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Secretary Hilda Solis leading the U.S. Presidential Delegation for the Celebration of the Bicentennial of Mexico

Created: 17 September, 2010
Updated: 13 September, 2023
7 min read

From left to right, Jose Hernandez, NASA Astronaut; Sam Sayyad; Secretary Hilda L. Solis; Monica Lozano, Publisher of La Opinion; Actor Edward James Olmos

    My Latino heritage has always been a source of pride for me. It is a major part of who I am, and enriches my every experience.

    Every summer, when I was growing up in Southern California, my father —– who was born in the U.S. but moved to Mexico as a child — would pack up our whole family, including my mother and my six brothers and sisters, and drive for several days to visit relatives in Veracruz  and Mexico City.

    So, I could not help but think about my father as I boarded the plane at Andrews Air Force Base to lead the U.S. Presidential Delegation for the Celebration of the Bicentennial of Mexico. Sure, I know my dad is proud of me and what I have accomplished.  But I also know that, deep in his heart, leading a delegation to Mexico ranks as one of the most important thing I’ve ever done. I know that he’s feeling a great deal of satisfaction that his “all-American” daughter is returning “home” as the highest ranking Latina in President Barack Obama’s cabinet.

    To be honest, the significance of this trip is not just personal. The U.S. Department of Labor, which I head, has an important relationship with Mexico. We are actively engaged with Mexican labor authorities in a dialogue on improving the functioning of the North American Agreement on Labor Cooperation (NAALC), which is widely known as NAFTA’s side agreement on labor. And something else, which is very close to my heart: eliminating the worst forms of child labor. Approximately 3.6 million Mexican children work, many of them in agriculture.  While some travel with their families, others are left behind in their home communities with little protection as a result of parental migration. Many of these children come from indigenous communities. In 2009, my department  funded a $5 million, four-year project to combat the worst forms of child labor in Mexican agriculture, a sector in which an estimated 1.1 million children work. The project aims to withdraw and prevent thousands of children from exploitive work in agriculture through education, vocational training, and social services. We are also working with the Mexican government to strengthen policy and legislative frameworks, and improve data collection, monitoring and inspections. 

    I chose to keep a diary of my brief Mexican adventure (I would only be in the country for about 24 hours.), because I wanted to remember all the special details of the trip – not just for myself, but for my father, and for those across America who live both the challenges and benefits that come with the dynamic relationship between the U.S. and Mexico.

    As soon as our plane lands in Mexico City, I’m on my way to the U.S. embassy for a dinner meeting with the U.S. Ambassador to Mexico, Carlos Pascual. Although he has only been in this post for just over a year, he has decades of experience in foreign diplomacy, including previously serving as our Ambassador to the Ukraine. We’re joined by another member of our delegation, Julian Castro, the young rising star mayor of San Antonio, Texas.

    We discuss what the Ambassador calls “the many Mexicos” — a place rich with natural resources and agricultural abundance, but also a staggering poverty rate. The nation is becoming a true leader in high tech, yet lately it is known for its alarming high rate of crime. I have lots of questions for the Ambassador and his staff about U.S./Mexico border issues, immigration, jobs, trade and the economy, education programs, and specifically, clashes between Mexican authorities and strikers at the Cananea copper mine. I’ve been following that situation closely and am concerned about labor rights as the mine prepares to reopen, especially the right to freely form and join a union.

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    I also learn that at one time, Ambassador Pascual and I both shared the same zip code in the city of El Monte, and I’m struck by how small the world really is. Nearly midnight, I head for my hotel. I have a big day tomorrow.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010   Morning

    I meet up with Maria Otero, Under Secretary of State for Democracy and Global Affairs, and the other member of our delegation. I’m also delighted to see Rigoberta Menchu, the Nobel Prize winner from Guatemala, Jose Hernandez, the Mexican-American astronaut, and Edward James Olmos, the actor and producer. Our first stop: Mexico’s National Palace.  Located in the city’s main square (El Zocalo), it’s used mainly for symbolic events by the President, but it has been a palace for Mexico’s rulers since the Aztec empire.

    A big highlight for me are the murals by the artist Diego Rivera (painted between 1929 and 1935) depicting Mexican history. I’m mesmerized by the powerful imagery, and as I reflect on the history of the Mexican people — my history — my heart swells with pride.

    Later, I spend a few minutes with Mexico’s First Lady, Margarita Zavala de Calderon, before touring a special Bicentennial exhibit. As a life-long Californian, I’ve always known that the U.S. and Mexico share a lot of history. Mayor Castro makes a similar observation to me when we get to the “Alamo” section.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010   Noon

    After joining nearly 100 other foreign dignitaries – including the presidents of Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Panama, and Colombia, as well as the Prince of Denmark and the Governor General of Canada – in signing a special guestbook, we head out on buses for the world famous National Museum of Anthropology. We’re greeted by the beautiful voices of the National System for Musical Development Children’s Chorus and other children in native and historical dress. After a fascinating tour, the visiting delegations join together at a luncheon hosted by Ambassador Patricia Espinosa Castellano, Mexico’s Secretary of Foreign Relations. During lunch, while the sounds of “Harps of America” play in the background, I cannot help but reflect on the important and often complex relationship between the U.S. and Mexico, which has a direct impact on the lives and livelihoods of millions of Americans — ranging from trade and economic reforms to homeland security to drug control to migration to the environment.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010   Evening

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    I’ve less than two hours of “down time” before leaving for the Chapultepec Castle, the former Presidential residence (now the National History Museum) for the official dinner hosted by President Felipe Calderon. But the Labor Secretary’s work is never done, so I use the time to catch up on email, call my office in Washington, DC, and prepare my notes for the cabinet meeting President Obama has called for Wednesday afternoon at the White House.

    I have the unique opportunity to present President Calderon with the official gift on behalf of the United States — a custom-made glass vessel in the colors of the Mexican flag crafted by the New York artist Jamie Harris.

    After dinner, marvelous cultural presentations—including a concert by Pepe Aguilar (I’m a big fan), and a spectacular fireworks display, I head straight for the airport, with a strong sense that Mexico is very proud of its past but prouder still of its future.

    It’s nearly midnight, and I won’t be back in Washington for another five hours. I should be exhausted, but I’m exhilarated. As I board the plane, emblazed with the words “United States of America” across the side, I’m overcome by that uniquely American paradox: I’m going home, but I’m leaving home at the same time.

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