"We've already accepted the invitation," said Héctor Velasco Monroy, the newly appointed Consul General of Mexico in San Antonio.
His remark was in reference to San Antonio's planned 300th anniversary celebrations in May 2018, an opportunity that consulate staff will use to promote Mexican culture and foster a more positive image of the country. With the added presence of the Instituto Cultural Mexicano, which is located on the Hemisfair grounds, Mexico will have a strong presence in the city's Tricentennial celebrations.
"Culture opens people's minds and we have a lot of culture to show," Velasco said last week, as he walked across the hallways of the Mexican Consulate.
The new Consul General invited the Rivard Report to the consulate, located in a historic building at 127 Navarro St. that once served as the home to the Federal Reserve Bank offices. The Mexican government bought the building in 1957, complete with the original vault, where passports and other important documents are now stored.
The building is need of some costly upgrades, and the layout is not ideal for consular operations. The reinforced walls make for a poor Wi-Fi signal, the plumbing is deteriorating, and there is no parking. There has been some talk of changing locations.
"Because of the building's historical value, it's very complicated to make these types of decisions," Velasco said. "It has a very special value.
"In 1861, presidents Benito Juárez and Abraham Lincoln authorized the first Consul of Mexico in San Antonio. The Mexican people that stayed to live in Texas, after the wars and what happened at the Alamo, needed legal representation," Velasco said. "This consulate is one of the oldest in the United States."
That centuries-old relationship is evident almost everywhere one turns in looking at the city's history, culture, economy and people. On a recent visit to Mexico organized by the San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Mayor Ivy Taylor personally invited Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto to San Antonio's forthcoming Tricentennial anniversary, along with King Felipe VI of Spain and Pope Francis, Velasco said.
"We must remember that San Antonio was founded by the Franciscan missionaries who came here to settle their missions," he said. "So, one can say that in addition to the United States, other influences that helped the foundation of San Antonio are those of Spain and the Catholic faith."
Peña Nieto's attendance has not been confirmed, but 2018 is a presidential election year in Mexico, which complicates the president's foreign travel options. Still, Velasco said Mexico will have a strong official presence.
The Trade Balance
$1 million in commerce is exchanged every minute between the United States and Mexico, and 30 or 40% of that is made up of food products such as avocados, meat, and fish, Velasco said.
"That is around $27 billion a year just on food products alone, and that money is more than we make in petroleum or tourism," he said. "And that's not even mentioning the automotive industry or television manufacturing, which is also favorable for Mexico. Trade liberalization (turned out to be very) beneficial for Mexico."
Velasco previously worked at the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), served as undersecretary for agricultural development, and as general director of DICONSA, a government-run distribution network that offers financial services to low-income, rural Mexican families through its nationwide network of rural stores.
His political awakening came 25 years ago amid Mexico's domestic opposition to the proposed North American Free Trade Agreement, which was initialed by the three heads of state in San Antonio in 1992 and went into effect in 1994. Velasco, whose professional roots were in the agricultural sector, opposed the treaty, believing the country's rural campesinos would be hurt by a free trade deal. Since then he has reversed that view.
Mexico enjoys a trade surplus with the United States, Velasco said. In the past, the U.S. always exported more to Mexico than it imported in goods and services, but "we've turned that around." Mexico now "sells more products to the United States than it buys," Velasco said.
"This is one of the arguments we use to say that 'the wall' would be useless. Trump says that we are taking away jobs from Americans, but we are not taking anybody's jobs, we've earned them by being more competitive," Velasco said.
The shift in a trade balance that now favors Mexican workers helps explain why the current migration rate to the U.S. is at zero or has become a net negative with more Mexicans leaving the U.S. and returning home than are arriving, he said, a trend confirmed in a 2015 Pew Research Center study. That same trend is reflected in the consulate's day-to-day activities.
"We have more people returning to Mexico than those who are coming here," Velasco said. "We issue 17,000 passports a year against 600 cases of protection, meaning that Mexicans are coming for documents, not to ask for (asylum) legal defense because the 'migra' got them or because they were in a problem related to drugs or theft. The legal problems that we have in comparison to the document services are brutally different."
Lines of Mexicans on Navarro Street sidewalks in front of the consulate's building are a familiar sight downtown, reflecting its primary function of issuing passports, birth certificates, and credentials to vote abroad, or matrículas consulares, a type of consular identification for individuals who for some reason do not meet the requirements for a Mexican passport. The second area is protection and legal counsel, especially for those who encounter legal problems in U.S. or are incarcerated here. The consulate's third function is to promote industry, commerce, and investment between Mexico and the United States. Fourth is cultural promotion.
Mexico has 50 consulates in the U.S. "35 million Mexicans in the U.S. justify it; it is practically another country," he said.
San Antonio's consular network covers 27 counties down to the border and over to the Gulf Coast, an area thought to hold 1.3 million Mexican nationals. The largest consulate is located in Los Angeles, the second largest U.S. city, where six million Mexican nationals reside.
"We've measured our timing to have the best attention possible, the Mexican consulates are the only ones in the world that give you your passport in less than an hour," Velasco said. "The United States can take a minimum six weeks or several months."
Mexican consulates use iris recognition, just as if it were a fingerprint.
"It is the most advanced thing there is right now in the world," Velasco said. "The U.S. has recognized us for the security of our documents."
Security and Connectivity
When it comes to violence and security in Mexico, Velasco offers a perspective many on this side of the border might not embrace.
Many regiomontanos, or locals, who once fled the state of Nuevo León have returned to Monterrey and the surrounding cities, Velasco said, and Ciudad Juárez, once known for having the highest murder rate in the hemisphere, has seen reduced levels of violence and is now safe for Americans who want to cross for a quiet dinner.
"We don't deny the problems, but what I don't want is for us to magnify them and for us to be stigmatized for something that also happens here," he said. "There are easily 10 U.S. cities that have higher levels of insecurity or homicide rates than Acapulco, for example. But who do we talk about the most concerning violence? Acapulco."
It offends U.S. citizens when others speak about violence and mass murders in the U.S., but when people here speak about violence in Mexico, Mexicans are supposed to take it as 'constructive criticism.'
"For someone to be more afraid of going to Guadalajara than Albuquerque seems to me like a distortion of reality," he said. "When there is a situation of violence in Mexico, the U.S. Department of State sends out an alert. Did we send out an alert about what happened in Orlando? No, we are respectful."
This is only one of the many reasons why, Velasco believes, racism, xenophobia, and a distorted view of Mexico and Mexicans has spread like a virus into the U.S. presidential race and popular opinion. The daily commerce and cross-border trade and flow of people that actually characterizes the two countries' relationship gets ignored in the political rhetoric.
The reality for San Antonio, Velasco said, is better measured by the flow of people, goods and services. Transportes Aéreos Regionales (TAR) is about to inaugurate a direct flight between San Antonio and Querétaro. San Antonio already has direct flights to Monterrey, Guadalajara, Toluca, and Mexico City.
"We have to make a big effort in changing the perspective and the vision that there is about Mexico," Velasco said. "When ones speaks of Mexico it won't be about its problems stemming from violence, but that it will be seen as a competitive country, one that is ranked number 15 in the world regarding its social and economic development."
Top image: Mexican Consul General of Mexico in San Antonio Héctor Velasco Monroy stands for a photo in a stairwell at the Mexican Consulate. Photo by Scott Ball.