Mexican-Americans Count On Obama To Connect

Many Mexican-Americans have high hopes for President Obama's trip to Mexico. They believe he can connect with the Mexican people in a way that few other U.S. leaders have. Many compare the trip to when President Kennedy visited Mexico City in 1962.

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Expectations are also high in the country among many Mexican-Americans. They believe that President Obama can connect with the Mexican people in a way that few other American leaders have. NPR's Mandalit Del Barco has the view from Los Angeles.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO: Even before he was elected, Barack Obama was reaching out to Mexican-Americans. Last year, when he visited Los Angeles as a candidate, Obama actually tried to serenade the listeners of a popular Spanish language radio show. The host, Piolin, egged him on.

(Soundbite of radio show)

PIOLINE (Radio Host): (Spanish spoken)

President BARACK OBAMA: (Spanish spoken)

PIOLINE: (Spanish spoken)

Pres. OBAMA: (Spanish spoken)

PIOLIN: (Spanish spoken)

President OBAMA: (Spanish spoken)

(Soundbite of applause)

President OBAMA: Thank you. Huh?

Unidentified Woman: (Singing in Spanish)

President OBAMA: It sounds a little better when she sings it.

PIOLIN: (Spanish spoken)

DEL BARCO: In Mexico it's unlikely the president will go for an encore, but for many Mexican-Americans he's already in tune with what they're thinking.

(Soundbite of song)

DEL BARCO: One place to get a read on how President Obama's doing is the Plaza Mexico Shopping Mall in the L.A. suburb of Lynwood. It recreates many of the sounds and sights of Mexico City.

John Reza manages the Libreria Martinez Bookstore.

Mr. JOHN REZA (Bookstore Manager): I'm really excited that President Obama's going to visit with President Calderon.

DEL BARCO: Reza was born in California, but still has family ties to Mexico.

Mr. REZA: We're a few generations removed, but it's still a sense of pride that the president's going down there to try and solve the issues and work together. So I think it is - it's a big deal.

DEL BARCO: The main concern here is the same as for many south of the border: stemming the growing violence being waged by deadly drug cartels.

Mr. JOE SERNAZ(ph) (Small Business Owner): Juarez - you know, Juarez, yeah, it's really bad. A lot of people are dying, and it's tough. It's tough. Hopefully they can work something out.

DEL BARCO: Joe Sernaz, 35, a small business owner who contracts trucks for Federal Express; he says he's glad to hear about the president's promises to crack down on the drug lords and on Americans who smuggle cash and weapons into Mexico. Sernaz says he also hopes the president takes time out to visit Mexico City's shanty towns and smaller pueblos.

Mr. SERNAZ: So he can see how life is. It's tough over there. It's not easy. So he can see that the people that come from over there, over here, it's not just to come illegally. They come to, you know, to help their families out over there, 'cause it's tough. It's really tough.

DEL BARCO: Like many Mexican immigrants to Los Angeles, Maria Sanchez(ph) says she was inspired to vote for the first time in the U.S. for Obama.

Ms. MARIA SANCHEZ (Mexican Immigrant): (Spanish spoken)

DEL BARCO: Sanchez says she loves her new president, who seems to her very different from those who held the job before. And as a person of color, she says, Obama has a rare opportunity to inspire Mexicans and Mexican-Americans.

Many of them are comparing Obama's trip to another presidential visit - in 1962, when John F. Kennedy and his wife Jackie visited Mexico City.

(Soundbite of archived recording)

Unidentified Man: Today the people of free democratic Mexico come together to welcome the 35th president of the United States.

DEL BARCO: Jackie Kennedy wowed the crowds by addressing them in Spanish.

(Soundbite of archived recording)

Ms. JACKIE KENNEDY (Former First Lady): (Spanish spoken)

Mr. JAVIER SIVAJA(ph): When she spoke in Spanish, she was deep. She spoke about democracy.

DEL BARCO: Javier Sivaja says Mrs. Kennedy built some bridges that day.

Mr. SIVAJA: Jackie was very cultured, so she knew about the history of Mexico. She had conversations about the history of Mexico with intellectuals. So that made people's perceptions change about, you know, dumb Americans - you know, they only know about themselves.

DEL BARCO: Sivaja says he hopes President Obama can follow the Kennedy's lead and help Mexico feel more like a neighbor than a problem.

Mandalit del Barco, NPR News.

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