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A Consul Like No Other

Luis Miguel Ortiz Haro goes beyond his official duties to aid those in distress.

March 07, 2004|Jennifer Mena | Times Staff Writer

The woman was having a routine conversation with Mexican Consul Luis Miguel Ortiz Haro about her need for an identification card when she broke down in tears.

Ignoring the commotion of his Santa Ana office -- the phones, the bustling aides, the dozens of people waiting to see him -- Ortiz Haro listened intently as she explained that she was anguished over an entirely different issue: She had paid $180 for a list of low-rent apartments, only to discover they didn't exist.

This past week, Ortiz Haro found seven other victims of the scam and is getting the group an attorney. He is also trying to get authorities to look for an American baby believed kidnapped in Mexico, arrange for the release of a 12-year-old Mexican boy from Orange County juvenile hall and collect money for a 24-year-old woman whose 5-year-old son was killed by a car in La Habra.

It was, for the gregarious and affable Ortiz Haro, all in a week's work as his government's chief diplomat in Orange County -- a consul like no other.

His job is to deal with such parochial issues as issuing passports and attending official functions. But Ortiz Haro, say those who watch him at work, is more the passionate godfather than starchy bureaucrat -- a man more likely to lace his conversations with slang than legalese to break the ice with his mostly working-class visitors.

Sure, there are ordinary government issues to address, but every-day emergencies are receiving more urgent attention, even if they stray from his job description, Ortiz Haro says.

"I feel like I have to do these things. People don't know how things work here. Too often, they are victims of scams," he said.

His doggedness and commitment have made his office on Broadway a magnet for immigrants, many undocumented, who fear American authorities, distrust local police, don't understand where to turn or feel embarrassed to seek help because they speak limited English. In a city where three-quarters of residents are Spanish-speaking, it's a busy place.

Some visitors have come from Los Angeles because they say the larger city's busy consulate has not been able to help them.

His colleagues in the Mexican foreign service have noticed. Ortiz Haro "has made us question our role," said Fernando Gamboa, the Mexican consul in Oxnard. "He's a breath of fresh air. There are manuals that tell us how to deal with the public.... They don't speak to the way things really are. Ortiz Haro has made us think we need to change the manuals. He's handling things in a very personal, direct way. It's the way things should be. Too many consuls are very cold."

Not long after she arrived in Orange County to try to overturn or reduce her son's sentence to prison on a concealed weapons charge, Eloisa Arreguin turned to Ortiz Haro for help.

And she found the consul was everything others had said -- informal, charming and quickly willing to call people in high places to get things done.

Ortiz Haro arranged for her to receive legal advice, spent hours reviewing her son's court case and, because the seamstress needed money, enlisted others to join him in purchasing tablecloths and clothes she had sewn.

The outpouring of help left Arreguin stunned.

"I didn't think there was anything anyone could do for someone like me," she told Ortiz Haro. "I overstayed my visa and I'm illegal."

"Illegal, ni madres," exclaimed the consul, using colloquial Spanish to say that no matter what the woman's legal status, she deserved respect.

The 43-year-old Mexican politician, who had held an elected position in the Mexico City government, was appointed consul in September 2002, succeeding Miguel Angel Isidro, who had the post for four years.

Hearing of the assorted problems and challenges facing Mexican nationals in Orange County, Ortiz Haro a year ago created Miercoles Paisano -- roughly translated as Compatriot Wednesdays -- to hear problems from anyone who wanted to talk to him.

Since he began his open house, he has heard of problems both prosaic -- such as Mexicans who don't know how to replace the birth certificates they left in Mexico -- and profound, including kidnapping and consumer fraud.

And he wades into issues that others in his position avoid.

"Most consuls go to events," said Raquel Olamendi, his assistant. "They go to parties. They are boring. That's why I work here. I really feel like we are doing something."

He eschews business lunches in favor of visiting the jails, apartment complexes and border communities where immigrants seek his help. He also has increased the frequency of driving the consulate's van into neighborhoods where he meets Mexicans at churches and schools. But most visit him on Wednesdays, when a line of 20 to 30 people wends from his second-story office, down the stairs and through the parking lot.

Ortiz Haro chats with visitors as if they were old friends, and because of his well-known informality, they come in their work clothes and job uniforms. Many cannot read and write proper Spanish.

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