By On the occasion of our 20th anniversary
By Gustavo Arellano
By R. Scott Moxley
By Alfonso Delgado
By Courtney Hamilton
By Joel Beers
By Peter Maguire
By Charles Lam
The Los Angeles consulate opened one of its first Orange County branch offices on Fourth Street in Santa Ana 21 years ago; it then served about 300,000 Mexican-national residents. The office soon moved and became one of the busiest of the 48 U.S. consulates, serving some 800,000 people.
Rodriguez y Quezada, the son of a well-known Mexican muralist and champion swimmer, is, at 64, is on the cusp of retirement, but he wanted to come to the county and run the frenetic consulate like a quiet, well-oiled machine. Before coming to Orange County, he was working in a foreign ministry office in Iztacalco, a small Mexico City borough.
The salt-and-pepper-haired Rodriguez y Quezada prefers to wear three-piece suits to work and lives in Los Angeles rather than Orange County because, he says, it’s easier for him to attend events in the area. He’s also busy working on a documentary about a Mexican diplomat who saved the lives of persecuted Jews during World War II.
A year ago, he told the Weekly he was interested in promoting the arts and in engaging the community at large with Mexico’s vast cultural offerings. “It’s not all about ID cards and passports,” he said. Since taking office in Santa Ana, he says in a recent interview, he has brought opera singers and pianists to town for concerts, sponsored film screenings, and given a presentation at Taco Bell Headquarters during a Pepsi-sponsored mariachi event (to the chagrin of those in the community who remember the protests against Taco Bell at those same headquarters in 2004 because of substandard working conditions for the chain’s Florida tomato pickers).
As he sits at a cherry-wood desk in a pristine, emerald-carpeted office upstairs from the main waiting room and behind two security-guard stations and a secretary, his small, round brown eyes perk up when he talks about a consulate-sponsored art exhibit at the Bowers Museum of Cultural Art that will showcase a private collection from Mexico City in September.
“One of the major critiques of the current consul is that he’s not as accessible and that the types of events he’s promoted are for the upper echelon of the Mexican community,” says Julio Perez, a local labor leader who was recently elected to the Institute of Mexicans Living Abroad. “That’s the perception of him that people have.”
Mostly, that perception seems to stem from comparisons to his predecessor, Luis Miguel Ortiz Haro. A politician and businessman with no previous diplomatic experience, Ortiz Haro wiped out the stuffy, bureaucratic stodginess endemic to embassies the world over and transformed the little, yellow Santa Ana consulate building at Broadway and Civic Center Boulevard into a kind of town square for the county’s Mexican community.
Ortiz Haro, who had never lived outside of Mexico City before coming to Orange County in 2002, enrolled in English classes at Santa Ana College as soon as he arrived. At first, he waited to hear from his constituents. “No one came, and my phone didn’t ring,” he says by phone from Mexico City. He realized that even his own staff wasn’t used to having any kind of relationship with their consul. “I told my staff to teach me how to make passports, ID cards, everything, so that I could do the work, too, and not just order people to do it.”
He moved his office downstairs so that visitors could have immediate access to him, and he created Miercoles Paisano, a kind of “all-ears” day every Wednesday for anyone who wanted to come in and talk to him personally. He’d stay as late as he could, usually until 7 p.m., before rushing off to his English classes. No one at the country’s 47 other consulates had ever done anything like that. His goal, he says, was not only to have the consul “grow closer to the people, but also to have the people grow closer to the consul. And I don’t mean the consulate,” he explains. “I mean the consul.”
The result, after a few years, was a consulate that operated more like an extended family, with Ortiz Haro as the plainspeaking, tie-eschewing, cigar-smoking uncle at its head. There are numerous stories about Ortiz Haro that still circulate, fable-like, through the community: how he would reach into his pocket and lend his own money to someone in need, take midnight phone calls, or personally negotiate with county and law-enforcement officials, with whom he built good relationships.
Ortiz Haro, a member of the country’s long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), was appointed by the government of then-president Vicente Fox, a member of the country’s more conservative National Action Party (PAN). He knew, he says, that his tenure could end at any moment, especially with a new president. In November 2007, after president Felipe Calderón took office, Ortiz Haro was told he was being dismissed. Stunned community members circulated petitions that were sent to the foreign ministry, held protests against Calderón during his visit to Los Angeles, and even went to the ministry’s headquarters in Mexico City, pleading for Ortiz Haro’s reinstatement. For his part, Ortiz Haro didn’t comment or become involved with the activity, accepting the government’s decision as part of his contractual agreement. “It’s something you know from the moment you arrive,” he says. “I didn’t ask them for my post back because they had told me the change had nothing to do with my work or performance.”