Atlanta’s Mexican consulate for 50 years has worked to advance the country’s interests in the Southeast United States, but in many ways, it really solidified its place in the city’s diplomatic orbit in the 1990s.
During that time, Mexicans and other Latin Americans flocked to the city to contribute to the Olympic building boom, and their populations exploded in its aftermath as the city continued a streak of economic dynamism.
Whereas before, many Mexicans in the South were working in rural agriculture, they now found themselves primarily in urban and suburban areas. Today, more than 500,000 Mexicans and their descendants call Georgia home, about 5 percent of the population, and about a tenth of all Americans are either Mexican-born or have a parent or child who is Mexican.
At the same time, the last decade of the 20th century saw Teodoro Maus, a dynamic diplomat, take up his posting as Mexican consul general for the second time. As an artist and architect who had represented Mexico at the United Nations, Mr. Maus brought to the role not only a cultural sensibility, but also an outspoken streak. After his appointment, he stayed on in Atlanta to become the rare retired diplomat who became an activist in the country where he served.
Mr. Maus, who died in late 2019, was “an inspiration,” said current Consul General Javier Diaz De Leon, who spoke with Global Atlanta during a Consular Conversation in February 2020.
“When I talk to people, they think Teodoro was the first Mexican consul general. He was the first one who had such an active and outgoing profile. People identified with him,” said Mr. Diaz, who in December 2019 presided over a memorial ceremony for Mr. Maus at the consulate, where conference rooms are now named for the late diplomat.
Mr. Diaz has carried on this spirit of engagement even as he juggles a challenge unique among diplomats in the city: The Mexican consulate has more than 60 staff members serving a huge community with deep needs.
“We see 250-300 people per day, and their expectations are very, very high. They expect us to solve not only minor things — they expect everything,” said Mr. Diaz, the longest serving member of the consular corps, having arrived in 2016.
One of the biggest needs on the consular side has been applications for doble nacionalidad, or dual citizenship, for the children of Mexican citizens. But the consulate also provides ID cards known as matricula consular for Mexicans unable to gain access to identification in the United States. The consulate also helps Mexicans and their descendants gain access to legal services, government aid, health updates, benefits and much more.
Still, if Mr. Diaz has faced any temptation to stay isolated to handle this workload, he has resisted it, perhaps thanks to his decades building expertises on Mexico’s relationships with the U.S. and its place in North America.
Besides consular work, “the other arm, which I feel is very important that cannot be ignored is engaging and talking with representatives, talking with political counterparts, promoting the country, our economy, tourism, our political ties, how close we are to each other’s countries.; that is a very significant part that cannot be overlooked.”
Mr. Diaz also has some perspective on the South, where he has lived since 2013. Before coming to Atlanta, Mr. Diaz served as the only career diplomat in Charlotte, N.C., a place he saw as a burgeoning financial and health hub, but not one as internationally connected or dynamic as Atlanta.
“I was lonely,” Mr. Diaz joked of the Charlotte role, noting that the diplomatic corps in Atlanta is healthy and active, with more than 20 career consulates and a large contingent of honoraries. “Here, I am surrounded by colleagues from all over the world. (Atlanta) is such a global center where there are so many connections with everything going on, not only with Mexico but in almost every corner in the world.”
A New Trade Landscape
Given that his tenure has overlapped with the Trump administration, Mr. Diaz has also had to navigate new waters in the bilateral relationship.
After more than two decades trading under NAFTA, Mr. Trump sought to disrupt the supply-chain equilibrium that had developed, tilting it back in favor of the United States. His late-night tweets complaining about the lack of balance publicly aired trade disputes normally ironed out through closed-door negotiations.
“We’ve done so many trade agreements, not only with the United States with over 40 countries in the world, but we have never negotiated a free trade agreement through Twitter,” Mr. Diaz said. “The Canadians had no experience with that either.”
Despite their disappointment with Mr. Trump’s decision to withdraw from the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership, both countries embraced the chance to modernize NAFTA, which all said needed to be modernized after the rise of e-commerce.
In the South, Mr. Diaz went about enlisting the help of politicians and automotive companies, many of them foreign-owned, who sought certainty from a new deal. He remembered visiting a Toyota engine plant in Alabama where executives worried about retaliatory tariffs hurting their exports to Mexico.
USMCA, as the replacement agreement is known, upped the North American content requirement for cars to 75 percent and included a stipulation that more than 40 percent of a car’s content must be made in plants where workers average $16 per hour.
Though that provision was aimed at Mexico, Mr. Diaz said it represents a misunderstanding of the country’s place on the value chain.
“No country in the world wants to be competitive in the global economy because we pay less wages. That’s not the way to do it. That’s not what most of the tigers in Asia did, and that’s not what Mexico wants to do.”
When NAFTA was passed, many worried about the erasure of Mexican culture from a barrage of Big Macs, Chevrolets and Midwestern corn, but now, trade openness as a means to economic competitiveness is widely accepted.
“When Mexico did NAFTA in the beginning of the ’90s, Mexico was a very different country. We were coming from being one of the most closed economies in the world. The common rhetoric was distrustful of the United States, so suddenly opening your borders and your economy to the United States was not a small thing. I remember people saying, ‘We are going to lose our culture; we are going to lose our tortillas and tacos and start eating hamburgers.’”
But that was 30 years ago. Even new President Andres Manuel Lopex Obrador does not question the USMCA, despite his worker-first approach and crusade against private-sector interests.
“When we decided to re-do the treaty, all across the board from the left to the extreme right in Mexico, there is absolute consensus this thing needs to happen because Mexico wants to be a player in the world. So there’s been a transformation of the debate and of the people’s attitude towards the world,” Mr. Diaz said.
It helps that the U.S. and Mexico trade many complementary inputs that help them make things together. A car crosses the border eight times before it’s assembled, and about 40 percent of Mexican exports to the U.S. are made up of American content.
“If you compare that to China, that’s about 2 percent. There’s no comparison about the sort of relationship we have economically and trade-wise. We in no way can be compared with other countries in the world because we are not trading mostly finished goods. We are trading mostly with components,” Mr. Diaz said, making a strong argument for Western Hemisphere nations to work together to compete globally. “We are a manufacturing machine, a big regional machine, and we are very efficient.”
During the wide-ranging interview at Miller & Martin PLLC, Mr. Diaz also discussed issues like combating immigration from Central America at its root, decreasing the flow of high-caliber automatic weapons from the U.S. to Mexico and moving beyond border issues in the bilateral relationship so that they can focus on neighborly issues like arts and cultural exchange.
Learn more about the Mexican consulate at https://www.consulmexatlanta.org.