This past election season, the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce waded into politics like never before: it hosted Q&A sessions with most of the major candidates and broke with precedent when it endorsed Hillary Clinton in the general election. The USHCC’s president and CEO, Edinburg native Javier Palomarez, emerged as one of Trump’s most vocal critics, calling him a “clown” and accusing him of “fearmongering.” After the election, though, the 56-year-old—who splits his time between Flower Mound and Washington, D.C.—accepted an informal role on the president’s National Diversity Coalition.
Sonia Smith: You were a vocal critic of Trump during the campaign, calling him a “buffoon.” Now you’ve joined his diversity council as an informal adviser. What caused you to soften your stance?
Javier Palomarez: It’s not that I’ve changed my mind, it’s that the reality is this man is the president. We don’t agree with Trump on a variety of issues, and won’t. But we represent 4.2 million Hispanic companies that contribute some $668 billion to the American economy, so it would be disastrous for us to simply storm out of the conversation.
SS: How did the first contact happen?
JP: On November 9, it became clear that I had to call these people and congratulate them. I reached out to Trump’s lawyer, Michael Cohen, who I’d been talking to throughout the campaign. He made me eat a little shit for a while, which was fair. He said, “You went a little overboard calling him a buffoon and a payaso, and that wasn’t necessary, but I get it—you’re a warrior, and warriors wage war.”
He told me that Trump respected me for two reasons: that I told him what I thought and that I never talked about his hands, his hair, his wife, or his children. I kept it about business. So Michael asked me to be a part of the diversity coalition.
SS: How has that gone so far?
JP: I’ve spoken with Trump a couple of times, and I’ve met with members of his transition team. In a week, I probably talk to them four or five times. The conversations are always professional. I know that he’s usually shown as a my-way-or-the-highway kind of personality and an ideologue, but I’ve found him to be pragmatic.
SS: What is your take on the border wall that Trump wants to build?
JP: Our position has always been that immigration reform is an economic imperative for America. I think the wall flies in the face of the ethos of this country. I will never support the wall.
SS: Can you talk a little about how your formative years growing up in the Rio Grande Valley shaped your outlook?
JP: I was the youngest of ten kids born to immigrant parents. My mother was an educated woman—she was the equivalent of a CPA when she came here from Matamoros. My dad was a dashing blond-haired, blue-eyed Spanish Mexican guy full of personality, and she just fell head over heels for him. He wasn’t a perfect dad, and he left when I was six.
We’re Catholic, and in my mom’s mind she couldn’t get a divorce because, if she did, she would go to hell. So she couldn’t get child support, which meant she had some tough decisions to make. At that time, no one was hiring Mexican CPAs in South Texas, and certainly not a female Mexican CPA. So we became migrant farmworkers. We lived in a migrant camp in Plymouth, Indiana, in a small house with no running water. There was a big outhouse with twelve holes where you did your business right next to strangers. We would come back to Edinburg, but I was always late for the school year. As I got older, Mom finally got a job as a bookkeeper at a local fruit-packing shed.
I was very close to my mother. She would come home late at night, so I trained myself to stay up so that I could spend a little bit of time with her. We used to have this ritual: she was a diabetic and used to hide Hershey’s candy bars under her pillows and she’d break off a little piece and we’d share it and make the bar last almost a week. In return, I would comb her hair every night, and I’d talk to her. Even when I was a rebellious teenager, we religiously stuck to that routine until she very suddenly died. I went to school one day, she gave me my blessing, and then she died.
Just about everything that I do now, at some point or another my mom’s name will get invoked. From her I learned my guiding principles—this notion of integrity, and honesty even when it’s not convenient, and doing what’s right even when somebody may or may not like it. I’ve never met anyone who comes close to having her dignity and her gracious demeanor.
SS: What’s next for you? Do you see a future for yourself in Texas politics?
JP: I love my state, but we’ve got some challenges. You look at public education spending, we rank near the bottom in the nation. In public health it’s the same. There’s no reason for this, not with one of the best economies in the nation. And that’s because we have a very small ruling class running this state, and even people within the Republican party don’t like those folks. If my state called on me, it would be my privilege, but right now my hands are full with what I do.
SS: Is there any particular office you have your eye on?
JP: I’d be governor or nothing. But I don’t know that my state is ready for me. It’s like I told the Catholic Legal Immigration Network when they brought me on their board of directors. The bishop asked me, “Javier, would you like for me to hear your confession?” And I said, “Father, I don’t have that kind of time right now. Neither one of us has that kind of time.”
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.