First published in November 1, 2008 Armenian Reporter.
Mexico's ambassador to the United States discusses his Armenian heritage
An interview with Arturo Sarukhán, Washington’s other Armenian ambassador
by Emil Sanamyan and Lusine Sarkisyan
Washington - In an October 9 interview with Arturo Sarukhán Casamitjana, Mexico's ambassador to the United States, the Armenian Reporter's Washington Editor Emil Sanamyan and intern Lusine Sarkisyan asked him about his unique family history, his thoughts on Armenia, and Mexico's foreign policy priorities vis-à-vis the United States.
Armenian Reporter: How does someone of Armenian descent get to lead one of the most important embassies in Washington, representing Mexico, a country of more than 100 million?
Arturo Sarukhán: Hard work! I'm a career diplomat. I've been in the Foreign Service for 14 years. This is my second tour duty in Washington. I was here earlier as chief of staff to the ambassador. I arrived as a chief of staff to the ambassador in 1993 and stayed on with the next ambassador, and then [in 1998] I went back to Mexico.
How did I arrive to this specific post? Well, I was consul general in New York and I asked for a leave of absence from the Foreign Service, resigned my commission as consul general in New York, and joined [then presidential candidate] Felipe Calderón as his chief foreign policy advisor and his international spokesperson. I then headed the transition team on foreign policy and became ambassador in 2007.
AR: Can you tell us your family story, particularly the Armenian part?
AS: My grandparents arrived in Mexico in the early 1930s. My grandfather was a Russian-Armenian also named Artur Sarukhanian, but when he arrived in Mexico he tried to make it easier on the Mexican authorities [and cut the "ian"]. He was an aide to Alexander Kerensky [head of Russia's "Provisional government" in 1917]. After Kerensky was overthrown by the Bolsheviks, he left Russia and came to Venice, where he was trained at the Armenian seminary.
My grandmother fled the Genocide in 1915. Most of her family was killed in the Genocide, but she was able to escape to Thessaloniki in northern Greece. From there she went to Venice and my grandparents met and were married in Venice.
At the time Benito Mussolini came to power [in Italy and was establishing his Fascist government] my grandfather said: "This smells bad."
So, they went to Mexico with the idea of coming to Canada. My grandfather spoke 9 languages, English among them, but he had read a lot about Mexico, so he decided to stop in Mexico on their way to Canada. They never left. My grandparents fell in love with Mexico and they stayed in Mexico.
That's how I was born in Mexico.
AR: What is the Armenian presence in Mexico?
AS: It's a very small community. A lot of those who arrived as a result of the Genocide actually did end up doing what my grandfather wanted to do, which was move north to the U.S. or Canada. So, a lot of the Mexican-Armenian families after World War II - most of them ended up in Fresno, California. The Armenian community in Mexico is very small.
Armenian resilience and unfinished Armenian Genocide agenda
AR: Although at a distance from Armenia, I imagine you over time have followed the events in Armenia. What is the most striking thing about Armenia for you?
AS: I was [in Armenia] once with my father when I was a teenager, when it was still a part of the Soviet Union. I have not been back to the independent Armenia.
It is certainly what I look forward to because it is important to, number one, understand one's roots. But also, [even though] I am a Mexican diplomat and I represent my country in the most important country for Mexico, which is the United States, there is such a thing as a global citizenry. These pasts and origins have the ability to connect and create networks regardless of passport, nationality, ethnicity, and color.
[Such networks] are the only response to some of the challenges that many countries like ours face. Challenges like security in the post-September 11 world, environmental degradation, social-economic development that is also just and fair.
Armenia and Mexico have lived next to big, powerful countries. Armenia is near Russia and Mexico near the U.S. We've both had traumatic historical experiences with our neighbors: Armenia with Turkey and to certain extent Russia, Mexico with the U.S. after the war of 1847. So, I think there is a lot of common ground that can be built on by engaging.
There are two things that surprise me. One is the resiliency of the Armenian people and culture. I see that at home with my father and mother. (She is also a refugee, but from another side of the Mediterranean. She is a republican refugee from the 1930s Civil War in Spain.)
The other thing that surprises me is how the Armenian diaspora has not had the ability to forcefully portray and make its case as the Jewish-American community has. How the resources and the capital, manpower, and even the celebrities - even though some of them do it very actively - has not been translated to a full-fledged recognition, explanation, coming to terms with what happened in that part of the world.
AR: Has Mexico been confronted with the Armenian Genocide issue either in the context of international organizations or directly, and how does it perceive the issue of genocide?
AS: I think Mexico is one of the countries that have supported resolutions condemning genocide. For reasons that have to do with geographical distance and the fact that there is a small Armenian community in Mexico, it is not an issue that is on top of Mexican diplomatic agenda.
AR: But is the Armenian Genocide debated in Mexico?
AS: No, not really. Some people know, some people are interested, some people have written about it but again it’s not a top issue. We don’t have the size that other countries like Argentina, France and others have in terms of the Armenian population. It’s not something that comes from the grassroots.
RS: Uruguay, a Latin American country, was I fact the first country to formally adopt a resolution on the Armenian genocide, in part since it does have a substantial Armenian community. Do Latin American countries develop common policies on issues such as this?
For example, earlier this year there was a United Nations General Assembly vote on the Karabakh conflict, an issue of key concern to Armenia. And Azerbaijan relied on support from Islamic countries, most of which basically joined in support of Azerbaijan’s position, while the vast majority of countries, including Latin American ones, abstained or did not vote.
Is there a similar solidarity among the Latin American countries in the UN or elsewhere?
AS: There is a Latin American group and they usually vote in block, but not always, depending on the issue. The closer the issue is to the core diplomatic priorities in the region it becomes more difficult to vote in block. The farther away you get, whether it is an issue of security or development, it will change, but there isn’t a paradigm that forces the group to vote in block. Many times on many issues in nations decide to go their own way.
Immigration debate and Mexican-Armenian relations in California
AR: While there is a big distance from Mexico to Armenia, Armenians and Mexicans definitely meet in Los Angeles. One of the major issues on Mexico’s agenda is immigration and how the U.S. government treats immigrants.
The Armenian-American community, although themselves mostly recent immigrants, does tend to lean to the conservative side of the debate on Latin American immigration. What case does Mexico make to the U.S. on this issue?
AS: I have very good working relations with Congressman Adam Schiff who comes from one of the districts [including Glendale and Pasadena, north of Los Angeles] with the highest concentration of Armenians and Mexicans. We always joke that if one day he decides to run for a higher office then I would be a good candidate for his district. He is doing a terrific job in speaking for the issues and some of these tensions that exist.
There are a few issues today in America which are as divisive as immigration. And for a good reason substantial portion of citizens of this country feel that immigrants have broken the law, that it speaks to the challenge of how you improve border security and how you make sure you know who the people living on your territory are.
At the same time, it rubs against what this country is. It’s not a coincidence that the motto of this nation is "E pluribus unum" [“From many, one” in Latin]. The successive ways of immigrants into this nation have made what this country is. It’s a vital plural-ethnic, plural-cultural tolerant society because it is a nation of immigrants.
There are two challenges here. Number one is that the recent waves of Latin American migrants who are coming to this country especially after the last serious immigration reform in 1986 have faced obstacles that no previous immigrant communities faced. That is they have been now undocumented for more than twenty years. And if you look at previous waves of immigration they all faced at some point nativism and anti-immigrant sentiment but in a generation they were able to successfully integrate into the fabric of American life and lifestyle.
You now have more than twenty years of waves of migrants who’ve come from Latin America and are living in the shadows because of the rules and lack of reforms. They have not been able to integrate, and at a time [of economic] uncertainty this feeds into a creeping fear which exists in American public over globalization and free trade, goods from China, trucks from Mexico and undocumented migrants.
[Secondly,] for countries like Mexico and U.S. it is important to measure the impact two countries have on one another. There is no bilateral relationship that is more important and more unique for the economic prosperity, for social well-being and security of two nations, Mexico and the U.S.
There is the 3,000 kilometer border and there are 35 million Mexican Americans in this country of whom 6 to 7 million are undocumented migrants. In fact Mexico is U.S.’ third largest trading partner. Every day there are 75,000 trucks that cross the border in both directions. It is an extremely dynamic relationship.
We in Mexico and you in America need to pause and think how do we ensure that a labor intensive country like Mexico and a capital intensive country like the U.S. can take advantage of that geographic proximity, human capital to be able to continue to compete on a world stage even with the likes of China and India.
In many ways, our loss is your gain. The fact that Mexico can’t hold on to 200-300 thousand people a year who can’t find better paid jobs in Mexico and come to U.S. is a huge loss to my country. Mexico cannot grow at a rate that it needs to grow to start breaking economic asymmetries that exist between Mexico and U.S., if we are bleeding bold entrepreneurial men and women who are crossing that border every year.
At the end of the day what we need to ensure that every single Mexican that crosses the border to U.S. does so legally, whether it’s with a visa or it’s a part of a temporary worker program but we have to ensure that as both countries work to ensure the security of our border. We leave the doors open so the free flow of listed goods and people can continue.
AR: In terms of the Armenian community in California, are you surprised there has not been more sensitivity to fellow economic migrants from Latin America?
AS: This is going to sound biased but I am a believer that communities like the Armenian and the Mexican communities are natural allies. They share agendas and challenges in this country. Many of them have come here driven by the same problems of lack of economical opportunities. Both are hard working societies. [In the past] the Armenian community faced the prejudice and racism and discrimination in this country that Mexican communities are facing today.
Mexican-Americans are already partnering with the Jewish-American community based on these common challenges and the need for these two communities to work together to ensure that this country continues to remain tolerant and open to diversity.
It would make more sense if Armenian and Mexican communities work together especially in the West Coast and New England where we have the highest concentration of Armenian-Americans to bring down the bombastic nature of the debate, to look at the opportunities and the challenges in an objective and forward-looking way.
AS: Thank you for this opportunity and thank you for remembering.
Arturo Sarukhán Casamitjana Biography:
Ambassador of Mexico to the United States since January 2007, Mr. Sarukhan was previously foreign policy coordinator for then presidential candidate Felipe Calderón (elected President of Mexico in 2006).
Since 1994, Mr. Sarukhan’s diplomatic career included postings as Mexico’s Consul-General in New York City, with the Secretariat of Foreign Affairs and as Mexico’s representative at the Agency for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in Latin America and the Caribbean (OPANAL).
He is also a professor at the Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México (ITAM), and has taught at the Mexican National Defense College, the Inter-American Defense College and at the U.S. National Defense University.
Mr. Sarukhan has a bachelor’s degree from El Colegio de México (1988) and, as Fulbright Scholar and Ford Foundation Fellow, he earned his master's degree in U.S. Foreign Policy from Washington’s Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (1991).
The Kingdoms of Spain and Sweden conferred on him the Order of Civil Merit of Isabel la Católica, Officers Degree, and the Order of the Polar Star, Commanders Degree, respectively.
Mr. Sarukhan has full command of English and of Catalan, and is fluent in French. He reads Portuguese and Italian.
He is married to Verónica Valencia and they have two young daughters, Laia and Ani.
Ambassador’s father José Aristeo Sarukhán Kermez was born in Mexico in 1940. An award-winning biologist he was President of Mexico’s National University from 1989 to 1997, and continues to do research on ecology there. In November 2007, writing in the leading Mexican daily El Universal, Dr. Sarukhán Kermez discussed the Armenian community’s efforts to win the Armenian Genocide affirmation in the U.S. Congress and his own family experience – see his commentary in Spanish at http://www.el-universal.com.mx/editoriales/38926.html.
The Armenian Reporter would like to thank its former Washington intern Nareg Seferian and the Mexican Embassy’s Press Officer Ricardo Alday for arranging the interview.