A conversation with Oregon’s new Mexican consul general

Francisco Maass Peña talks about tourism and mobile consular services — but stays mum on Trump.

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Oregon has a new Mexican consul general.

Francisco Maass Peña, Mexico’s former deputy tourism minister, took office two months ago. He presides over a service area that includes about 400,000 Mexicans living in Oregon and three Washington counties.

In an interview held in the downtown Portland consulate, the gracious and affable Peña skirted hot button issues — Trump, immigration reform — while focusing on consular services and the need to promote a broader understanding of Mexico.

“Mexico is known for the beach, sun, Mariachi and tequila,” Peña said. He alluded to stereotypes and misconceptions about Mexico City. “We are a very complete place: complicated, but cosmopolitan.”

Peña was keen to showcase a two-year old video tourism campaign promoting Mexico City: “Live it to Believe it.”  The glamorous, aspirational campaign presents the city of 20 million people as a world class metropolis: modern, sophisticated and a food lover’s paradise.

Coincidentally, I traveled to the Mexican capital for the first time three months ago. Not to shill for the Mexican government, but I lived it and now believe it. Mexico City was by far one of the most dynamic, interesting and yes, complicated cities I have visited.

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Trained as a lawyer, Peña, 48, has worked in several federal government offices, including the attorney general, telecommunications and tourism divisions.

One of his goals in Oregon is to increase the flow of tourists from the state to Mexico and vice versa. During our interview, Peña pulled out a tourism report showing the top 20 U.S. states ranked by the number of flights to Mexico. Oregon was not on the list. 

“So this is an important area of opportunity for us,” he said.

Not surprisingly, Texas and California clocked in with the most flights: 1,949,102 and 1,858,986 in 2015, respectively. Illinois came in third, with 631,016.

Peña said he wants to continue working with AeroMexico and the Port of Portland to create a new direct flight to Mexico City. Of Portland’s three flights to Mexico, only one operates year round and none flies direct to the capital city. 

The consul general oversees an array of services including dispensing official documents — passports, birth certificates — and providing legal advice to Mexican natives living in Oregon. On a recent weekday morning, about 50 people filled the consulate waiting room, many of them children.

The office has a mobile unit to reach outlying parts of the state, including migrant farm worker communities. “We conduct a lot of activity directly in the place where they work,” Peña said.

Deputy consul Dulce Maria Zamora Lezama, who sat in on the interview, said the consulate brings teachers from Mexico to teach Spanish to children of migrant farm workers.

The consulate is also working with the Oregon Department of Education to hire these teachers for up to three years. Lezama said Oregon brings more teachers from Mexico than any other state in the country.

Peña declined to comment on the Supreme Court’s June 2016 decision to overturn President Obama’s executive order on immigration.

 “We are absolutely respectful of conditions here,” he said. “We will learn to adapt to any scenario, and we will continue helping other people and authorities of other states.”

He did point out misconceptions around legal immigration.  “There is the misconception that immigration is growing and growing, and someday all the U.S. will be Mexico,” he said. 

The reality is equilibrium. Mexicans are coming to the United States — but an increasing number are returning to Mexico. “So the rate of new people is zero,” Peña said.  

Peña said it was important to recognize the role immigration plays in “the economic activity of the U.S. and the social and cultural life.”  

Every year, about 200 native Oregonians apply for resident visas in Mexico, Lezama said.

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Citing consular discretion, Peña declined to comment on Trump.

“I can tell you we are absolutely respectful about the political life in the U.S. We will continue our very very good relations. It doesn’t matter the results of any election.”

Peña has settled into a house in Lake Oswego, where he lives with his wife and two children, ages seven and nine. He marveled at the deer in his neighborhood and praised Portland’s arts and culture scene.

Peña patted his stomach. “I think I’ve gained some weight. You have a lot of good gastronomy here. I can testify it’s a very foodie place.”