Love Thy Neighbor
Writer-at-large Cecilia Balli on U.S. ambassador to Mexico Tony Garza and the two countries' post-9/11 relationship.
texasmonthly.com: Why do a story on Tony Garza? Why right now?
Cecilia Balli: We’d been discussing the possibility of writing about Tony Garza at Texas Monthly for a while. We agreed that he was a high-profile Texan and a rising politician within the Republican party. He also gave us a reason to write about the state of U.S.-Mexico relations, which seemed to be so important following President Bush’s 2000 election. The relationship was quelled significantly after September 11 and because of the United States’ efforts to enter Iraq by force—which Mexico opposed—but even then it was a story we felt was worth telling. As for the timing, with the presidential elections looming we had to write about Garza now, in the case that Bush loses the election and Garza gets replaced.
texasmonthly.com: In your story, Garza sounds like a polished government official. Was he what you were expecting? Why or why not?
CB: I think Tony Garza is very polished as a politician but also very simple and grounded as a human being. I’d heard him speak at a Brownsville Chamber of Commerce event just before I began working on the story. Before the press, he seemed stiff that evening, and I felt that he gave roundabout answers to questions. But before his hometown crowd, over dinner, he was transformed—he was funny, fun, accessible. I was intrigued by that side of him. He’s certainly a politician in the sense that he’s very careful about what he says to the press, and he’s loyal to his party and to his administration. But as a person he’s great fun to be around and very intellectual and engaging in an unpretentious way.
texasmonthly.com: You mention that Garza was born in Brownsville, and so were you. Did your hometown come up in conversation? If so, did you both have the same impressions of the border town?
CB: We grew up in different decades and different neighborhoods in Brownsville, so our experiences of the city were significantly different. But what we do share is that undying loyalty and appreciation for our hometown. I think being raised on the border shapes your identity and your understanding of the U.S.-Mexico relationship in a very specific and special way, and we definitely have that in common. During idle time while I was working on the story, we talked about how we both want Brownsville to serve as our part-time home, and how we’d love to own condos there.
texasmonthly.com: The image of a four-month-old baby clutching Garza’s finger is a powerful one. What made you decide to include Juliana in your story?
CB: It was very obvious that Juliana had to be a part of the story, both because the experience of meeting her was so poignant and because the ambassador reacted so strongly to her. The following day he was still talking about Juliana. Five months later, when I went down to Mexico City to see him, he was still talking about Juliana. I almost shied away from using that anecdote because it seemed too easy, too journalistic, too obviously a symbol or a metaphor for the so-called migration “problem.” But I think Americans need to know that the migrants who are trekking through the Sonoran Desert in awful temperatures include tiny, vulnerable human beings like Juliana.
texasmonthly.com: Obviously, the events on 9/11 changed the climate between Mexico and the U.S. Do you think Garza can still make any progress toward improving relations concerning immigration?
CB: I don’t think it’s the ambassador’s job to get migration reform passed—it’s the job of the American Congress. Maybe it is his job to keep reminding the American president that migration is an important issue and that sectors of both the American and Mexican citizenry are waiting to see more done about it. I think the possibility for migration reform will depend on whether Bush is reelected and whether Americans feel ready to relax the nation’s immigration laws. Lately, all of the administration’s talk has been about sealing the border, and while there’s a way to do that while increasing the flow of legal migration, I’m not sure that the American public as a whole understands that or would support that.
texasmonthly.com: What do you think is Tony Garza’s greatest asset? Why?
CB: His personality, hands down. I think politicians might say his ability to work with people, but underlying that political savvy is his personality. He’s charming, pleasant, open. One employee in the U.S. embassy said, “Everyone at the embassy acts as if he were the ambassador except the ambassador.” He can win people over very easily when he gets to know them, which I think is the key. As ambassador he’s an important figure, but because of that he also seems somewhat distant. I’ve spoken with journalists who have never gotten to know him and aren’t very impressed by him. And then there are those who do know him and think he’s one of the neatest persons and most upright politicians around.
texasmonthly.com: What was the most interesting thing you learned while working on this story?
CB: I think the most stunning experience for me, as for the ambassador, was touring the Sonoran Desert. I grew up on the easternmost end of the U.S.-Mexico border, so I had a very different image of migration; migration meant people wading across the river or trying to slip across a busy international bridge. Watching as the migrants, including women and children, prepared to make a three-day trek into the desert, which even outdoor jocks would reconsider, made me truly understand the degree of hope and need that brings them to the border. Witnessing the migration phenomenon first-hand is so different from reading about it. I think the most shocking realization for me was that so many of the migrants have no idea what that stretch of the border looks or feels like until they arrive.
texasmonthly.com: Your story moves from poor Mexicans about to embark on a dangerous journey across the border to a glamorous art party at Garza’s home. Why did you decide to present the material in this fashion?
CB: Mexico is so much more complex than Americans think it is. It is a “developing” country with millions of people who need work, but it is also a First World country with some of the hippest, smartest, most interesting people you’ll ever meet. I wanted to show this; I wanted to shatter the stereotype that Mexico is all about poor migrants. Mexico City, in particular, is an exciting and cosmopolitan city. Plus, the ambassador spends so much of his time around this Mexico that I thought it was fair to portray it.
texasmonthly.com: What was the most difficult aspect of working on this piece?
CB: Probably reconstructing what happened to the U.S.-Mexico relationship after September 11. I had followed the developments through the press for the past few years, but I always wondered if the story of disillusionment was as simple as the media painted it. Since I was not in Mexico City or Washington when all of that happened, I had to put together the chronology of events through dozens of newspaper clippings and then talk to people who were there to see if they saw the story from the same perspective. I didn’t want to flatten out the events, but at the same time, I wanted to be honest about the way that the relationship and the vision for it changed.
texasmonthly.com: In your opinion, what does Tony Garza’s political future look like? Will he run for governor of Texas someday? Why or why not?
CB: I think there’s a pretty decent chance that Tony Garza would someday be asked to run for governor, and I think that he would almost certainly run. People like his style, and he likes political affairs. He’s very engaged with what goes on in Texas even as he serves as a federal diplomat in Mexico City. He also has a pretty clean personal and political record. Unless things change between now and then, I can’t come up with an obvious reason for why he wouldn’t be asked to run or why he’d choose not to run. I think he also straddles an important cultural border—he speaks Spanish and has a very Mexican American name and is familiar with the woes and challenges of the Latino community, but he also looks and sounds and identifies very strongly as a Texan. I guess the answer to this question really depends on what kind of message he’d send Latinos if he ran, and what the Democratic party would offer in the candidate who ran against him.
texasmonthly.com: Do you think Garza is the key Latino to get Hispanics to vote Republican? Why or why not?
CB: It’s hard to say who’s the key or ideal Latino candidate for either party. I think we’ve learned from Tony Sanchez’s campaign, and from mayoral races across the state, that it’s never easy to predict when and for whom and in what percentage Latinos will vote. Garza is certainly one of very few Latinos who are being groomed for statewide office, especially in his party.