wall on the southern border. “Trump doesn’t seem to realize that these things are politically impossible,” Mujica says. “Rather than making you cry, it makes you laugh.”

However, some Mexican academics are beginning to take the ascent of “The Donald” more seriously in light of the recent polls. “A month ago, I thought that Trump had absolutely no chance. But now I’m not totally sure. Americans can vote in weird ways,” says Jorge Chabat at Mexico City’s Center for Research and Teaching in Economics. Nevertheless, he thinks even a Trump presidency could not alter the Mexico-U.S. relationship that drastically. “Presidents are not gods. Trump could attack Mexico verbally but that would not change the enormous amount of cross-border trade or the entrenched cooperation between the security services.”

There have been various tense moments between the United States and Mexico in recent decades. In 1969, President Richard Nixon virtually shut down the U.S. southern border for 10 days to pressure Mexico over marijuana production. In 1985, the Reagan administration expressed fury over the murder of DEA agent Enrique Camarena in Mexico. In 2011, President Felipe Calderon lashed out at U.S. ambassador Carlos Pascual over diplomatic cables exposed by Wikileaks, leading to Pascual’s resignation. But throughout these eras, trade has steadily increased. Mexico is now the United States’ third biggest trading partner after Canada and China, with $506 billion in cross-border trade last year. About 11 million Mexicans are estimated to live in the United States, about half without papers.

Since Trump launched his campaign, various Mexican businesses have boycotted him. Most notably, telecoms magnate Carlos Slim, the second richest man on the planet, canceled some media projects with the presidential hopeful. “Working with someone so closed-minded was not going to work,” says Slim’s spokesman and son-in-law Arturo Elias. The U.S. based Spanish language network Univision had also announced it would no longer air Trump’s Miss Universe pageant because of his comments.

The Mexican government has issued various rebuttals to Trump’s discourse. On Wednesday, the Foreign Relations Department issued a statement calling his proposals racist. “We maintain our position that these comments (by Trump) reflect prejudice, racism and total ignorance.” On Thursday, the Department also condemned an attack on a Mexican man in Boston, in which the assailants reportedly told police that they were inspired by Trump. “Mexico strongly condemns these acts and makes a call that the contributions of the migrant community to the economy, society, values and culture of the United States are recognized.”

Mujica, the migrant activist, argues that the Mexican government should adopt an even tougher line on Trump, and asks why President Enrique Pena Nieto himself has not waded into the debate. “If your people are getting verbal abuse then you should defend them,” Mujica says. However, others says it is better not to rise to the bait. Gloria Trevi, a Mexican pop diva on a current U.S tour, said it is best to smile in the face of ignorance.“Latinos should react with class, not react in the same way as we are being provoked. We are greater than that. We have helped this country to be as big as it is in this moment,” Trevi said at a press conference in Los Angeles. “I think that with a smile on our face and with love is how we should respond to any attack and show the greatness of Latinos.”

More Must-Reads From TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com