Mexico officials bestow Ohtli honor on three Northern Californians

Jim González listens to his introduction before receiving Mexico’s highest honor, the Ohtli – which means “path” in Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs – in Sacramento on Friday.
Jim González listens to his introduction before receiving Mexico’s highest honor, the Ohtli – which means “path” in Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs – in Sacramento on Friday. hamezcua@sacbee.com

On the heels of President Barack Obama’s new “lawful action” program to allow some 5 million law-abiding undocumented immigrants to start a path to legal citizenship, Mexico celebrated three of Northern California’s strongest cross-border bridge builders on Friday night.

The three – public policy consultant Jim González, attorney Melinda Guzmán and financial consultant Marco Antonio Rodríguez – were presented one of Mexico’s highest honors, the Ohtli, which means “path” in Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs.

All three of this year’s Ohtli recipients advocate for immigrants through their leadership of Cien Amigos, a nonprofit organization of about 100 influential Northern California Latinos and their supporters. Cien Amigos was founded in 2010 to work with Sacramento’s Mexican Consulate to foster mutual understanding and prosperity through scholarships, college fairs, cultural events and workshops ranging from affordable health care to women’s rights.

“We’re absolutely unique in the nation,” said González, chairman of Cien Amigos, which he describes as a civic action group. On Monday, Cien Amigos representatives will be at the Mexican Consulate, at 2093 Arena Blvd., to help undocumented immigrants learn how to qualify for the “lawful action” program, which is scheduled to begin in January, González said.

“Nobody wins with deportations that separate families, González said. “It’s tragic to see parents of U.S.-born children being deported and their kids going into foster care and child protective services.”

As a San Francisco County supervisor, González authored the 1989 City of Sanctuary ordinance – since adopted by 60 cities – to protect the rights of undocumented immigrants by discouraging local law enforcement from turning them in to federal authorities. “Women were being raped and showing up at San Francisco General Hospital, but wouldn’t tell their story because they were afraid of being deported,” he said.

While the Mexican Consulate General can’t get involved in political discourse, Cien Amigos can, added co-founder Melinda Guzmán. “We get to inject our voices on both sides of the border to express concern about education, public safety, economic opportunities and government accountability.”

Rodríguez, a Mexican immigrant from the town of El Refugio in the state of San Luis Potosi, said that many Mexican immigrants came here to work in the fields and hotels, their children “want to be engineers, doctors, teachers and scientists.”

Rodriguez is director of Cien Amigos’ financial education programs, which, in partnership with the Mexican government, award about $130,000 a year in scholarships to about 250 California students.

At 19, he came to Woodland and got a job pumping gas. When the gas station owner told him he had to let him go because he didn’t speak English, “I said, ‘Give me 30 days.’” Rodriguez said he learned the language in part by listening to Whitesnake, Def Leppard and other rock bands.

He later received his degree in business administration and finance from California State University, Sacramento, and went on to become president of both the California State University Alumni Board and the Northern California Mexican Cultural Center.

In January 1996, his family was in a car accident while driving on icy roads in Chihuahua, Mexico, and his back was broken, leaving him paraplegic. Rodríguez became a strong advocate for those facing physical challenges and served six years as a presidential appointee to the National Council on Disabilities. Former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger also appointed him to the California State Independent Living Council.

The lone Republican honoree, Rodríguez said Congress must realize that immigration reform is about economics, not politics. If each of the country’s estimated 5 million undocumented workers qualified for Obama’s “lawful action” program and paid the required fees, “that’s a lot of money, and they’re also going to buy airline tickets, auto insurance and health insurance,” he said.

Rodríguez acknowledged “there are definitely bad seeds in every crop,” such as the undocumented immigrant charged with killing two Sacramento-area law enforcement officers in October. “If you come here and can prove you are working, good. But if you can’t find a job, you need to go back home.”

Guzmán, the daughter of Mexican immigrants, remembers being marginalized while a high school student in Fairfield. “My English honors teacher didn’t refer me to AP honors classes in 12th grade because she knew my parents and assumed I wasn’t going to college,” said Guzmán, whose extensive résumé includes serving as general counsel to multimillion-dollar corporations and the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, as well as a trustee of the California State University system from 2004 to 2012.

In her many years as an attorney and political activist, she realized the Mexico consulate needed to work with a group of Latino professionals who could help address political issues. When Cien Amigos was founded in 2010, she said, its members included attorneys, lobbyists, doctors, engineers, professors, law enforcement officers and auto repair shop owners, as well as CSUS University President Alexander Gonzalez, also an Ohtli recipient.

Friday’s ceremony, in the Stanley Mosk Library and Courts Building, began with a moment of silence for the families of 43 students from a rural teachers’ college in the Mexico state of Guerrero who disappeared in late September and are presumed to be victims of gang violence.

Carlos González Gutiérrez, the Mexican consul general in Sacramento, called the three honorees “respected role models for younger generations, and true ambassadors of California in Mexico, and of Mexico in California.”

The three Sacramento-area residents join more than 500 previous recipients since 1996, including actor Edward James Olmos, U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis, former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and former California Supreme Court Justice Cruz Reynoso, along with Sacramentans such as the late Mayor Joe Serna, ex-Sacramento Police Chief Arturo Venegas, former state legislator Deborah Ortiz, Juanita Ontiveros of the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation and James Frank Smith, a longtime advocate for Mexican immigrants and founder of UC Davis’ King Hall’s Immigration Law Clinic.

The Ohtli recognizes those who “build and pave the way, helping the Mexican community and younger generations pursue their dreams and achieve their goals,” said Guido Arochi, deputy general director of the Institute for Mexicans Abroad.

For more information on Cien Amigos, visit cien-amigos.org.

Call The Bee’s Stephen Magagnini, (916) 321-1072. Bee researcher Pete Basofin contributed.