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Walking a tightrope

Mexican consul balances roles as Latino advocate

Mark Bixler, Staff
The Atlanta Journal and Constitution, January 24, 2000

Teodoro Maus has a job that requires him to mix on-the-record interviews with behind-the-scenes diplomacy. As the Mexican consul general in Atlanta, he delivers speeches and talks with reporters as often as he meets in private with local and state authorities to discuss issues affecting Mexican immigrants in the United States.

So on the morning of Dec. 31, Maus had no reason to suspect that his weekly trip to an AM radio station in Lawrenceville would be anything out of the ordinary.

Within a week, however, the comments he made on WPLO-AM had made a circuitous journey from a tiny radio station in Gwinnett County to the halls of government in Mexico City. His assertion in the interview that Hispanics should shun Georgia businesses that mistreat them --- he insists he did not call for a boycott --- raised questions about whether Maus overstepped the proper role for a diplomat.

The comments highlight the tightrope that Maus walks as he balances his official role --- looking out for Mexican nationals in Georgia and three neighboring states --- with one that has sometimes been thrust upon him --- leader and spokesman for the Southeast's burgeoning Hispanic population. If he becomes too involved as a political leader and tries too hard to influence American public policy, he runs the risk of teetering off the tightrope and falling from the good graces of his government. But how far is too far is not easily defined.

Maus sometimes appears as more of an activist than a diplomat, though some of his public comments come in response to reporters' inquiries, and scholars say he is within his rights to speak out. As consul, he has publicly criticized ordinances regulating day laborers in Chamblee, Marietta and Roswell and attacked a Norcross ordinance requiring businesses to display signs in English. Maus also has criticized proposals in the General Assembly and decried a ruling from the Georgia Supreme Court in a worker's compensation case that limited the amount of money the state would send to relatives of a legal Mexican immigrant killed in a construction accident here.

He once suggested that the anti-immigrant mood in the United States was so strong that the Statue of Liberty should come down.

In a recent telephone interview from Mexico City, where he was attending a meeting of ambassadors and consuls, Maus stressed that governments in the United States have every right to pass whatever laws they choose.

"I have always been careful about that --- not questioning the right of a city or a county or a state to impose their own law . . . , but when those laws affect a Mexican citizen, then I get involved," he said.

His comments on the radio attracted little notice when he made them. Then, a few days later, Maus' press attache, Bernardo Mendez, sent a four-sentence summary of his comments to several journalists. One of the summaries went to a reporter in Mexico City, who interviewed Maus and reported his call for a " boycott" in one of the city's biggest newspapers, Reforma. Han Park, the director of the Center for the Study of Global Issues at the University of Georgia, said it would be improper for a diplomat to call for a boycott. He said a diplomat in Georgia is within his rights to talk with local, state and federal authorities about issues that affect his countrymen. Engaging in political activity, such as leading a petition drive or economic boycott, would clearly be out of bounds.

Park said that "inducing Mexicans to purchase or not to purchase" at certain stores --- Maus said he did not mention specific stores --- "would not have been the job of a diplomat."

Just what Maus said on the radio show is in dispute. Three people who were there --- Maus, Mendez and interviewer Sammy Rodarte --- provided an account at odds with the newspaper article that mentioned a boycott, an article that the Associated Press subsequently distributed to media outlets around the United States.

"That created a whole scandal," Maus said. "I would never call for a boycott. This would be . . . getting totally outside my role as a diplomat.

"What has to happen --- and this is the very, very important part --- the Latino community has to understand that it's up to themselves to protect the community from abuses."

He said he worries that some businesses in Georgia treat Hispanics poorly.

He said some stores charge Hispanic customers more than Anglo customers and that some agree to hire Hispanics for a certain wage only to renege on payday and offer a much lower pay.

"There are a lot of businesses that are mistreating Mexicans," he said.

The point he tried to make on the radio program, he said, was this: Hispanic customers have tremendous buying power --- their disposable income in Georgia was estimated at $ 3.7 billion last year --- and they should exercise that power by punishing businesses that mistreat them. That's common sense advice and not a call for a boycott, Maus said. If anyone leads a boycott --- he knows of no such effort --- leaders of Georgia's Hispanic community would have to do it.

But among the 220,000 to 480,000 Hispanics in this state, Maus has become one of the most visible leaders.

"He really cares about the Latino community, the issues, especially with discrimination," said Homera Luna, editor of a Spanish-language newspaper in Dalton, part of Whitfield County that's home to an estimated 40,000 Hispanics.

Most Hispanic immigrants in Georgia are Mexican, but Luna said Maus is as well-known as a fighter for immigrants from other Latin American countries as he is for Mexican immigrants, a fact at odds with Maus' official job description and one that he acknowledges with the finesse of a polished diplomat.

"It has been part of my job to represent the Mexican community and fight the abuses they suffer," he said. "Incidentally if I'm helping Salvadorans, Guatemalans, Hondurans, then great. I'm very happy about that."

In the last several years, Maus has:

Criticized the Immigration and Naturalization Service for rounding up illegal immigrants instead of focusing on people who manufacture and sell fake documents to those immigrants.

Called a press conference to assert that Smyrna police violated state law in warrantless searches of the homes of illegal immigrants.

Told Hispanics that the chairman of the Cobb County school board showed " profound ignorance of our people" by saying that Hispanic construction workers were uneducated and "probably illegal aliens."

He has spoken at public hearings held by the Hispanic Legislative Forum, a four-member panel appointed by Gov. Roy Barnes to recommend changes to state law. Maus also received an award for his work from the Latin American Association. In quieter moments, Maus has gotten results from state officials by arguing successfully that Georgia law allows illegal immigrants to drive legally with a valid license from their home country. And his meetings with authorities in Roswell helped ease tensions caused by a police crackdown on Hispanic laborers.

Maus, a former architect, joined the foreign service in 1978 and has been consul general in Atlanta since 1989. He supervises 26 employees at the Mexican Consulate off Apple Valley Road in northern Atlanta. The consulate issues visas to American businesspeople traveling to Mexico and offers more than 100 services to Mexican nationals living in Georgia, South Carolina and most of Alabama and Tennessee.

Among other things, the consulate helps Mexicans ship home human remains and obtain birth certificates from Mexico and conducts marriage ceremonies for its citizens living here. It steers Mexican immigrants with consumer complaints to the proper agency of local, state or federal government and helps immigrants who want to give power of attorney to a friend or relative back home --- standard fare for a consulate.

In addition to such mundane but important tasks, a consulate is expected to advance the interests of its government and protect its citizens living abroad, said Marion Creekmore, who was U.S. ambassador to Sri Lanka from 1989 to 1992 and second highest-ranking official in the U.S. Embassy in India from 1981 to 1984.

Ambassadors and consuls perform similar functions. An ambassador is typically based in a foreign capital. He oversees several consuls working in outlying parts of a country, such as Maus in Atlanta.

Creekmore, now vice provost for international affairs at Emory University, said he tended to do more behind-the-scenes diplomacy but also gave speeches and interviews, some of which were critical of Sri Lankan laws intended to deter terrorism.

He said each consul and ambassador must decide the best strategy for achieving his goals: Would it be better to discuss a problem with the mayor at lunch? Or would it be better to talk with reporters?

"It's a judgment call as to how one can be most effective," he said.

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