Mexican Consul General in LA Carlos García de Alba is a career diplomat from Guadalajara, Mexico. He has been in the Mexican Foreign Service for over 30 years and was promoted to ambassador in 2006. Although he was set to serve in the United Arab Emirates after his five-year ambassadorship in Ireland ended in 2016, then-Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto reshuffled his U.S. diplomatic corps and García was ratified by the Mexican Senate as Consul General of Mexico in Los Angeles in April 2016.
Los Angeles is García’s eighth foreign posting for Mexico. He moved from Ireland, a country with just a few thousand Mexicans and an embassy staff of 16, to overseeing Mexico’s largest diplomatic outpost. In fact, Los Angeles is the second largest Mexican city outside Mexico City. Of about 11.7 million Mexican-born people in the United States, around 4 million live in Los Angeles County.
The Pacific Council's Spring 2019 Communications Project Fellow Gemma Stewart recently sat down with García for an interview in USC’s Public Diplomacy Magazine to discuss Mexico’s deep connection with Los Angeles and monumental moments throughout his career.
Gemma Stewart: Los Angeles has prominent Mexican roots, historically, culturally, and demographically. Can you give a brief background on Mexico’s impact on Los Angeles?
Carlos García de Alba: Los Angeles is, historically, deeply connected with Mexico. The city of Los Angeles, the name is Spanish. The city was founded when it was still a part of Nueva España. You can go to Plaza Olvera to read the plaque that says that it was originally founded by a group of people coming from South New Spain, most of them from Sinaloa, some from Jalisco. Los Angeles was declared the capital of upper California and the capital of the Northern part of Mexico. So historically, there is a deep connection between Los Angeles and Mexico.
Nowadays, LA County has the largest concentration of Mexicans. About 48% of the population of LA County, roughly 10 million people, are Hispanics, not all Mexicans, but demographically speaking the presence of Mexicans is strong. Many parts of LA in its culture, food, and urban landscape are clearly connected with Mexico. In brief, there is a strong, old connection between Mexico, Mexicans, and Los Angeles. That makes Los Angeles a very special city for Mexico, and I guess the opposite is true for LA: For Los Angeles, Mexico is a very special country.
You mentioned the plaque in Plaza Olvera. Los Angeles is filled with plaques, landmarks, buildings, street names, and more with Mexican heritage. What role do such monuments play in serving as a visual for Mexico’s impact on Los Angeles, and how do they engage the public here in Los Angeles?
Monuments are very visible and in public spaces. And monuments clearly indicate the historical presence or factual importance of something or somebody. It’s a kind of small museum. It’s a good way to remember people, not only for the inhabitants of that city but for the tourists who visit the city as well. Monuments show that there was a person, a chapter, or an episode that was important to the city to the point that the authorities decided to make a monument to remember. Every city has monuments, even small towns, to make a kind of homage to a person, event, or historical fact.
How can these monuments and “small museums” serve as a form of diplomacy for Mexico?
Well UNESCO, the most important cultural institution in the world, decided to set up a list of tangible and intangible heritage. Every country, every culture, every people has something special to be proud of. For me, there is no doubt that Mexico is proud to show Los Angeles specific people because most of Mexican monuments here are related to people or characters of Mexico that have had an impact in the city of LA. This is public diplomacy. The way Angelenos see people like Anthony Quinn, Benito Juarez, or the mariachi music bands, is positive. Mexico, through this list of national heroes or characters, is influential. I can feel it every time I speak with Angelenos about these Mexican people that are commemorated in monuments or squares or parks. Public diplomacy is an intangible way of promoting the good name of a country, and that’s why all these monuments help the Consulate, the Mexican government, to set up a good reputation for my country.
Does the Mexican Consulate use monuments to commemorate specific events or influence narratives of national events going on?
Not always, but sometimes yes. We are continually celebrating the Mexican heritage and history here in LA. We typically look for places where this is already visible. For instance, if we want to celebrate El Día de La Bandera (Mexican national flag day) or Benito Juarez’s birthday, we pick places that have monuments that are specifically devoted to these episodes of Mexican history. You go to Plaza Mexico, Parque de Mexico, Plaza Olvera, and usually in all those squares are monuments. There are sculptures, paintings, and murals throughout LA that show what I want to show to Angelenos on such days of celebration and commemoration.
Like you said earlier, the presence of monuments can be very effective forms of public diplomacy. But, can monuments also be controversial and cause difficulty in trying to portray your message?
Oh, absolutely. Not so much here in Los Angeles, but in other parts of the U.S. I used to be Consul General in Dallas, Texas from 2004 to 2006 and we had the idea of putting a monument of Benito Juarez in Dallas. I spoke to the local authorities at the time and they liked the idea. But, as soon as this idea came out to the public, there was clear opposition from the people. People said things like, “We are not in Mexico; we are on U.S. soil.”
It was a big controversy, to the point that in the end we sadly could not make the Juarez statue a reality. I remember at the time when I was trying to garner public support for the Juarez statue, I stated how in Mexico, we are so proud to have monuments dedicated to U.S. heroes, such as Martin Luther King, Abraham Lincoln, and John F. Kennedy, because they are universal heroes.
"Mexico culturally speaking is a superpower. If you go to any country in the world, there will be some Mexican restaurants, some Frida Kahlo-oriented fashion, tequila, Mexican movies, and more. This is the intangible presence of Mexico and it is one of the strongest tools of Mexican public diplomacy."
Carlos García de Alba
Why the people of Dallas would oppose a statue of Benito Juarez in their city when many Americans see Juarez as a friendly, Mexican president to the U.S. may be because there is a very short, limited vision of history. And so, I did not want to polarize the public opinion of the city for that was not the original purpose of the statue. The purpose was to connect, link, and reach the people of Dallas with Mexico, so I had to give up on that project at the time.
That being said, monuments are not always natural and accepted. But things in Dallas are different now. I was in Dallas recently and was talking to the current Mexican Consul General there. He said the relationship between Dallas and Mexico has grown for the better and additionally Texas is changing demographically. The incumbent mayor of Dallas has made several trips to Mexico, and, when I was the Consul General there, I invited the mayor of Dallas to visit Mexico but she never did. Maybe the time to propose the Benito Juarez statue is now!
You have served in Mexican embassies and consulates outside the U.S., in countries like Ireland and Italy, with small Mexican populations and very few Mexican monuments. What forms of public diplomacy did you use to engage with the people when there was not a constant visual of Mexican influence like here in Los Angeles?
UNESCO classifies world heritage in tangible and intangible assets of a country. The tangible assets are the visible ones, like monuments, squares, museums, and pieces of art. Intangible are things that are a part of a culture, such as food, music, and dancing. And let me tell you, Mexico culturally speaking is a superpower. If you go not just to Italy or Ireland, but if you go to South Africa or India, or any country in the world, there will be some Mexican restaurants, some Frida Kahlo-oriented fashion, tequila, Mexican movies, and more.
This is the intangible presence of Mexico and it is one of the strongest tools of Mexican public diplomacy. And Mexico is becoming more and more conscious of this tool, and we need to use it more. Mexico is a cultural power worldwide, not just because UNESCO recognizes this, but because Mexican culture is already accepted, recognized, and expanded by the people. That’s why Mexico has the most intangible elements on UNESCO’s list of countries in the Americas.
Mexico has these valuable, intangible assets that can be accessed all over the world. But do you think it’s still easier to perform public diplomacy in cities like Los Angeles?
In a city like LA, you don’t need the consulate to realize how deep Mexico’s presence is. In some places like Ireland, you need the Mexican embassy to make Mexico’s presence known in the country. In LA, the consulate can help and does help. But suppose you don’t have a Mexican consulate in Los Angeles, you will still have a strong visible and invisible Mexican presence in LA on a daily basis.
What has been a monumental moment of public diplomacy in your time as a career diplomat?
I was in Italy, in the beginning of my career in the early 1990s. I was invited to go to the island of Sardinia in the Mediterranean Sea for a trade seminar. An Italian mentioned a small village there called San Salvatore to me. This isolated, Sardinian village was transformed to look like a Mexican village.
Many decades ago, film producers were looking for a place whose landscape resembled that of Mexico in order to film Westerns. These producers went to the small village of San Salvatore and asked the people if they wanted to transform their village into a Mexican town. The reaction of the people was absolutely yes; they were delighted to be Mexicans in Sardinia, Italy. They invested huge amounts of money to modify this small town into a Mexican village.
"The Mexican Consulate belongs to the city of Los Angeles. Sometimes Angelenos see foreign consulates as distant institutions. A good way to show Angelenos that LA is home for us as well is having the Mexican Consulate collaborate with local Angeleno artists."
Carlos García de Alba
We drove two hours to visit San Salvatore and when we arrived at this town, I was really surprised to see a Mexican village in the middle of nowhere on an island off the coast of Italy. I was introduced to the locals and all the people were excited because I was the first Mexican diplomat, perhaps the first full-blooded Mexican, to visit their village. I became a celebrity out of the blue because I was a Mexican and we had a big party. For me, that experience was unforgettable because it showed me how strong Mexican identity is.
Although it was clearly a stereotype, a type of Hollywood-Mexican village, it was a Mexican village nevertheless and the people of San Salvatore were extremely proud to be “Mexican.” It was a monumental moment of Mexican public diplomacy and I have very fond memories of that incredible experience.
With the new Mexican administration, what are some key public diplomacy initiatives you and the consulate plan to carry out for 2019?
I’m not thinking of the coming year; I’m thinking of the coming weeks. Right now we are organizing a weekend cultural festival. We want to show Mexican art that is not typical, such as poetry in indigenous languages, for this is the world year of the native languages. The consulate also wants to connect the Chicano culture with the Mexican culture; sometimes people think that Mexicans and Mexican-Americans are the same thing. But that is not the case and this is a challenge.
We also want to emphasize how the Mexican Consulate belongs to the city of Los Angeles because sometimes Angelenos see foreign consulates as distant institutions. A good way to show Angelenos that LA is home for us as well is having the Mexican Consulate collaborate with local Angeleno artists to decorate a wall outside the consulate that will be changed every three to six months.
We have taken down some fences surrounding the consulate and have constructed a wall for this purpose, and as I like to say that will be and is the only wall Mexico will pay for. Initiatives based on art and culture are a good way to connect the people of Los Angeles with Mexico and that is what is on our agenda for 2019.
Gemma Stewart served as the Spring 2019 Communications Project Fellow at the Pacific Council on International Policy.
This article was originally published in the Summer/Fall 2019 issue of USC’s Public Diplomacy Magazine.