Ambassadorial candidate would likely face snubs
By PAUL DE LA GARZA, Times Staff Writer
WASHINGTON -- Julian Nava, the first U.S. ambassador of Mexican descent to serve in Mexico, detected the snubs at the hands of the Mexican elite in ways small and large.
He noticed, for example, the excessive praise -- which, he says, even in the flowery language of Spanish and diplomacy, was a bit much -- patronizing, even.
Worse was the country club invitation that never came. Before Nava, the American ambassador had received a complimentary membership at Mexico City's most exclusive country club.
The slight was the subject of internal discussions at the U.S. Embassy, and it left Nava with a bitter taste. "I encountered resentment among upper-class snobs," Nava, who served under President Jimmy Carter from 1979 through 1981, said in an interview. "But," he added, with diplomatic aplomb, "they were always polite."
Nava, 75, a first-generation Mexican-American who was educated at Harvard and helped break down barriers for Latino politicians in Los Angeles, pins the shoddy treatment in Mexico on his ethnicity.
Indeed, the governing elite in Mexico -- the descendants of the blond, blue-eyed Spaniards -- historically have preferred a U.S. ambassador who is white rather than a pocho, or "discolored," a derogatory term Mexicans use to describe Mexican-Americans.
Fueled by myriad factors, including arrogance and distrust and racism and bitterness over the 1846-48 war between the United States and Mexico, they believe that a white diplomat has more clout with the White House than a Mexican-American, whom they often perceive as a token.
The appointment of a Mexican-American reinforces the belief among Mexicans that the United States does not take its neighbor south of the border seriously, and that American administrations make the appointments to ingratiate themselves with Latino voters, a strategy they find insulting.
Enter Tony Garza, President Bush's choice to serve as ambassador to Mexico.
If confirmed by the Senate -- he, too, has ties to the Enron Corp. -- Garza, a star in Republican politics in Texas, would become the third American ambassador of Mexican descent to serve in Mexico. The other was John Gavin, who served under President Ronald Reagan.
"Tony Garza has an in-depth understanding of the relationship between the United States and Mexico and its impact on the people of both nations," Bush said in announcing the nomination Tuesday. "He has served the people of Texas with honor and distinction and will be an outstanding representative of the United States."
For the White House, the success of Garza as ambassador is key because since Sept. 11, the close relationship Bush vowed with Mexico when he took office has not borne fruit. Also, the president is courting the Latino vote as he eyes re-election.
The immediate reaction in Mexico to Garza's nomination has not been all positive.
"His arrival in Mexico cannot portend good things," said Sergio Acosta, a member of the Mexican Congress. Echoing the sentiments of some of his colleagues, Acosta argued that in proving his loyalty to the United States as an American rather than a Mexican, Garza will take a hard stance against Mexico.
He dismissed Garza as "a typical Ladino," a person of mixed ancestry.
Citing respect for the confirmation process, the Mexican government has taken no position on the nomination. Privately, a government official said the administration of Mexican President Vicente Fox had no "anti-pocho" bias.
He noted that times have changed since Nava and Gavin served in Mexico, with the NAFTA trading pact between the two countries fully in force and the clout of Mexican-Americans in the United States hard to ignore. Furthermore, he said, Garza's ties to Bush -- the two have been friends since the late 1980s -- make his ethnicity moot.
Analysts also point out that bilateral relations between the United States and Mexico are a lot closer now than 20 years ago.
The White House declined to comment on the historical reaction in Mexico to the appointment of Mexican-Americans as ambassadors to the country. But the issue has been broached -- by Garza.
James Jones, who served as the U.S. ambassador to Mexico during the Clinton administration, said he discussed the posting with Garza about a month ago, and Garza's ethnicity came up during the conversation.
Jones said generally it's not a good idea to appoint an American ambassador who reflects the host country's ethnic makeup -- assigning a Polish-American to Poland, for example, or a Mexican-American to Mexico -- because they tend to be harder on the country.
"The American with that ethnic background feels that they have a greater latitude, a greater right to lecture their fellow ethnics," Jones said, "where someone not of that background is a lot more sensitive and a lot more deferential."
He added: "Oftentimes they do not do well. Oftentimes they have a very difficult time of proving themselves."
Hector Aguilar Camin, a prominent historian and novelist in Mexico City, agreed that the familiarity Mexican-Americans have with the language and culture of Mexico can hurt bilateral relations.
"The WASPs have been more effective as ambassadors," Aguilar said. "They are more diplomatic. They keep a low profile. They don't speak Spanish and speak only when English is spoken. They feel less at home."
With an ambassador of Mexican descent, Aguilar said, "He feels more at home and commits more errors because he feels at home."
Nava admits he rattled feathers in Mexico. "The advantage I had over the gringos," he said, "is that I could tell it like it is."
While predicting success for Garza because of his closeness with Bush -- and because Fox has embraced Mexican-Americans as a matter of government policy -- Jones said he advised Garza against lecturing the Mexicans in public.
A three-week refresher course in Spanish probably wouldn't be a bad idea either, Jones said.
Jose Carreno, a Washington correspondent for the Mexico City daily El Universal, also predicted success for Garza. He said Mexico's elite will have no choice but to treat Garza with respect because of his relationship with Bush. "They cannot afford to do even the smallest slight to Garza," he said.
At 43, Garza epitomizes the American dream. His grandparents were Mexican immigrants, and he was born and raised in south Texas, one of the poorest regions in the country.
His hometown, Brownsville, linked to Mexico by bridge, is the type of place where Latinos frown on each other for speaking English, where people get stuck in the cycle of poverty by getting pregnant young and taking a menial job at the local Wal-Mart.
Garza, however, went off to college, and when he entered politics he bucked the tide. He ran as a Republican, which is almost unheard of in predominantly Democratic south Texas.
But what has served him well in Texas politics, including his blue-collar origins, might well come back to haunt him as ambassador in Mexico.
When he first sits down at a dinner reception in Mexico City, for example, his hosts will see which fork he uses for the salad, and whether he stands when a woman enters the room, said Manuel Garcia y Griego, director of the Center for Mexican-American Studies at the University of Texas at Arlington.
"Mexican elites find Mexican-Americans hard to swallow," Garcia y Griego said. "They speak in code. They think of themselves as refined gentlemen from the 19th century. They see an American tourist from Iowa as uncouth as an American ambassador."
Garza's grasp of Spanish will come into play.
While fluent by south Texas standards, where the language often reflects an unholy marriage of Spanish and English, friends say it isn't perfect. In south Texas -- and in other pockets of the country where Latinos flourish -- the locals tend to make up words. A truck, for instance, becomes troca. Academics have actually coined a phrase for it: Spanglish.
Antonio Ocaranza, a former presidential spokesman in Mexico, calls Garza a friend. But the two have never held a conversation in Spanish, only English. While that might not sound like a big deal, it is certain to be magnified in Mexico City, especially by the irreverent Mexican press.
During his tenure, much was made of Nava's so-called broken Spanish, although he considered himself fluent and had taught classes in Spanish in Spain, Colombia and Puerto Rico. During the telephone interview Wednesday, Nava's Spanish was flawless.
Al Rojas, a union activist in California and a crony of the late Cesar Chavez, the force behind the United Farm Workers union, has experienced the taunts about broken Spanish firsthand.
"I think I felt it when I first immersed myself in Mexican politics," Rojas said, recalling his interaction with the Mexican elite in the early 1990s. "The moment you spoke something in Spanish, you were treated inferior. I remember how they used to make you a local joke among the crowd."
Rojas says the Mexican reaction has to do with racism, with light-skinned Mexicans looking down on the indigenous, dark-skinned Mexicans. As an example, he cited the Mexican telenovelas, or soap operas, in which the leading characters tend to be blue-eyed blonds.
"They don't recognize us as the sons and daughters of Mexico," Rojas said.
Ocaranza, the spokesman for former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo, agrees there's resentment of Mexican-Americans in Mexico because of the 19th century war between the two countries, in which Mexico lost nearly half its territory to the United States.
He says Mexicans tend to look at Mexican-Americans as "the guys that left Mexico."
As a result, Ocaranza says, explaining Mexican thinking about Mexican-Americans, "They cannot like the country they escaped from."
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