ON a drive through Texas at the tender age of six, Maria Esther Salcedo Arce innocently asked how Mexico lost Texas.
"My father took my hand and started twisting it," recalls the Mexican college senior, who is majoring in international relations at the University of the Americas (UDLA) here. "I had a toy in my other hand. And he said, 'If I twisted harder, would you let go of that toy? Well, he told me, something like that happened to Mexico, says Ms. Salcedo.
This early "history" lesson is not so unusual. About 10 years ago, Mexican second graders were asked in a survey, "Who is the enemy of Mexico?" The most common answer: "The United States."
Living next door to the world's most powerful nation, which has shown a penchant for military and less-direct intervention, certainly colors the perceptions of Mexican students taking US studies courses.
"One of the major difficulties we face is that well-entrenched concept," says Jesus Velasco Marquez, coordinator of the Center of Inter-American Studies at UDLA. "From the [Mexican] War of 1846 on, Mexican nationalism has had significant content of anti-North Americanism."
Until recently, this attitude - among students and teachers - has kept university-level studies of the US from being popular or common.
In 1984, Mexico's largest public university, the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) in Mexico City set up a US studies center and a master's program in US-Mexico relations. The master's program endured, but the center folded after just four months. "To express an interest in US studies was to be labeled pro-Yankee. It was an intellectual liability," says Dr. Velasco.
The international collapse of communism, however, coupled with the drive by Mexico's president Carlos Salinas de Gortari to get a North American free-trade pact, is bringing US studies into vogue.
Armed with a PhD in US history and 10 years in the US working for the Mexican ministry of foreign affairs, UDLA's Velasco was slightly ahead of the trend when, in 1987, he started Mexico's first master's program in solely US studies (not US-Mexico relations). To date, the program boasts only six graduates, but 20 students are currently enrolled. Another prestigious private university, the Autonomous Technological Institute of Monterrey, opened the Center for Strategic Studies of the US in 1991.
"Attitudes are changing among professors. Marxism had a strong influence on the national university [UNAM] faculty. Critics remain, but there's more room for other points of view now," notes Paz Consuelo Marquez Padilla, academic secretary of the UNAM's Center for Research on the United States, which was founded in 1989.
Students enrolled in courses on the US typically cite a need to better know their increasingly important economic partner or adversary, depending on their viewpoint.
"Whether we have a free-trade agreement or not, our two countries are integrating economically. We need to know the ideological and political perspectives of the US," says Felipe Flores Bernal, a UNAM international relations major who wants to work in the finance sector.
Salcedo, who is from Ensenada, Mexico, has lived in, and traveled frequently to, the US. "I want to understand why when you cross the border, the houses are beautiful and everything seems so much better. We're hard working, intelligent people. Why is Mexico in such bad shape? I want to see what works for the US so we can improve ourselves."
On leave from the Mexican foreign service, Jacob Prado is completing his master's thesis at UDLA. He's studied what members of the US Congress said on issues affecting Mexico from 1986 to '89 and compared this with how they voted. Although representatives from Hispanic districts, border states, and Democrats tended to speak out in favor of Mexico's positions, Mr. Prado found that they often voted on the basis of local interests. "Our policymakers need to know what those internal considerations are becaus e they are more important to Congress than external ones," concludes Prado.
There appears to be a high level of comprehension about how the US political system works among students and professors interviewed. In a UDLA first-semester graduate class, "Government and the Political Process," students get a detailed lesson on the process of gaining political office at a local level. A California voter-registration card is reviewed line by line, and the professor notes that political parties in the US have less power than in Mexico. "Here the party leadership appoints the candidates.
In the US there are elections, and parties are a much weaker influence," he says.
For a mid-term paper, UDLA graduate students are asked to identify and explain the role of US agencies and congressional committees involved in "Fast Track" legislation and free-trade negotiations.
Classes are taught in Spanish, but at the graduate level the ability to read and write English is required. Most of the texts are Spanish translations of notable textbooks in English. For example, Tocqueville's 1835 "Democracy in America" is widely used. The libraries of the US studies centers at UDLA and UNAM are both packed with the latest books on US politics. The two Spanish texts found in many US studies classes are "Mexico Frente a los Estados Unidos," by Lorenzo Meyer, and "Limits of Friendship," coauthored by Jorge Castaneda and Robert Pastor. Meyer and Castaneda are among the best-known Mexican critics of Salinas's policies of closer US relations.
Most of the students interviewed said that their teachers were relatively unbiased. One UNAM international relations professor, however, was sharply critical of the free-trade talks which, he said, were "70 percent of the current content" of a US-Mexico Relations class.
Martha Cepress, a US citizen working on her master's in US studies at UDLA (which receives funding from several US foundations), describes the teaching as "very pro-American" when compared with similar courses in US universities. But given the biases many Mexicans bring to class, she doesn't necessarily see that as bad. "There's a tendency to justify US actions and policies. But to simply attack US policy would probably be counterproductive," she says.
For example, in a recent class Salcedo got something more than her father's arm-twisting explanation of the annexation of Texas.
"One reason we lost Texas was because we allowed too many foreigners, who couldn't integrate into our culture, into our territory. When Mexico tried to impose taxes they didn't accept it. We had a problem of 'undocumented workers, she laughs. "The US incorporation of Texas was to counterbalance Oregon becoming a state. It was part of an effort to preserve the Federalist system by maintaining the balance of representatives in the US Congress between the North and South."
Despite generally favorable reviews by students, US studies professors here say they have a long way to go.
For example, undergraduates in international relations at UNAM are not required to take a US studies course. US studies is one of a long list of optional courses offered.
"You can get a master's in political science in Mexico and not know what political action committees (PACs) are and how they influence US policy," laments Velasco. "A Mexican with a BA in political science who goes to the US for a master's or PhD in the American political system will start from scratch - reading US high school textbooks." Next week: American studies programs in Japan.