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The Two Aristocrats

LEAVE IT TO L.A., where even Spanish-speaking immigrant workers can look quickly past the void of celebrity, to welcome Mexican President Vicente Fox with chants of “Murderer!”

Fox, peering out a dark SUV’s back-seat window, was smiling at first when his motorcade drove past Pershing Square downtown shortly after he arrived in L.A. last Friday. The grin was understandable. Everywhere else Fox had gone on his four-day, three-state tour of the western United States, news outlets reported that in places where Mexican immigrants might hunger for some kind of positive reinforcement — places like Yakima, Washington — Fox was greeted with adulation and chants of “Viva Mexico!”

No such scenes in L.A. Only a few clumps of protesters came out with the hope of catching a glimpse of Fox and his famous first lady, Marta Sahagún. Some were there to chastize Fox for brutal government crackdowns against flower vendors in San Salvador Atenco, a town outside of Mexico City, in early May. There were aging braceros still waiting for government compensation for guest worker–style labor rendered decades ago in the U.S. Some held signs supporting the presidential candidacy of lefty populist Andrés Manuel López Obrador. The Fox drive-by even attracted the South Central Farmers, ANSWER L.A. and one lone African-American man in a crisp suit and gentleman’s hat who was protesting illegal immigration.

When Fox’s ride rolled past and he realized that all the commotion wasn’t warm and fuzzy, his smile quickly flipped into a grim frown. A second later, the SUVs turned left into the Millennium Biltmore Hotel to deliver Fox to an audience with Cardinal Roger Mahony and a reception for well-connected Mexican expats — mostly members of PAN, Fox’s conservative National Action Party.

So started Fox’s half-day visit to Los Angeles and the last day of what was expected to be his final swing through the United States as president of Mexico. It was hard to get over how remarkably normal the whole thing felt. Sure, he was met by Minutemen in Salt Lake City and a few people who held up signs that read “FOX FIX MEXICO” at the Getty Center. And yes, he criticized on several occasions the proposed wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.

But Fox was focused primarily on economic matters throughout the trip, discussing trade with elected officials and meeting with business leaders in several cities. He was welcomed warmly in Sacramento by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and at the governor’s mansion in Utah, a state where illegal immigrants are allowed driving privileges and can pay in-state tuition for public universities (due in part to the immigrant-friendly dogmas of the Mormon Church).

A day before Fox arrived in L.A., Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa called the press corps to his mayoral suite in City Hall so he could try to convince them that he and Fox would not talk about immigration during their brief meeting, but instead focus on trade between L.A. and Mexico, estimated at $25 billion a year. The reporters weren’t buying it, and suggested Villaraigosa was avoiding an issue widely seen as his territory. Villaraigosa pressed back.

“Let’s be clear about this, I was the guy who greeted 500,000 people [on March 25], I was there when the 750,000 people came on May 1. .?.?. I’ve met with the U.S. president and had a discussion on this issue. I am not in any way avoiding my right and responsibility as someone who represents a city like Los Angeles, with so many foreign-born, with so many immigrants, but I just believe — maybe I’m old-fashioned — I just believe that as mayor of the city of Los Angeles it’s appropriate for me to have those discussions with policymakers here in the United States of America.”

When asked how he would respond if Fox himself brought up immigration, Villaraigosa said, “I will politely say, ‘Let’s focus on the issues that I have control of, and that’s the issue of the economy, the issue of trade, the issue of tourism.’?”

TRADE JUNKETS, THOUGH, are rarely an incubator for actual progress of any kind. Fox, who rode into office with high expectations and whose reforms have been largely overshadowed by the failure of those broader expectations being fulfilled, has little time to push any more reforms in Mexico, said Christopher Woodruff, director of the Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies at UC San Diego. “It’s the end of his term, Congress has finished its last session with him as president; he’s essentially a lame duck,” Woodruff said.

In this respect, the Fox visit was sort of pointless. Pointless, of course, if you believe powerful men getting together every now and then and smiling for flashing cameras serves no purpose at all, not one.

High atop the city on Friday night, at the Getty Center, around dusk, Vicente Fox and Marta Sahagún, who was wearing an electric-bright violet gown and what appeared to be white pearls, arrived for a dinner in their honor.

As they ascended the Getty’s wide travertine steps, men in dark suits hovered nervously around them. At the top of the steps, Villaraigosa, his wife, Corina, and their two young children stood in a row, waiting to personally greet the Mexican first couple. The Villaraigosas were also surrounded by their own army of serious-faced men in dark suits. Photographers hung in the periphery and, farther back, tourists and Getty employees watched. It was all very silent and tense.

One by one, the Villaraigosa family met and greeted Fox and Sahagún. It was utterly pointless pageantry. But it was also a portrait of Old World aristocracy meeting New World aristocracy, a moment of intimate statesmanship, artfully constructed in a media vacuum, apart from policies, pundits and pressing issues.

With security agents still surging all around them, the families moved indoors for dinner.

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