SAN DIEGO - It's not unusual for a U.S. ambassador to be a witness to history. But, as U.S. ambassador to Mexico the last six years, Tony Garza was able to witness - and, some say, help bring about - nothing less than a historic shift in U.S.-Mexico relations.
And that helps pave the way for President Obama's visit to Mexico this week to meet with President Felipe Calderon.
It wasn't long ago that Mexican government was quick to protest whenever the United States fortified its southern border. Whether it was building a fence or talking about deploying the National Guard, the memory of U.S. troops marching into Mexico City during the Mexican War more than 150 years ago would rush back and the Mexicans would say: "No mas."
Today, thanks to people like Garza - and, more so, Calderon - it's a new world in Old Mexico.
"One of the things that I'm proudest of is that we now have a far more direct, open and honest dialogue," Garza told me recently. "We've always gotten along. But now, more than any other time, we truly need each other. And, to me, that's the basis of an enduring partnership - both respect and need."
One thing Calderon needs is - hold on - enhanced security on the border. That not only helps block drugs and illegal immigrants from getting into the United States, but also guns and drug money from entering Mexico.
The changing paradigm caught the attention of Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, who mentioned it during a recent visit to the Rio Grande Valley.
"Out of necessity, they (the Mexicans) want to work with us," Cuellar told reporters after a ceremony marking additional funding for border enforcement.
I recently visited the Texas-Mexican border, and I can tell you that the locals on both sides of the line resent the fence. They're not pleased that the Obama administration plans to complete the remaining 60 miles of the security barrier approved by Congress.
But in Mexico City, the ice is melting. Suddenly, Mexican officials agree that a porous border is a security threat and see the mutual benefit in both countries scrutinizing who's crossing the border - in either direction.
"From the Mexican perspective," Garza said, "I think now more than ever they understand - but perhaps when the (immigration) debate was going on, they didn't appreciate how important it is that we have a safe and secure border."
As they say in Texas, that's something you can hang your hat on. And, to the degree that Garza helped bring about that change by driving that point home to the Mexicans, he deserves a share of the credit. A former Texas secretary of state and member of the Texas Railroad Commission, Garza is a loyal and longtime "FOW" (Friend of George W. Bush) and a star in GOP politics.
And yet, one thing that helped him navigate Mexico's often-choppy diplomatic waters is that he grew up in the border city of Brownsville, Texas.
"I think we're all the sum of our lives, in terms of the experiences and the perspective that we bring to bear," he said. "And mine, obviously, were uniquely border."
Now, with Obama set to arrive in Mexico, Garza hopes the relationship between the two countries can become stronger.
Obama is "an extraordinarily intelligent man with a nuanced view of the world," Garza said. "And I think that will serve him well ... right here in our hemisphere."
One thing that could help Obama be warmly received in Mexico is a reported decision by his administration to push immigration reform this year.
This time, Garza will watch that fight from Texas - and Mexico. He'll be taking up dual residences. His wife, Maria Asuncion Aramburuzabala - they met in Mexico - is one of the world's wealthiest women. Garza can expect to be lobbied hard by Republicans to run for Texas governor or the U.S. Senate. But, he insists, he is done with politics. Instead, he wants to write, speak and consult with companies eager to do business in Mexico and Latin America.
You could say Tony Garza has come home. But, it's more accurate to say he never left. As the line goes, home is where the heart is. And this is one man whose heart is in two places.
Ruben Navarrette Jr. is an editorial writer and columnist at The San Diego Union-Tribune. Reach him at email@example.com.
©2009 The San Diego Union Tribune