Drinks With ...

David Figueroa Ortega

Mexico’s Man in L.A.


Guelaguetza Restaurant
3014 West Olympic Boulevard
Los Angeles, C.A.

The Tab

(2) Micheladas
(2) aguas de jamaica
(1) tlayudas
$32.04 + tip
Figueroa’s Tip for the Road: Throw yourself into everything you do.

Mexico’s man in Los Angeles, David Figueroa Ortega, is a plain-spoken, affable northerner from the state of Sonora, which sits across the border from Arizona and a sliver of California. He is a consul general lacking in diplomatic artifice: what you see is what you get. Sonorenses, known throughout Mexico as independent-minded ranchers from the raw frontier, tend to be like that. They’re in the mold of Álvaro Obregón, the general who outlasted a formidable cast of competing leading men to prevail in the Mexican Revolution.

The only moment when Figueroa pauses to gather his thoughts before speaking comes when I ask him if, under the circumstances, he thinks of himself as an exile. Diplomats in coveted posts don’t usually need to field such questions. He sits quietly over his agua de jamaica, prepared by the Guelaguetza restaurant on Olympic (I’m enjoying a beer, Michelada-style), mapping out an acceptably indirect way to say yes. “Well, at first my feeling was that I should not give up my dream of being governor of Sonora just because criminals didn’t want me,” he says. “But over time I suppose I did fall in line, after feeling like a fish in a barrel of water.”

The “circumstances” prompting the question, I should hasten to add, were a torrent of bullets. In 2006, when he was mayor of the border town of Agua Prieta, Figueroa, who was known for a zero-tolerance approach to drug cartels, received what he calls the “first message.” It came via his father, who took five bullets. Miraculously, his father survived. Not long after that, during a late-night drive into Mexico City from Toluca airport, Figueroa’s car was blocked on the road and sprayed with dozens of bullets. “It was like a horror movie in slow motion,” he says, pointing to a scar on his forehead from a bullet that grazed him. He was also shot in the leg. Then, in late 2007, as Figueroa was contemplating a run for governor of Sonora, a man in downtown Mexico City blatantly pulled a gun on him and tried to end things once and for all. “I ducked, and he missed,” Figueroa says, as if recounting an inspired tennis match. “And then his gun jammed.”

Figueroa, only 41, is a self-professed man of faith. He is clearly lucky to be alive. Not wanting to press his luck, however, he got the message and reluctantly acted on it. In 2008, President Felipe Calderón appointed Figueroa Mexico’s consul general in San Jose, California.

To his surprise, Figueroa found himself viscerally engaged with his new job from the start. Far from wallowing in exile, the accidental diplomat relished his consulate post, making lemonade out of lemons, or whatever the analogous saying involving bullets would be. (Goodies out of gunfire?) “When I was a kid, my father was a bracero in northern California, picking berries, sacrificing so we could get an education,” he recalls. “And now I found myself in a position to serve people who were going through what he had.”

Figueroa worked to make his outpost more customer-friendly, sending out a roaming “mobile consulate” so that field workers wouldn’t have to lose an entire day when visiting office headquarters. As consul general in San Jose, Figueroa also engaged the other California industry that needs droves of (more highly paid) immigrants-Silicon Valley.

Just a few months ago, Figueroa relocated to Los Angeles, where he is consul general for a sprawling region that covers 15 counties and nearly seven million Mexicans (if you include second-generation Mexican-Americans). “This is the second-largest concentration of Mexicans outside of Mexico City,” he says. But he says it almost with trepidation, as if he is supposed to do something about it.

The challenge of representing this community has been redefined in recent years. Mexican consular offices no longer limit themselves to the traditional tasks of making sure their nationals’ paperwork is in order (their Mexican paperwork, that is), issuing visas, or trying to drum up tourism and investment. In a dramatic shift from the old days, when Mexico’s government had decidedly mixed feelings about Mexican citizens who’d emigrated, today’s more democratic Mexican state looks for ways to help its citizens on this side of the border participate in American society.

And so Figueroa worries about things like school dropout rates among Latinos. The consulate puts on an “education week” to bring in families and advise them on how best to engage the system. The consulate also collaborates with community groups to encourage people to register to vote (on this side of the border) and to become naturalized U.S. citizens when eligible to do so. “I see dual citizenship as the best of both worlds, a trend that reflects our realities,” he says

It’s a stark departure from traditional diplomacy, and it expands Figueroa’s workload exponentially. It also gives heartburn to anti-immigration pundits, who are outraged by what they see as a foreign government’s intrusion into domestic matters. But Figueroa is unapologetic, noting that there are some 50 million Latinos in the United States. “How well are they being represented?” he asks. “I think it makes a difference whether or not these kids participate in their society and register to vote.”

As he speaks, he gestures in the direction of some young kids running around the restaurant. The Guelaguetza, known for its Oaxacan cuisine, is one of those L.A. Mexican eateries that manage to attract both Mexicans seeking authentic cuisine and Anglos seeking a festive, sometimes kitschy, sensibility-a cheery place that lulls you into thinking that downing one more margarita might magically summon mariachis from backstage.

Still, for all the new directions in which Figueroa is taking his work, he also has to mind the traditional roles associated with his post. To be consul general is to be a salesman for your country, and that’s becoming a tough job. While Mexico’s commercial and artistic ties to Southern California run deep, the country’s brand is taking a beating from the spectacular violence unleashed by the drug cartels.

When I ask him about this, Figueroa draws an analogy to his current Southern Californian home, noting that Los Angeles, during the peak years of its gang violence, may have seemed ungovernable. Such perceptions were worse than the reality, but the problems of Los Angeles were still very real. Mexico faces a similar moment: real problems magnified by perception, both needing to be tackled simultaneously. As it is, though, 22 million foreign tourists still visited Mexico last year, Figueroa claims, and a full 93 percent would gladly go back, according to surveys. Never mind the irony of an exiled-by-bullets politico preaching about Mexico’s relative safety; presumably, most American visitors aren’t as compelling a target as a border mayor who takes on drug cartels.

Figueroa remembers sleeping out on his porch as a young kid in his small town, and that long-gone memory has become an aspiration for the future of his motherland. For now, though, Figueroa’s home is Los Angeles, and he is happily settling in. When his son expressed concerns over transferring to the all-boys Loyola High, no less a personage than Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, whom Figueroa considers a friend, stepped in to assuage the boy’s concerns and talk up the place.

Figueroa is also getting to know the local diplomatic community, an eclectic mix of pampered honorary consuls, notables sent to semi-retirement in the shadow of Hollywood (every nation wants to attract the film industry), and people like Mexico’s representative, whose diaspora translates into an avalanche of a workload. Disappointingly, when I ask about the frivolous side of his ambassadorial role, Figueroa reveals no color. Well, hardly any. His Japanese counterpart apparently knows how to throw a party.

Andrés Martinez is editorial director of Zócalo Public Square and director of the Bernard L. Schwartz Fellows Program at the New America Foundation.

*Photo by Andrés Martinez.