Mexican Consul Solana is a link between two nations

By Kate Nash
Tribune Reporter

Growing up on the edge of one of the planet’s biggest cities, Juan Manuel Solana lived with a foot in two worlds: His family had an expansive garden in the mountains above Mexico City, while the giant municipality offered all its charms below.

He figured he was one of the luckiest kids around, able to live in the nearly empty countryside that’s since been developed.

“I had the best of both worlds, of having the largest garden in the world for me,” he said.

As the Mexican consul in Albuquerque, Solana still lives in two worlds – two countries that are inextricably linked.

Solana, 47, alternately works as a mediator, negotiator and cultural ambassador between a pair of nations that despite their proximity can seem galaxies apart.

In the past year, he’s helped the state Taxation and Revenue Department get access to a Mexican government database to check the veracity of documents used by Mexicans to get New Mexico driver’s licenses.

He helped Bernalillo County sheriff’s deputies bring accused murderer Michael Astorga back to the United States from Juarez.

And he helped the families of Mexican immigrants killed in a car wreck near Santa Fe earlier this year get the bodies of their loved ones back.

“He really exemplifies what a consul needs to do for their community,” said Pablo Martinez, the state director of the League of United Latin American Citizens.

“He has opened up his office to the community and really has had an open door,” Martinez said.

Solana took the post in 2001, with the approval of then-president Vicente Fox.

With the recent election of Felipe Calderon, Solana could be replaced.

But Solana, with salt-and-pepper hair and an almost grandfatherly smile, doesn’t worry about that. The Christmas season is a crazy time for the consulate, which helps thousands of Mexican and U.S. citizens each year at its office on Fourth Street just north of Downtown.

For Solana, who once worked for big-name companies in Mexico like Pemex, the national petroleum corporation, recalling his accomplishments over the years comes easily and brings smiles to his otherwise serious face.

The memories also come without a hint of bragging, without letting on that he’s arguably the most important advocate for immigrants in Albuquerque.

He helped Mexicans in jail get an education before being deported. Helped bring numerous Mexican cultural events and exhibitions to the state. Helped workers who weren’t being treated fairly. Helped Gov. Bill Richardson arrange meetings with two Mexican presidents in Mexico City.

His office has 13 employees, with divisions dedicated to a range of services from immigrant protection to health care and education.

The immigrant protection division is among his favorites, he said, although he’s quick to offers a positive assessment of each.

“It’s the department that gives you the greatest satisfaction, where you really can do something for so many,” he said.

When asked to choose a best moment in his nearly six years on duty, he can’t. There are too many, he says.

Solana, a former professor who is single, collects Mexican coins for fun, including the 2 peso gold coin he pulls out of a plastic case in his pocket on a recent day.

The price of gold is going up, he says. Good thing for his collection, he laughs.

Solana has filled his sunny, south-facing office with Mexican art – pottery from the village of Mata Ortiz, shelves of sculptures, prints and paintings.

The collection is a testament to the culture he loves and promotes, as well as a symbol of the immigrants he works to help.

Immigrants’ presence in the United States is something Congress needs to address, he said.

“We are not solving the problem, and that problem is a lot of people are willing to pay a lot of money to come here and work. There is a lot of need in Mexico,” he said.

“I hope the Americans and the American Congress find the way.”

While Solana is an ambassador of sorts between two counties, he also has to work with the variety of state and federal government agencies in the United States.

He has contacts at OSHA, the Department of Labor, the Governor’s Office, you name it.

Those who have worked with him say he doesn’t like to take credit for his work, much as he deserves it.

“I will be forever indebted to Juan for what he did for us after Astorga was captured in Juarez,” said Bernalillo County Sheriff Darren White. “I think people should know he was very much involved, and I consider him a friend and always will.”

Solana said he was just one of a group of people who worked the case, in which sheriff’s deputies were able to get Astorga out of Mexico after he was arrested in the border town across from El Paso. Deputies had been searching for Astorga for 12 days.

White said he works with Solana often, including when Mexican nationals are crime victims.

“Victims of crime sometimes are reluctant to come forward, and feel more comfortable going through the consulate,” White said.

At the Taxation and Revenue Department, Solana helped form the first partnership in the nation in which a U.S. state agency could access information from a Mexican government database.

The department can use the database to verify documents presented by immigrants who have New Mexico driver’s licenses.

Richardson earlier this year ordered an audit of the 30,000 licenses held by immigrants – a daunting task that could have been harder without Solana as a link between the two governments, said Ken Ortiz, director of the state Motor Vehicle Division.

“Consul Solana went above and beyond and worked with the Mexican government to provide us Web access to do the inquiries,” Ortiz said.

Other agencies like the state’s Homeland Security Office also depend on Solana, not on a daily basis, but as a connection to have just in case.

Homeland Security Adviser Tim Manning said that should any kind of serious international incident occur at the border, he’d know whose number to dial.

“If we ever were to get into a situation where we needed to work with the Mexican government on something, he’d be our first call,” Manning said.

But Solana doesn’t worry about the worst that could happen at the border or anywhere else.

He tries to look for the good in the bad, like an accident in Santa Fe in February that left four Mexican nationals dead and eight injured after the sport utility vehicle they were riding in flipped.

“I remember the case; I remember the people that died. It was sad at the time, but it was something good that we helped the (dead) people from the accident to go back to Mexico,” he said.

Along with the grim moments, Solana’s job also includes work on subjects including international trade promotion.

When Solana started six years ago, New Mexico did $120 million in trade with Mexico, he said.

Now, the figure is more like $600 million.

Still, Solana says, work looms.

“I’m sure more can be done. I’m sure we’re going to be able to do more.”

Published Dec. 16, 2006.