Love Thy Neighbor

Writer-at-large Cecilia Balli on U.S. ambassador to Mexico Tony Garza and the two countries' post-9/11 relationship. 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. 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. 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. 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,

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