Man of the People

It's been more than 30 years since Francisco Roux-López was offered his first government job by the Mexican ambassador in France. At the time, being a career diplomat was not exactly what Roux-López had in mind. In Paris on a Rockefeller fellowship, he was more concerned with his studies toward a Ph.D. in international relations. But the young student in Paris, born in southern Mexico to a French woman and Mexican father, couldn't resist the opportunity to represent his country in his mother's homeland. "That began my career, in 1966," says Roux-López, who recently assumed his new position in Austin as Consul General of Mexico. "Since then I've been a bureaucrat."

Mexico's Consul
photograph by Jana Birchum

Ah, but what a career it's been. "It's been wonderful," recalls the 65-year-old Roux-López. While in Paris he met his wife, Maru, who also works for the Foreign Service of Mexico; it wasn't long before the two became the first married couple to both work for the office. Appointments in Europe, Washington, D.C., and the United Nations soon followed, with the couple managing to get assignments together as much as possible. While maintaining a home in Mexico City, the couple, who have no children, have had long, illustrious careers all over the world. "You need to take three or four years to know a country," says Roux-López. "I don't want to go to a country without first knowing its history. I have all this background because I want to know the people immediately. I went to Spain because I wanted to know what is Mexican and what is Spanish – that is important information to know for the formation of one's nationality."

Even though Roux-López has been a career diplomat, it's only in the last few years he has taken on the role of consul. Embassies, consulates, consuls, charges d'affairs, envoys; the functions and titles that began during the early Roman empire to develop a system of communication with its city states have become increasingly important in today's world as business transactions and travelers reach every corner of the globe. Diplomatic service is now divided into two distinct fields – embassies and consulates. Embassies, and ambassadors, represent the head of state for their country and deal mainly in political matters with the host country, while consulates deal with such issues as commerce, tourism, and the needs of its nationals. As world trade grows, consulate offices have grown just as important as embassies. "In all these years of my professional career, I've always seen the consulate considered second," says Roux-López, sitting in his office at the consulate, at Sixth and Brazos. "The people in the consulates really work hard. I'm not saying that people in the embassies don't work, but the rough stuff belongs to the consulates, especially in this country."

Prior to his Austin assignment, he was assigned to McAllen, a position he requested both for family reasons and on the advice of an associate from the South Texas town who told him the city was paradise. Well, it wasn't paradise, but the experience opened his eyes to a situation he hadn't quite realized in all his years of service. "It was there that I learned all the problems that Mexican nationals have in this country," said Roux-López quietly. "It was my first experience like that, and I took it seriously. That is, to live to go work for them, go to the jails, the hospitals, to the factories, I took it all in with my soul. And I discovered that to work for them was the nicest and most honest work in the world."

There are 30 Mexican Consulates in the U.S., several of them in Texas. Because NAFTA has had a dramatic impact on opportunities for commerce between Mexico and the U.S., trade between the two countries has boomed, and Texas' exports to Mexico are such that our southern neighbors consider it the most important state in the union. Recently, when rain flooded the international bridge in Laredo and shut it down for one day, the effect was immediately felt by businesses on both sides of the border.

To keep up with the rapid changes in trade, the Mexican government recently elevated the status of the consulate in Austin to a Consulado General (i.e., military style). "Mexico realized that having a consulate in the capital, it was necessary to give it more importance," says Roux-López. "You have the political connections, [you] report on policy, and you have political functions too. The political connections have been increasingly important to Mexico."

Having sister-city programs helps maintain those connections, and Austin has several, one of which is with Saltillo in Coahuila, Mexico. Each councilmember on the City Council serves as a liaison to one particular sister city, and Mayor Pro-Tem Gus Garcia, who is the liaison for Saltillo, works closely with the Consulate in assisting businesses on both sides to establish contacts. "Any time we have Mexican nationals here who are interested in making business connections, they call us and we help facilitate meetings," explained Paul Saldaña, administrative assistant in Garcia's office. "And any time we have Austin business folks who want to have contact with anybody in Mexico, we call the cónsul's office and get them. It's a way that both countries, both cities can benefit."

While the consul can perform marriage rites for Mexican nationals, and has power of attorney in cases of their civil affairs for such matters as passports, visas, and military registration (a requirement for every male Mexican before he can get a job) the most important function of his office is protection of the nationals. To do that efficiently in Austin, the consulate has established over the years a good working relationship with Garcia's office, and the two government entities interact almost daily on issues that affect Mexican citizens here. "We often get calls from Mexicans who are in trouble, a legal incident, and maybe perhaps their rights were violated in that they weren't given the opportunity to contact the consul," Saldaña says. The Vienna Convention Act specifies that a person who is detained by a law enforcement agency of the country he is visiting has the right to contact his country's consulate's office. So when the INS conducts raids, Garcia's office does whatever it can to find out what's happened, and make sure that the consulate has that information.

Given the volatility of immigration issues, Roux-López's predecessor, Roberto Gamboa Mascarenas, who served here for three years, worked with Garcia's office to build a better rapport between the Austin Police Department and the consulate's office. "It's gotten so good that when APD has a new cadet class starting they invite the Cónsul General to speak to the cadets and give them sensitivity training in regards to immigration issues," Saldaña says. This action also led to last year's City Council resolution that effectively created a "safety zone" for immigrants in Austin. The council action ensures that the city will not discriminate against or deny immigrants in need of public assistance. "It's all from having a good relationship with the consulate's office and them telling us what their concerns are," continued Saldaña. "We have been educating each other."

And educating the public about Mexico is something the consul takes very seriously; the office recently gave the Austin Independent School District 50 sets of textbooks on the geography, history, and culture of Mexico. The books, in Spanish, will be used in the bilingual/ English as a Second Language programs at the schools. The consulate's office also has a library of 3,000 books that is on permanent loan to the Mexic-Arte Museum downtown. The books, also in Spanish, cover a wide range of subjects. "We get current issues of magazines, many of them cultural, from Mexico every month from the consulado," says Sylvia Orozco, Mexic-Arte's administrative director.

Gamboa Mascarenas, the previous consul, also started the Mexican Community Center, a project between the community and the consulate to form a nonprofit organization to facilitate bringing in cultural programs from Mexico. Last year, the MCC in collaboration with Mexic-Arte brought a professional theatre group from Mexico to perform La Pastorela, a traditional Christmas play. "We are very interested in promoting Mexican art, and it is the main focus of Mexic-Arte," says Orozco, "so we collaborate on many projects together with the consulado."

Indeed, every consul in Austin has made a contribution to the community that they have left behind. One of those projects that the city, Mexic-Arte, and the consulate's office collaborate on is the annual Fiesta del Grito de Independencia for Dieciséis de Septiembre, an event initiated several years ago by then-Consul Pedro Pablo Treviño and former County Commissioner Marcos De Leon. "With all the consulados, ever since I've been working with them, they all have wanted to be very much involved with the Mexican and Mexican-American community," says Orozco. "Roux-López is bringing a lot of protocol [to his position] and it seems he is going to add a lot of very important cultural traditions that we haven't had here before or in a long time."

At this year's Fiesta held at the City Coliseum, Roux-López decided to have a very formal ceremony honoring the flag of Mexico, similar to the way Mexico's president honors the country's flag each year in front of the Palacio Nacional in Mexico City. "I think it's important to take into consideration the difference that exists between the Latin world and the Anglo-Saxon world," says Roux-López. "In the Latin world we have very deep feelings for traditions, and Anglo-Saxons are people that think in the present and the future. History for us is a reason of being – razón de ser – and a festivity like this one for us presents the most important moment of modern Mexico. We have to celebrate it every year to be conscious that we are still fighting for complete independence."

This year in Austin, the consul brought in a military band from Saltillo, and the large crowd that packed the Coliseum cheered wildly when the guards high-stepped their way up to the stage to deliver the flag. A clearly emotional Roux-López shouted "¡Viva Mexico!"as he waved the flag; there was a rich moment of solidarity as he reached out to his fellow countrymen with cariño, like an abuelo gathering his familia around him.

"Mexico is very nationalistic," Roux-López says. "We are proud when we sing the national anthem; we feel it. We have a lot of Mexicans here far away from home. I think it's our duty to give them a part of Mexico with this ceremony. Remind them that we have a country called Mexico that loves its traditions. Remind them they are not alone, there is always someone who has the duty to take care of them. That is the call of every consulate around the world, but especially in this country."

Yet for all his protocol and love of tradition, Roux-López is also charming and open, as evidenced that night at the City Coliseum. "I really like this guy," says Saldaña, who worked closely with Roux-López securing city services for the festivities. "Whenever you're dealing with the consul's office or any dignitary for that matter, it's always very formal, very protocol. But he's very warm and sincere and it makes it a lot easier. That's what I like about him."

Roux-López expects to be here for a couple of years. He was joined recently by his wife, who just completed her last assignment as director of exterior relations with Asia and the South Pacific. In 2000, when Mexico elects a new president, it will be a time of change that will eventually affect assignments at the Foreign Affairs Office. But Roux-López is not even thinking of retirement. "I have a lot of spring time on my back," he says smiling. "I love this work." When asked what he saw for Mexico's future, he became silent for a moment and a twinkle of a tear formed in the corner of one eye. It was another moment when all his many years of devoted service to his country, his pride of being Mexicano, shone through and sparkled in a tear. "Well, it's hard to say," he said slowly. "There is a change that could have positive results. I think we are changing politically, socially." His love, his hopes, and his dreams for his country seemed to hang heavy in the air. "These are exciting times," he whispered as he smiled. "Una nueva epoca."

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