The Man Who Isn’t There
After one year as Orange County’s Mexican consul, Carlos Rodriguez y Quezada has done an excellent job of sparking protests, burning bridges and making people miss his predecessor
Beneath the unforgiving glare of fluorescent conference-room lights, Manuela Herrada tells state Senator Lou Correa about the time the Mexican consul in Santa Ana insulted her.
Herrada, president of a local club representing the Mexican state of Coahuila, recalls that, before their appointment to register the club with the consul in September 2008, she and other members were told to make sure they came bathed and well-dressed. Herrada, wearing a button-down blouse and sporting a chic bob, says that once the group was in the office of consul Carlos Rodriguez y Quezada, “[The consul] looked around at us and started asking questions right away: ‘How many years have you been here? How did you get here? . . . How many of you are mojados [wetbacks]?’”
They were stunned, says Jose del Rio, one of the club members there that day. “We were so surprised we didn’t even know what to say. . . . I’ve been here many years. I have my own business. But why does he treat people that way?”
On this recent Friday night at Correa’s Santa Ana district office, Herrada is among a group of some 50 residents, community leaders, and presidents of more than a dozen Mexican-state clubs sharing their troubling experiences with Rodriguez y Quezada, who has served for a little more than a year. (Rodriguez y Quezada denies that he has ever asked anyone about their immigration status. “We never ask for that information,” says consulate press director Augustin Pradillo. “If someone says that happened, it’s a lie.”)
Some of the old women and young mothers in the group hesitate before standing up and reading in Spanish from letters they’ve handwritten or typed. Others read correspondence from friends or neighbors who couldn’t make it. They talk about being humiliated, ignored, turned away. Correa jots down names and frowns. This is the second town hall he’s had regarding the issue.
“I knew the previous two consuls, and this is the first kind of request like this that’s been made to me,” he says. “It’s a unique situation because you’re not dealing with the city council office, with a state office, with the U.S. Senate office—you’re dealing with a foreign-government office in your country.
“You use your diplomatic skills to make sure the constituency and the consul have a productive relationship. But how do you bring back a relationship that was there in the past?” he wonders, no doubt referring to Rodriguez y Quezada’s wildly popular predecessor, Luis Miguel Ortiz Haro. Correa says he informed the consul of the two previous town halls with the community and gave him open invitations to attend, but Rodriguez y Quezada hasn’t come.
The new consul, those in attendance allege, is neglecting and, in many cases, offending and alienating the Mexican citizens in the county he’s being paid handsomely (close to $10,000 per month) to serve. Allegations of nepotism, elitism and favoritism all at the hands of the consul and his deputy consul, Manuel Herrera, have swirled throughout the county and the Spanish-language print and television media since last summer. The situation heated up just before Christmas, when half a dozen longtime employees were fired without warning or reason and banned from setting foot in the consulate office. Three of them in attendance tonight have gone public with their demands of the consul and the Mexican government for an explanation.
“It greatly disturbs me to hear what has happened to all of you,” says Amin David, president of the Los Amigos community group. “We have invited the consul to come to one of our meetings this coming Wednesday because we had heard about many situations like this in the community.”
Correa promises to send the batch of letters he has collected to the Mexican Foreign Ministry and to meet with the group again in a month. He encourages them to attend the Los Amigos gathering.
Several days later, at the Jägerhaus in Anaheim, the 40 or so people who have arrived by 7:30 a.m. in anticipation of Rodriguez y Quezada’s visit to the Los Amigos meeting are soon disappointed; David informs them the consul canceled at the last minute due to business in LA. Rodriguez y Quezada promises to attend the following week, Amin tells the group, but he later learns the consul was in Santa Ana at noon that day meeting with downtown business leaders.
* * *
Alover of fine art and good whiskey, Rodriguez y Quezada spent his college years in Mexico City before launching his diplomatic career in 1969. Since then, he has traveled around the world, including stints as Mexico’s ambassador to Serbia and Montenegro and foreign ministry posts in Lebanon, Colombia, Spain, New York and San Diego. He now runs one of the busiest consulates in the country. Anti-immigrant—or, more properly, anti-Mexican—sentiment runs rampant in the county that gave birth to the Minuteman Project.
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.”
He reached out to Rodriguez y Quezada before he left, he says. “I left him a message and sent him a confidential e-mail, offering my help and to introduce him to people in the community if he’d like, but I never received any response from him.”
One of the very few people who seemed pleased with Ortiz Haro’s departure was deputy consul Manuel Herrera, a career diplomat who regularly and openly clashed with Ortiz Haro over the latter’s rule-bending, populist approach. Herrera was assigned to the deputy-consul post after Ortiz Haro had arrived in the county; his wife had been assigned to a consulate post in Los Angeles.
Herrera kept his upstairs office during Ortiz Haro’s tenure and looked forward to the new consul’s arrival. “In the entire history of this office, no one has come here with as much experience, nor with the distinction of having served as an ambassador,” Herrera told the LA Times last year about Rodriguez y Quezada. “A person with such experience has a greater capacity for negotiating with local officials and for diplomacy.” Requests for an interview with Herrera for this story were declined by the consulate office.
* * *
Although Ortiz Haro’s departure is still lamented, local leaders say Rodriguez y Quezada was nevertheless welcomed by the community with the hope that he’d build community in his own style. “We gave him a bienvenida on Valentine’s Day and threw a big dinner and party for him at my restaurant,” says activist Mike Gonzalez. “We wanted to work with him.” Gonzalez and the feisty local owners of Rumores newspaper, Betty and Abel Torres, used to pal around with the consul, says Betty. There was a falling out over the Fiestas Patrias,the Mexican Independence Day celebrations, last fall, and the three business owners are now among those in the community calling for the consul’s reassignment.
Rodriguez y Quezada did indeed have his own style. He moved his office back upstairs, discontinued Miercoles Paisano, and installed metal detectors, microphones and more security guards in the downstairs waiting room. The consulate’s closing time changed from a flexible ?4(-ish) p.m. under Ortiz Haro to a prompt, security-guard-backed shutting of the doors at 2 p.m.
“We were prohibited from talking with community members and leaders who had been visiting us for years,” says former staffer Mildret Avila of some of the new rules that went into effect with Rodriguez y Quezada’s arrival. “But he was the consul. We respected his wishes, and we wanted to do a good job. I’ve worked with three other consuls, so I know there are always going to be some changes.”
But some of those changes made for a difficult work situation, say Avila and other former staff members, including Silvia Jimenez, who resigned last fall, and Socorro Sarmiento, a consulate fixture for six years until last spring. During her tenure as community-affairs director, Sarmiento had become “the face of the consulate,” says Julio Perez. The increasing number of restrictions placed on her outreach work were weakening programs that had taken years to build, Sarmiento says.
With the help of staffers such as Sarmiento and Avila, clubs representing all 32 Mexican states were formed and asked to get involved in the first-ever float-driven Mexican Independence Day parade in Santa Ana five years ago (an idea proposed by Ortiz Haro). A trickle of a parade had once graced Santa Ana’s streets in the 1970s, and since that time, the celebrations had always involved the participation of merchants up and down Fourth Street.
“It was a way for us to bring everyone together, and it was incredible how involved and excited people became,” Avila says. It was also, she says, the way they were able to get people involved in an innovative money-matching program sponsored by the Mexican government intended to fund public-works programs in people’s hometowns back in Mexico.
Representatives from various clubs and, soon, federations (collections of clubs) became recognized leaders to the consul and the staff. They could walk in with people from their communities who needed help; they and their community members were invited to participate in mini-forums and literacy-teacher training, and they would suggest ideas for how to reach out to some of the most far-flung, hard-to-reach pockets in the county.
Under Rodriguez y Quezada’s tenure, some of that cohesion began to suffer, some say. Programs such as the mobile consulates and the Ventanilla de Salud, a popular program that brings in nonprofits to discuss cancer, Alzheimer’s and other health-related issues, were changed or scaled back.
This year, there are 12 mobile consulates scheduled throughout the county, compared to the 20 or so that used to go out.
Although the health window has been expanded to include new organizations, according to Rodriguez y Quezada, there’s no real explanation for why popular organizations such as Latino Health Access were eliminated. “It was a decision on their part,” says Patricia Paez, a program director with Latino Health Access.
“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.)
Days after they were let go, Avila, Pantoja and Luis Humberto Macias, who worked at the consulate for 16 years, wrote a letter to Calderón outlining their complaints about Rodriguez y Quezada and the alleged intimidation tactics used by Herrera against employees who had once worked closely with Ortiz Haro. Avila had been Ortiz Haro’s assistant. An Op-Ed in the popular, left-leaning Mexico City daily La Jornada ran on Jan. 8, the same day a protest was held outside the Foreign Ministry office in that city. The short piece cited similar issues and was signed in support of the workers by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), Los Amigos of Orange County, the National Alliance for Human Rights, the Mexican American Political Association and labor unions. The Mexican government has not given the employees an interview or issued any further explanation. Those whose U.S. visa residencies were dependent on their consulate jobs are now locked in immigration limbo. “We have our lives here now,” Avila says.
* * *
“We’re on pins and needles wondering if he’ll come,” Amin David of Los Amigos says two days before Rodriguez y Quezada’s second scheduled appearance at the Jägerhaus. The crowd is once again abuzz. Deputy consul Herrera, looking more pallid than usual and devoid of his standard, quick-talking charm, slips in just after 7:40 a.m., and then slips out after he is introduced to the group. He paces around the parking lot, makes a phone call, then leaves. At 8:20 a.m., David puts in a call to the consul.
“We’re all here waiting for you,” he says in Spanish. “Oh, no, there is no one here causing problems. . . . There are always members of the press here, yes. . . . There are no problems here, consul. . . . Come and please honor your commitment to be here.”
Someone called the consul and told him that there were people present who were going to cause problems, David later says to the group. Speculation falls on Herrera.
At 8:30 a.m., Rodriguez y Quezada shuffles in alone, looking tense. His hair slightly disheveled, he hesitates in the doorway. “Is the consul here?” David asks, looking around.
“I am the consul,” Rodriguez y Quezada whispers.
After he is introduced, Rodriguez y Quezada crosses his arms and talks sleepily about services the consulate is providing (many of them established prior to his arrival). His eyes dart around the room, and he doesn’t smile. His disposition brightens a little when he speaks about art projects. “In September, we’re organizing a big exhibit at the Bowers Museum,” he says with mild triumph.
A reporter from the Spanish language daily La Opinión asks about what many perceive to be a rough transition for the consul and how that may be affecting consulate services. “Services have not been affected,” Rodriguez y Quezada says, visibly irritated. “Let me repeat it: They have not been affected. . . . I can tell you simply that services have actually improved. . . . There are always going to be complaints. If one or two people out of the 500 that come every day complain, I don’t think that’s so many.”
The session is bumpy: There are a few heated exchanges over the Fiestas Patrias.When asked by lawyer and local businessman Alfredo Amezcua about the employee dismissals, Rodriguez y Quezada is curt: “It’s a personnel issue. . . . I hope you’re as concerned with the thousands of people losing their jobs in Mexico as you are with these jobs.”
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When Pantoja and Avila raise their hands and ask, calmly, for the consul to explain to them why they were fired and for him to reconsider their—and their colleagues’—positions, Rodriguez y Quezada looks away, down and then slightly off to one side. “I can’t talk about that except to say that the contracts were not renewed,” he says.
He encourages those with complaints to fill out a complaint form at the office and says he is interested in working with the community. David invites him to stay for breakfast after about an hour, but Rodriguez y Quezada quickly declines and leaves after snapping a picture with a supporter in the audience and shaking hands with a few business leaders.
After he’s gone, Pantoja and Avila remain in their seats and wipe their eyes. “I feel like I was talking to a wall,” says Pantoja. “He didn’t even have the decency to look us in the eye.”