The theme of the Latino Issues Forum held recently in San Antonio, Texas was the often tenuous relationship between the U.S. and Mexico. In some ways, our 2000-mile border has never been more impassable. A series of crises such as the recession, narco-terrorism, and even the swine flu epidemic have raised tensions nearly to the breaking point. This creates a compelling motivation to seek common ground, and build bridges of understanding between between the two countries.

A select group of business and community leaders participated in this event held at the International Center overlooking San Antonio’s famed Riverwalk. They were greeted by Victoria Garcia, a prominent labor attorney with the firm of Bracewell & Giuliani and the Chairman of the Board of the Free Trade Alliance. The keynote speaker was Ramiro Cavazos, who in 2008 became President and CEO of the San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

Moderated by Alfredo J. Estrada, the Editor of LATINO Magazine, the panel included Jorge Garces, Managing Director and CEO of the North American Development Bank (NADBank); Eddie Aldrete, Senior Vice President, International Bank of Commerce; and Francisco Dominguez, Corporate Division North America for Aeromexico.

A native of Cuba, Jorge Garces has over 30 years experience in border issues and was the Mexico and Border Affairs Manager for the Office of the Texas Secretary of State. He explained to the audience the role of NADBank, which is capitalized and governed equally between the U.S. and Mexico for the purpose of developing infrastructure in the border region. NADBank promotes goodwill between the two countries by literally “building bridges.” Garces noted the bank supports 119 projects in Mexico, actively improving the lives of several million people “from the grassroots up.”

Representing Laredo-based International Bank of Commerce, the largest Hispanic-owned bank in the country, Eddie Aldrete had a similar perspective. While he admitted the challenge, he highlighted several bright spots. First, there’s better economic integration on the border. “China has eaten our lunch,” he noted with respect to the decline of maquiladoras. But with the global recession and lower cost of fuel, doing business with Mexico “makes more sense.” Second, there’s been an increase in trade, based primarily on consumer spending. While Mexico is outpacing us on infrastructure development, this presents a financing opportunity for the U.S..But Aldrete argued for signing a free trade agreement with Columbia, saying: “If we don’t. other countries will.”

Francisco Dominguez was born in Mexico City and admits that his heart is still there. But through Aeromexico’s efforts in the U.S., he is building a different type of bridge, bringing people and families together. The airline has expanded agressively in the U.S., reaching 18 new destinations. Although travel to Mexico has declined, Dominguez noted “it’s not as much as they say.” And while Aeromexico may slightly reduce capacity, it will continue to increase the number of destinations later this year.

All the panelists agreed that the Latino business community had a key role to play in creating trust between the U.S. and Mexico. They expressed hope that in the Obama Administration, Mexico would have a greater priority, and that immigration reform would be part of the legislative agenda. But to ignore these issues creates an enormous opportunity cost. One member of the audience stated that international travel to the U.S. had declined 8%. If it had kept pace, then an additional 45 million people would have come. That’s quite a few potential customers!