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Roberto de la Madrid dies at 88; U.S.-born governor of a Mexican state

Roberto de la Madrid, who became the first U.S.-born governor of a Mexican state when he took office in 1977 in Baja California, has died. He was 88.

De la Madrid died March 19, officials from Mexico’s Institutional Revolutionary Party confirmed. He had cancer and died in Tijuana, according to media reports.

Born in 1922 in Calexico to Mexican parents, he was taken across the border to Mexicali soon after his birth.

Raised on both sides of the border, De la Madrid counted Jose Lopez Portillo -- then president of Mexico -- as his closest personal friend when the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party chose him as its candidate for governor of Baja California.

“Frontiers Fall Before Dynamic Baja Governor,” said the headline on a 1978 Times profile of De la Madrid published eight months into his six-year term. The article was effusive about “the first of a new breed of border men” who was “ambidextrous both literally and culturally.”

“I don’t know of anyone in government in Mexico who has been more influential on this side of the border than Roberto,” James R. Mills, then a Democratic state senator from San Diego, told The Times in 1978. “One of his great advantages is his tremendous talent for people.”

He is credited with helping to usher in a new era of friendly border relations between Baja California and California. De la Madrid also built up the region’s tourist industry and successfully attracted foreign investors to Mexico, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune.

In 1979, he became embroiled in a battle over freedom of the press after a government-controlled labor union stormed the offices of what was then Tijuana’s most popular daily newspaper, ABC. It had been critical of De la Madrid and his policies.

Although De la Madrid denied charges of press interference, they continued “to tarnish his image in both Mexico and the United States,” The Times reported in 1979.

Near the end of his term, De la Madrid attended the ground-breaking of a second San Diego-area border station, at Otay Mesa, a 1983 political victory that had been years in the making.

After serving as governor, he returned to the world of business.

One of his earliest jobs was as a bank teller in Tijuana. He later founded a petroleum company that distributed products for U.S. oil companies and for Pemex, the state-owned Mexican oil monopoly.

Until 1959, he was on the periphery of politics but then went to work at a federal agency for material improvements in Baja California. His boss was Lopez Portillo, who would appoint De la Madrid director of Mexico’s national lottery in 1976.

De la Madrid also had served as a Baja California state senator.

An accomplished horseman, he was asked to consult on the 1959 film “The Young Land” with Patrick Wayne and Dennis Hopper and ended up with a role in the movie.

Actor John Wayne -- Patrick’s father -- became a friend and attended De la Madrid’s gubernatorial inauguration.

Also in attendance were then-Gov. Jerry Brown and Lopez Portillo, the subject of a story that De la Madrid often told.

“We were riding on horseback along the river” in Tijuana “and we decided that we should change government. . . . He said to me, ‘You should be governor one day,’ ” De la Madrid said in The Times in 1978.

When President Lopez Portillo spoke at the governor’s inauguration, “it was as mentor to prodigy,” The Times said, pointing out that the president had used the “familiar ‘tu’ form for all the nation to hear.”

Information on survivors was incomplete.

valerie.nelson@latimes.com


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