Liliana Ferrer recalls growing up as the only Mexican student at Del Campo High School while her father, Carlos Ferrer, served as Mexico’s consul general in Sacramento. About a month ago, Ferrer followed in her father’s footsteps as consul general during a critical time in Mexico-U.S. relations.
President Donald Trump has called for the deportation of virtually all 12 million undocumented immigrants, many of them Mexican nationals, living in the U.S. while pledging to force Mexico to pay for a southern border wall. Trump has also said he will renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, which Ferrer helped negotiate in the 1990s.
The 53-year-old career diplomat, who has spent her life moving between the two countries, said that despite the tensions, she plans to help build on California’s multibillion-dollar relationship with Mexico while protecting the 1 million Mexicans living in her 24-county jurisdiction in California.
Ferrer has already met with Gov. Jerry Brown and top Latino state officials to lay the groundwork for educational and technology exchanges. Ferrer said one area California and Mexico can partner on is solar energy – Mexico has an abundance of sunshine, and California can help Mexico harness it. The consulate has also received $250,000 from the Mexican government to help its nationals fight deportations, Ferrer said.
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“These are challenging times, but the California-Mexico relationship goes way beyond a four-year administration,” Ferrer said. “We have historical ties that go back hundreds of years, and we will be neighbors forever. Mexico wants to build bridges, and good neighbors find ways to resolve challenging issues and collaborate as a team. And walls don’t help the relationship.”
Gov. Jerry Brown honored Ferrer on Monday at a reception at the consulate attended by several hundred teachers, activists, and movers and shakers.
“Mexico is moving north but we’re moving south,” Brown told the crowd. “We’re a great state, a welcoming state but we have a lot of pain in our past, we don’t always get it right.”
Brown went on to praise the contributions of all Mexican immigrants. “If you have any trouble, just talk to the consul general, that’s why she’s here,” he said.
Ferrer said that Trump’s statements about Mexican immigrants “have caused nervousness and fear among members of the Mexican community, many of whom have been residing in this wonderful state for decades, have raised families here and have lived honest and productive lives.”
“Now there is concern there will be a separation of families and people will be uprooted from what they call their home. We want to appease those concerns and build on our relationship with California.”
The legal aid provided by the consulate is part of that effort. Consular attorneys are already providing free advice daily, and Ferrar plans to partner with NGOs, the UC Davis Immigration Law Clinic and other universities.
“If you have a right to stay in this country, we will help you,” she said.
Ferrer said she hopes to also grow tourism and trade, “two critical parts of the California-Mexico relationship. Mexico is California’s No. 1 trading partner, no other country buys more California goods than Mexico does, we have over $70 billion in trade.”
Some 692,000 California jobs depend on trade with Mexico, and each is the other’s leading tourist destination, Ferrer said.
She has met with key state leaders, including California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon and Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León.
Ferrer is steeped in politics on both sides of the border. She studied lobbying in the U.S. as a fellow at Harvard’s Weatherhead Center for International Affairs. She served as spokeswoman for the Mexican Ministry of Foreign Affairs, special adviser to the undersecretary of economic affairs and international cooperation, and director of United States bilateral relations. During her eight years at the Mexican Embassy in Washington, D.C., she specialized in border affairs.
Her journey into global diplomacy began with her father’s postings in Africa and South America. She has a bachelor’s in international relations from UC Davis, a master’s in Pacific international affairs from the University of California, San Diego, and has taught international business at UCLA and Georgetown. Her experience includes a stint with the Association of National Olympic Committees.
Melinda Guzman, a Mexican American attorney who helped found Cien Amigos, a group of about 100 civic leaders who have advised the Mexican consulate for eight years, said Ferrer is “immediately reaching out to all segments of the community, she wants to take a leadership role in mental health issues – she wants to collaborate, she wants to lead.”
Guzman said Ferrer is cut from the same cloth as her father, whom Guzman met almost 40 years ago when he was consul in Sacramento from 1980 to 1983.
“When I was a 16-year-old growing up in Fairfield and my father was a railroad mechanic for the Southern Pacific, he had a supervisor who didn’t want him to speak Spanish” to other mechanics from Mexico, Guzman remembered.
So Guzman drove her worried father, who had no formal education, to meet Consul General Carlos Ferrer. “The man treated my father with a high level of respect and compassion and advised him to follow his heart and continue to communicate with his supervisor and his supervisor’s boss. He gave my father great strength and the courage to work there another 10 years.”
Ferrer’s husband, attorney and businessman Douglas Smurr, recalls first meeting her at her older brother’s 18th birthday party.
“I didn’t speak one word of Spanish, and her father told me, ‘With all due respect, we’re going to be speaking Spanish.’ It was the best thing that ever happened to me,” Smurr said.
Gov. Gray Davis later appointed Smurr to serve in California’s Mexico City trade office. He said the secret to her success is her “incredible presence, an ability to connect that few people have. She loves helping people.”