Atlanta was barely prepared for the 1996 Summer Olympics, the city’s epic transformational event. With the Games only 90 days away, a Washington Post reporter described Atlanta as the “hospitable but anxious first city of the South is like a frazzled hostess scrambling to set the table minutes before the Sunday company arrives.”
Behind the scenes, Teodoro Maus, Mexico’s consul general at the time, was touring the Southeast with Thomas Fischer, the head of the region’s department of Immigration and Naturalization Services.
Although the Mexican government had a low-key presence in Atlanta for decades, all of a sudden Mr. Maus started rocking the relationship with the city, even as the U.S. and Mexico were still in the grips of NAFTA negotiations.
In a Global Atlanta interview dating back to May 1993, he challenged the assumption that the U.S. was “a giant melting pot,” calling this view “more of a cultural myth than a reality here.”
“The concept of a melting pot in not only false, it also is very dangerous,” he said in what was then Mexico’s official office on Peachtree Road. “I don’t think that the United States ever melted. First of all, if you had really melted in the United States, you all would be native Americans…”
At that time, he was told that there were only two communities in Atlanta — one white, the other black, and that the city as well as the region wasn’t ready for demographic realignments. But the Olympics had forced deadlines for the completion of the many athletic venues, which had to be finished on time.
Without ever identifying who specifically gave him the critical telephone call, he was informed that the INS would be looking the other way should Mexican workers complete the needed projects.
During this period, while speaking to the local business community, he pricked his audiences by apologizing for having to speak in his soft-spoken and fluid English because of those who were linguistically challenged by not being able to speak Spanish. Sometimes he would draw a few laughs, but often not.
“In his role as a diplomat he fought the first battles to give the immigrant community a voice,” Javier Diaz de Leon, Mexico’s current consul general based in Atlanta, said in an interview in his office in the sprawling Mexican Consulate General on Chantilly Drive.
By the time of his recent death at 84, Mr. Maus was widely recognized no longer just as a diplomat limited by decorum to organize the many Latino communities in which he became involved, but as an activist who established a committed following through his founding of the Georgia Latino Alliance of Human Rights (GLAHR) with Adelina Nicholls, an Internet radio show with Jose Perez, a native of Cuba, and as a catalyst in the creation of the Mexican American Chamber of Commerce, which evolved into the Latin American Chamber of Commerce.
Besides his organizational legacies, he also is remembered for his philanthropic outreach including the creation of a soccer league for youngsters and student scholarships.
“There is a line that can’t be crossed by a diplomat,” Mr. Diaz de Leon said. “Once he left his diplomatic role, he became an activist, but an activist in a smart and intelligent way.”
While most diplomats undergo rigorous academic training and extensive overseas assignments, Mr. Maus’ background was exceptional. His parents fled Poland during the Holocaust and started a new life in Mexico and became part of the Jewish-Mexican minority. His early training was as an architect but he also acquired skills as a film maker, a painter and impromptu chef having lived in France as a young man.
In 1978 he entered Mexico’s Foreign Service as a cultural attache in New York, a position he held until 1987. In 1981, he passed the entrance exams to come a career member of the Mexican Foreign Service. In 1987, he was appointed at the permanent mission of Mexico to the United Nations as head of personnel, until 1989, when he was appointed consul of Mexico in Atlanta. In 1991, he was appointed to the rank of consul general.
Bernardo Mendez Lugo, the former consul of press who worked with Mr. Maus and has retired from the Mexican Foreign Service in Mexico, called him “a true world citizen” who enjoyed life in many ways, every moment of his life.”
“He invited us, all members of the consulate in Atlanta, to enjoy a good Korean or Indonesian cuisine, to watch a good Japanese or Iranian film. He was for many years a member of the board of the Atlanta Ballet,” he recalled in addition to his support for a wide variety of humanitarian causes.
A tribute to Mr. Maus’ life held at the Mexican Consulate General the evening of Dec. 5 drew 150 of his friends and supporters including his wife, Nicolette, and his children, daughter Natasha and son Elias. Only 70 had officially indicated they would attend, but more than double that number actually showed up.
Many referred to him as “the patriarch” of the Latino communities in Georgia with some struggling to contain their tears as they described his influence on their lives. For instance, Brenda Lopez Romero, a member of the Georgia House of Representatives from the 99th district, described Mr. Maus’ encouragement when she questioned her ability to run as a political novice.
And Roberto Hernandez who received a scholarship from the Maus family that enabled him to attend university, described a telephone call he made to Mr. Maus. Obviously moved by his recollection at the tribute, he recalled saying, “I don’t know if you remember me, but you enabled me to attend university.”
“Thank you for calling,” Mr. Maus apparently told him. “You have changed my day.” Mr. Hernandez said that he then replied, “But you have changed my life.”
Many others spoke including Consul General Diaz de Leon, Norberto Sanchez, president and CEO of the Norman Group and Ms. Nicholls of GLAHR, who told Global Atlanta that she considered Mr. Maus as “irreplaceable” even though he had been responsible for putting into place leaders through the many Latino communities in the state.
His memory would live on, she said, as communities continue to focus their efforts on improving the children’s opportunities for education and health care.
A revealing anecdote was interjected by Mauricio Monreal, a journalist who writes for El Cronista, an independent publication. Mr. Monreal witnessed the consternation of many Brookhaven residents who were apprehensive about the large numbers of Mexicans who would be visiting their neighborhood when Mr. Maus moved the consulate general to Apple Valley Road.
Instead of stonewalling, Mr. Maus invited all of the new neighbors inside to enjoy an assortment of tacos, enchiladas and sopes, which he had personally prepared, thereby allaying their fears and calming their concerns.
Leigh Miller Villegas, formerly a reporter with Global Atlanta, recalls Mr. Maus’ courteousness. “I remember Sr. Maus from his days as consul general when I was a new reporter. Despite my novice journalism experience and my broken Spanish, Consul Maus was warm and courteous. Always answering questions with poignant and intellectual yet practical commentary on business and political issues affecting Georgia’s Latino community. He was also kind and genuine.
“I observed him giving the same heartfelt attention to others, whether fellow diplomats or executives, small business owners or undocumented migrants. Whatever a person’s position or walk of life, Sr. Maus spoke with them as a friend, as a real person, who was as empathetic as he was professional.”
Mr. Maus’ skills didn’t go unnoticed back at the Foreign Ministry in Mexico City. In 1994 he was appointed director general for the Presidential Program of Mexican Communities Outside of Mexico.
After several years fulfilling this role, he returned as consul general to Atlanta and stayed on the job until 2007 when he retired. Known for having lived multiple lives — many of the reminiscences at the tribute noted that he had lived “20 lifetimes” — he began his career as an activist facing the criticisms of the United Tea Party of Georgia and coming to the defense of Latinos on many fronts including their desire to obtain drivers licenses and supporting the aspirations of the Dreamers.
He helped energize the activism of many others including the former state senator Sam Zamarripa, who called him “our John Lewis,” referring to the Atlanta-based civil rights hero turned congressman. Four years ago, at Mr. Maus’ 80th birthday party, it wasn’t his accomplishments as either a diplomat or an activist that Mr. Zamarripa sought to highlight, but rather his abilities as a cook.
Mr. Zamarripa recounted how he was taught to make a tomatillo sauce verde. A tomatillo sauce verde, he learned from Mr. Maus, is composed of many ingredients, but won’t succeed unless it is accompanied by “the secret sauce that you bring.”
“The secret sauce is ‘about you,’” he was told by Mr. Maus, who as usual focused on sharing his life lessons in a personal and direct manner.