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Juan Hernandez

Mexican American Cabinet Member Looks After Mexicans Living Abroad

February 11, 2001|Sergio Munoz | Sergio Munoz is an editorial writer for The Times

When President George W. Bush visits Mexican President Vicente Fox Feb. 16, he will see a familiar face in the group that greets him at Fox's ranch in San Cristobal, Guanajuato. Juan Hernandez, appointed by Fox to head the presidential Office for Mexicans Living Abroad, introduced Fox to Bush in 1996.

Then, the two presidents were governors. Hernandez, who was teaching Mexican literature at the University of Texas, Dallas, had invited Fox to speak at the university's new Center for U.S.-Mexico Studies. Before the speech, he and Fox called on Bush in Austin, Texas. Their meeting, which was supposed to last five minutes, went on for 45.

As he was boarding his plane back to Mexico, Fox asked Hernandez if he had any other ideas. He did: Treat the state of Guanajuato, where Fox was governor, as if it were a nation and set up an office in Texas to assist Mexican businesses in selling their products in the United States.

Fox liked the idea, and the following week, Hernandez flew to Guanajuato to create the Guanajuato Trade Office. Thus began a partnership that has evolved into a real friendship.

After the trade office was set up, Hernandez joined Fox's campaign for the presidency, charged with keeping the candidate's schedule. He also recruited U.S. political strategists Dick Morris, Rob Allyn and Andres Rabago of Spain, among others, to advise Fox.

Hernandez, 45, was born in Forth Worth, Texas, his mother's native land, and was raised in his father's native state of Guanajuato. Bilingual, he holds a double nationality. Early on, he became a teacher of many disciplines: language, guitar and poetry. He has authored and/or edited several books of bilingual poetry and recorded four albums. He is the first Mexican American appointed to a Mexican presidential cabinet.

Hernandez says that Fox will have a simple message to convey to Bush when they meet Friday: Mexico is changing. "After 71 years of one-party rule," Hernandez says, "there is now democracy in Mexico. We treat our paisanos (countrymen) differently. Yes, we've been known for corruption and many other ills, but we are changing."

The real issue, says Hernandez, is whether the United States is willing to change as well and truly look at Mexico as an equal.

Hernandez lives in Mexico City with Estela, his wife of 20 years, and their four children. He was interviewed in Los Angeles.


Question: Tell me more about the Guanajuato Trade Office?

Answer: We opened trade offices in Dallas, Chicago, Los Angeles and New York to promote the Mexican state as a nation. Soon after, I opened a warehouse in Dallas to assist small, medium-sized and micro-companies in Guanajuato to sell their products. We taught small entrepreneurs how to export, how to ensure that their products had the required quality, and so on.

Q: Did it work?

A: We were extremely successful, so much so that Fox wants to try this approach at the national level. He wants to open distribution centers in the U.S. for all 32 Mexican states. The centers could be divided by sector, but whatever arrangement is decided upon, it should be flexible. For example, if the states of Chiapas or Veracruz want to export coffee, they could hook up with a U.S. distribution center without having to go through the Mexican bureaucracy. In time, each Mexican state could go beyond exports and develop commercial relationships with states in the U.S.

Q: Are you planning a distribution center in California?

A: Yes, one for all 32 Mexican states.

Q: Are you focused mostly on small businesses?

A: Yes. My emphasis is on micro, small and medium-sized businesses, and my job is to link up mostly with Mexicans and Mexican Americans.

Q: Might this approach benefit regions in Mexico that send immigrants to the U.S.?

A: We are thinking about some sort of certification; for instance, a label that would identify a product with an immigrant-sending region. Such an identification might entice Mexican Americans and Mexicans living in the United States to purchase from these regions. That would help develop the economies of those areas from which our paisanos [countrymen] leave to come to the U.S.

Q: Your office is also working on the protection of Mexicans living abroad?

A: We are charged with making sure that the president hears the voice of Mexicans abroad. We want to make sure that Mexicans abroad are treated with respect, as human beings. That their education and health needs are met. Immigrants should not be treated as second-class citizens of Mexico. These individuals are heroes who provide wealth to Mexico, and although we would prefer to keep them at home, if they decide to leave, we will be watching out for them.

Q: Some people would complain that it takes a lot of nerve for you, an official of a country that sends so many of its children to study here, to say that you are going to make sure that their education needs are met.

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