California Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez is one of a new generation of Spanish-speaking politicians who represent an increasingly potent Latino constituency. But somewhere between Sacramento and Mexico City, his goodwill message got lost in translation.
Nunez landed in Mexico this week with the best of intentions: strengthening ties with the country, California’s largest trading partner, and addressing the thorny issue of illegal immigration. He worked with a local public relations man to spread his message to as many people as possible: that immigrants were a precious California resource and that the two nations must work together to protect their future.
But two days into his whirlwind schedule of radio and TV appearances -- as well as a private meeting with President Vicente Fox -- Nunez was spending most of his time trying to explain his demand that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declare a state of emergency along California’s 142-mile border.
Even worse, Mexicans here say, was the speaker’s insistence that Schwarzenegger -- who this spring praised the “Minuteman” campaign along the U.S.-Mexico border -- was a caring person.
“Where does this guy stand?” asked Ulises Canchola Gutierrez, a foreign ministry official. “He supports a state of emergency. He says Arnold is not so bad. I’m confused.”
Unlike many other Mexican American politicians -- including Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa -- Nunez speaks Spanish that is almost eloquent. He spent much of his childhood in Tijuana. But his fluency in cross-border politics, at least from the Mexican prospective, is under question.
His call last week for Schwarzenegger to declare a state of emergency was seen in California as putting pressure on the Bush administration to acknowledge the steep costs shouldered by border states. Similar declarations this month by New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano made headlines and freed up about $2 million.
Here, it was interpreted as another slap in the face.
“Last week I got a report on the number of deaths in Calexico, and after seeing the loss of life, I called on the governor to act,” Nunez said during questioning by businessmen and academicians at a breakfast meeting Friday. “I’m not blaming Mexico. I’ve spent the last 24 hours trying to explain it.”
But to many Mexicans, the demand for cheap labor and illegal drugs by Americans on one hand, and the demand to seal the border on the other are at best a contradiction -- and at worst, hypocrisy.
One woman told Nunez that this contradiction was captured in a scene of the movie “Crash,” which recently opened here: The affluent Sandra Bullock character tells her long-abused Mexican maid: “Want to hear something funny? You’re the best friend I have.”
En route to his next appearance, Nunez, the son of immigrants, was upbeat about his visit, which ends today.
“Somebody has to talk about controlling the border, and people here are not used to hearing that,” he said. “But I feel like I just got caught in the politics of the strained relationship between the U.S. and Mexico. I knew there was some tension, but I didn’t imagine how tense it is.... People are angry.”
And not just at Schwarzenegger. The U.S. ambassador to Mexico, Tony Garza, himself the son of Mexican immigrants, drew heat this month after temporarily closing the consulate office in Nuevo Laredo, a town at the Texas border where a raging turf war between two Mexican drug cartels has claimed more than 100 lives this year. He said he needed to protect his workers there.
Garza, who earlier this year married one of Mexico’s richest women, was accused by Mexican pundits and politicians of punishing the Mexican government for not curbing the violence.
Then last week, Garza told an audience in Denver: “Some have said that I ordered the shutdown to punish the Mexican government for its failure to control violence in the region. And, in a sense, that’s true.”
Garza was roundly denounced again in Mexico, with Fox obliged to point out that the drug dealers and drug users are on both sides of the border.
The dust had barely settled when Nunez arrived for a private meeting Thursday with Fox at the presidential palace. Nunez said it went well.
But by the end of the day, Fox and Schwarzenegger had suddenly become unexpected allies. They both oppose Nunez’s call for the declaration of a state of emergency in California.
What about Schwarzenegger? Nunez was asked again and again.
“I don’t believe he is anti-Mexican, or anti-immigrant,” said Nunez, leaving many scratching their heads. Schwarzenegger is seen as favoring a sealed border, a position that is widely interpreted here as anti-Mexican.
Early Friday, Nunez spoke to the Consejo Mexicano de Asuntos Internacionales, the Mexican Council on Foreign Relations. He warned of a growing anti-immigrant sentiment in California and talked about the need for Fox to more aggressively pursue an immigration accord with the White House that would give legal status to the millions of Mexicans living in the U.S. without permission.
“It is important that we need to protect the border,” he said. “Not militarize it, protect it.”
It was the sort of tempered liberalism that would normally draw applause from Latino audiences in California.
Instead, Nunez was questioned about the divide in California between Mexican Americans and Mexicans who may or may not have legal status. A substantial proportion of Mexican Americans, for example, oppose issuing California driver’s licenses to anyone without proof of legal status.
“For Latino leaders to be taken seriously, we can’t say, ‘Open the borders,’ ” Nunez said. “We have to treat our immigrants with respect, but we have to do something.”
When asked whether he wants to replace Schwarzenegger as the next governor, Nunez deferred to California’s highest-profile Latino politician.
“Antonio Villaraigosa will be the next governor,” he said. “I’ll just carry his bags.”
Researchers Cecilia Sanchez and Paulina Ruiz in The Times’ Mexico City bureau contributed to this report.