My first tour of duty as a Foreign Service Officer is almost over, and I can confidently say that I know a lot now that I didn’t know when I got started. My Spanish is a bit sharper. I can talk your ear off about immigration law (which I promise not to do in this post). I know that chile de arbol is not something to be eaten on a whim. I’ve begun to appreciate the ins and outs of the complexities of this large organization for which I work. I’ve learned how to put together an itinerary for the Principal Officer, and how to get a dozen people in as many offices to “clear” on a cable that I want to send out. Some of these lessons will stick with me for a long time, and others will no doubt have to be relearned (chile de arbol always looks so good on the plate).
But among the most wonderful things that I have come to appreciate in the past two years is the critical role played by our locally employed colleagues in our work and communities overseas. I’ve written a fair amount about what it is like to be a part of the large, diverse, quirky family of American Foreign Service Officers, spouses, and kids that spans the globe, hops from country to country, always saying hello and goodbye to each other. The uninitiated might have the impression that everyone at my office is an American Foreign Service Officer. How untrue that is!
The vast majority of employees who work at the Consulate here in Ciudad Juarez (and at just about every post globally) are local folks. They are Mexicans, most born and raised right here in Juarez. We Americans are a minority at work, despite the fact that it is the U.S. Consulate. And our Mexican colleagues do a vast quantity of the work that keeps us running every day. They provide security to the Consulate compound, and in our residential communities. If something breaks at our house they come around to fix it. Our Mexican colleagues input the visa cases into the computer, wrangle the documents that I need to make a visa decision, and print up the final product. If I make a mistake, or get lost on how a certain part of the law works (a common occurrence), it is most likely one of our immensely qualified and experienced Mexican colleagues who helps me to find a solution. We have Mexican analysts who investigate our particularly challenging cases, and provide us with detailed information to bring the case to resolution. When I went on TV to talk about visas I had a locally employed friend and colleague sitting right there with me to help answer questions from the fast talking reporter.
In other parts of the building our Mexican colleagues are working to cultivate a strong relationship between our Consulate and local media, businesses, and other organizations. Our Mexican management team makes sure the rent is paid on our houses, and that the lights and water and computer network in the building keeps working. And to see that this massive team of people all get their paychecks every two weeks. There’s a fantastic team of Mexican cooks in the cafeteria who keep us very well fed. This Consulate is a massive operation, and it runs primarily on Mexican power, with English and Spanish being swapped out and traded for one another at a pace that I imagine is frustrating for the monolingual.
It’s easy to take this environment for granted after one has been here for a few months, but every so often something happens that reminds me how remarkable this all is. Just this week, for example, we had a retirement party. A gentleman by the name of Alex, who is one of just a few locally employed supervisors, finished up 29 years of work for our Consulate and will now get some well deserved rest. He began his career taking documents from applicants at a window and putting together files. He finishes up as the boss of more than 20 people, overseeing much of the work in one of the busiest visa sections in the world, reporting to and trusted by the unit chiefs (officers). If something is broken, he’s the guy who knows how to fix it. He has worked under six U.S. Presidents, at least a dozen Consuls General, and goodness knows how many American supervisors. He has had a direct impact on the smooth adjudication of millions of visas. This man is a giant of experience, and an example of service.
During his farewell ceremony he gave a very gracious speech. He talked about how as a young man he remembers walking past the old U.S. Consulate building in downtown Juarez, and dreaming of getting a job there. He shared how glad he was that it had come to pass. Other speeches were given. His colleagues praised his warmth and wisdom. A statement from the Ambassador was read, praising his service and accomplishments. He was honored with plaques, gifts, and applause. It was made known that his service was appreciated.
We talk often about those who serve their country, and rightly so. There are many who forego the comforts of a life at home, proximity to family, higher paychecks, and even safety in order to uphold the law, protect our national interest, and generally be of service. But we don’t often talk about those from other countries who serve OUR country, sometimes making the same sacrifices and face the same risks that we do. I have Mexican friends and colleagues who have done jobs at U.S. Embassies in Kabul and Baghdad.
The lesson that hit me full on in the face this week, and that I hope to carry with me throughout my career, is that there are many of us who serve, and many who deserve recognition. Yes, we the Officers do a service. But so do our partners and kids, who face the challenges of life abroad and open a window to American culture to our friends and neighbors. And so do our locally employed colleagues, who support us in our work, and provide expertise and muscle that we would be lost without. There are many who serve the United States in many different ways, and we aren’t all Americans. I hope that I am able to remember and honor this fact as I move forward in my career.
And perhaps the most beautiful thing that grows out of this is the friendships. I will be very sad to leave this Consulate, possibly for the last time, in three weeks. Not necessarily because I will miss the work (there’s always more), or my fellow officers (I’ll see most again), or the food (Mexico is a short plane ride away). I will mostly miss this big beautiful group of Mexicans who started off as just people at the office, but who have ended up as people who I joke around with, talk about life and kids with, banter with on facebook, share birthday cake with, enjoy parties with. They have ended up as friends, and that will make the leaving all the harder.