By LP Hastings
By Michael Goldstein
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“Their time here ended,” Rodriguez y Quezada tells the Weekly. The consulate, he says, was interested in bringing in organizations who would be present during their allotted time slots.
Sarmiento, an anthropologist by training, was prohibited by the consul from teaching an after-hours anthropology class at UC Irvine, which she’d done for several years. She was also prohibited, along with Avila and other staffers, from helping with the planning of the Independence Day parade. With a heavy heart, Sarmiento says, she resigned last spring. “I loved my job,” she says. “But I couldn’t work like that anymore.”
One of the consulate’s major PR problems, says Perez, was the gap it allowed between the time Sarmiento left and when someone else was brought on to fill her post, which happened in December. “They really waited a long time to have that community position filled, and that really hindered the people’s perception of what the consulado was doing,” Perez says. “Because that position wasn’t filled [quickly], it really hurt the collaboration with the community organizations.”
Rodriguez y Quezada grows slightly irritated when asked about the allegations of disengagement and poorer service. He rattles off the programs that continue at the consulate and the changes he’s made. “Passports are now processed within half an hour instead of three hours,” he says. The consulate office now has educational sessions for people facing foreclosures and has upped its legal-protection division, he continues. “There is no confusion with the community. I don’t know why some people believe there is confusion; there is none. The consulate does its work and runs its activities normally.”
Still, the rest of Rodriguez y Quezada’s first year played out like a public-relations mess, prompting the hiring of a full-time press officer in the fall. Fights over who would coordinate the Independence Day parade erupted in the summer: Rodriguez y Quezada appointed himself chairman of the planning committee and then-girlfriend Rosalva Garcia, a local dentist, as president, prompting accusations of nepotism in the Spanish-language press. Rodriguez y Quezada says he served only as “honorary president” of the committee, like all other consuls do, and never appointed himself to anything. However, the Weekly obtained a signed copy of a resignation from his post as “chairman” of the committee, as well as a signed copy from Garcia giving up her post as president. The schism resulted in a split between the consul and several other committee members and federation representatives, including Gonzalez and the Torreses, and led to a peculiar dual Independence Day celebration, which involved one group flying in former consul Ortiz Haro for the traditional grito, or scream, while Rodriguez y Quezada and mayor Miguel Pulido gave competing gritos on other stages.
At the end of the tumultuous year, six longtime consulate employees were fired.
* * *
Five days before Christmas, Mildret Avila stood out in the cold, hugging her blazer close to her body and peering through the windows of her old office. The scene inside was like a coruscating snow globe: Cups of warm cacao-tinged champurrado were passed around, and plump, steaming tamales were unwrapped and devoured by the private posada guests as kids scampered on the floor for candy from a pummeled piñata.
Avila caught a glimpse of the consul, conspicuous in a festive, soft-apricot sweater, as he laughed with some guests. As she stood and felt the beginnings of a soft drizzle, Avila put her protest sign down, smoothed her hair out and turned to face the Spanish-language television cameras. Soon, she was quietly wiping away tears as she talked.
“We have a right to know what we did wrong, and we have a right to our jobs if we did nothing wrong,” she says of her decision to go on television.
“We were trembling in our pants,” says Avila’s colleague, Laura Pantoja, of the night they spoke to the news. Pantoja, a former journalist and farmworker organizer, was fired after two years at the consulate. “We wanted to know—and we still need to know—why we were all fired in such a way and why our government has ignored our requests for an explanation,” she says in Spanish.
Avila, who earned a law degree in Mexico before emigrating 12 years ago, had once picked flowers in Illinois while pregnant with her daughter and worked in the assembly lines of a cardboard-tube factory in Los Angeles. This gave her some credibility among the young parents and elderly paisanos who would frequent the consulate in Santa Ana in need of this or that document or sometimes just to drop off tamales, she says.
“A lot of the time, I understood what they’d been through, and that made my work extremely rewarding,” she says. Avila’s voice is soft but indignant: When she asked Herrera, who verbally dismissed her, if there was a problem with her performance, he told her no, there had not been any problem. He said simply that her contract, which had been renewed every year for the 10 years prior, would not be renewed because of internal restructuring. (Press officer Augustin Pradillo informed the Weekly that all of the positions have since been filled.)
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