Remarks at the ceremony for the bestowal of the Decoration of the Aztec Eagle
Washington, DC,
19.IX.12

Mrs. Deborah Szekely;

Dr. Wayne Cornelius;

Chef Rick Bayless;

Distinguished guests;

Ladies and Gentlemen,

We are gathered here to honor three highly distinguished individuals and friends of Mexico, and to bestow upon them the Orden Mexicana del Aguila Azteca, the Mexican Order of the Aztec Eagle, in Degree of Insignia. The Orden Mexicana del Aguila Azteca, established in 1933, is the highest decoration awarded by the Mexican Government to foreign nationals whose work or actions have benefited Mexico and Mexicans.

Tonight we recognize Deborah Szekely, Professor Wayne Cornelius, and Chef Rick Bayless, three individuals who have worked in very different fields but who share a common virtue: the endeavors of each and every one of them has greatly contributed to foster mutual understanding between our two societies. From philanthropy and social development, to academia, public policy and the enormous soft power of Mexican cultural and culinary promotion, our three honorees tonight speak to the social dimension of our bilateral relationship through the engagement between our peoples and the social fabric that binds Mexico and the United States together.

In 1940, the 18 year-old Deborah Szekely and her husband, the late Edmond Szekely, found themselves driving an old car through a dusty road in Tecate, Baja California, in what became the beginning of a long and productive relationship with Mexico. Mrs. Szekely is now well-known worldwide as a true pioneer of the balanced mind/body/spirit fitness movement, having opened over 50 years ago what has become one of the world’s premier spas: Rancho La Puerta, in Tecate, Baja California. However, she is also highly-recognized as a visionary philanthropist, and prominent community development activist.

As a Brooklyn-born daughter of immigrant parents married to a man who faced prosecution by fascism in Europe, Mrs. Szekely has always had strong personal motivations to become a champion of immigrant rights and cross-border cultural and environmental programs throughout her life.

Time and time again, she has consistently demonstrated her commitment to those causes funding numerous initiatives in education and health, and establishing several NGO’s that play a significant role today in improving the lives of people in the California-Baja California border region. This includes, but is not limited to, Children to Children, a cooperative effort between many school districts throughout Baja California and Southern California to distribute used children's clothing in Mexico; she has also been a generous donor and tireless advocate of the power of culture and the arts to highlight the contributions immigrants make to the United States by supporting organizations like the New American Museum. And with Mrs. Szekely as a President and CEO, the Inter-American Foundation in Washington became a successful catalyst of change, through micro-financing and grass roots development throughout Latin America and the Caribbean.

Ms. Szekely turned 90 last May, and she is as active as ever, and with this spirit she continues to help improving human capital in Northern Mexico and beyond. The Government of Mexico recognizes her limitless energy, sustained commitment and leadership in the California-Baja California region.

Dr. Wayne Cornelius is one of the first true “mexicanologists” and has been, for over four decades, one of the most authoritative and prolific academic voices on the Mexico-U.S. relationship, and more specifically on Mexican migration to the U.S. Through countless books and articles he has explored and analyzed innumerable aspects of Mexican society and of our political system, as well as a host of issues that are central to the bilateral relationship between our two countries.  His pioneer work on immigration has shed light on much needed facts and figures to bear on a debate that has been and remains central on both sides of the border.

Dr. Wayne Cornelius is a creator in every sense of the word. His institution-building efforts at UCSD have materialized in the Center for US-Mexican Studies and the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies through which Mexico has enjoyed a preeminent beachhead at the University of California. Both centers vigorously foster a deeper understanding of Mexico, and not only produce research of the highest caliber, but have also emerged as unique fora where countless Mexican and American academics and intellectuals meet and interact, exchanging points of views in a way that can only increase our comprehension of each other and bring our two countries closer together. During his long-standing teaching career he has trained a plethora of experts on Mexico and many diplomats of the Mexican Foreign Service.

Dr. Cornelius has always understood the importance that research has for informed government decision-making, and therefore his active engagement with policy over the course of time has positively influenced not only academic thinking but also public policy on both sides of our common border. His incessant activism has been critical to help the United States understand Mexico in general, but also the nature and positive contributions of Mexican migrants in this nation in particular.

Last, but by no means least, our third honoree, Chef Rick Bayless, is a flag bearer of what has become a major component of our soft power: our gastronomic diplomacy. Food is relevant for every nation, but in few countries it is such a critical component of its national identity and international reputation as it is in Mexico. We Mexicans are fortunate to have such a storied and diverse national cuisine to aid us in such endeavors. Inscribed as an “Intangible Cultural Heritage” by UNESCO in 2010, our cuisine continues to grow in popularity and prestige, and it is a key factor that makes Mexico a cultural superpower.

Rick Bayless is a major force behind this continued popularity and prestige, especially in the United States. The son of Oklahoma barbeque restaurateurs, Bayless took his first trip to Mexico at age 14, engendering a lifelong passion for the country and its cuisine. He often explored Mexican gastronomy during his university years, and finally decided to give up his doctoral work to embark on a culinary career. He then became the host of the public television program Cooking Mexican in 1978.

Cooking Mexican enabled Rick to travel many times to Mexico, and to Oaxaca in particular, in preparation for his seminal cookbook Authentic Mexican: Regional Cooking from the Heart of Mexico, which the New York Times called “the greatest contribution to the Mexican table imaginable” when it was released in 1987. That same year, Bayless opened the successful Frontera Grill in Chicago, and soon after he launched Topolobambo, an upscale take on contemporary Mexican cuisine which counts the Obamas among its frequent guests, and in which I have had the pleasure to dine in the past. Rick is busy not just with restaurants, cookbooks and TV shows, but also supporting Mexican-Americans training in culinary school. He still found the time, however, to prepare the State Dinner offered by the White House to President Calderón during his State visit to Washington in May 2010.

I believe it is fair to say that, almost singlehandedly changing the image of Mexican food in the U.S., Bayless helped ascribe to our culinary heritage the prestige and appreciation it deserves as a fine cuisine, on par with the European greats.

I am sure you will agree that these are compelling reasons to celebrate and pay a tribute to these three individuals, and to recognize their great contributions to the Mexico-U.S. relationship. Typically the Aguila Azteca decoration has been awarded to high-level government officials or Nobel laureates. But as Kenneth Blanchard once said, “the key to successful leadership today is influence, not authority.” With these decorations, the Mexican Government underscores the tremendous impact that individuals, women and men, who are working from the within the trenches of society have in our prosperity, and whose leadership ought to be fully recognized as well. I am therefore very pleased to honor tonight individuals who act as true social synapses and who connect our two societies.

Deborah Szekely: please step forward.

Deborah Szekely, for the great service you have performed in deepening and fostering the understanding between our two nations, and of behalf of President Felipe Calderón, the Government of Mexico decorates you with the Insignia of the Aztec Eagle.

(palabras de Deborah Szekely)

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Dr. Cornelius: please step forward.

Wayne Cornelius, for the great service you have performed in deepening and fostering the understanding between our two nations, and of behalf of President Felipe Calderón, the Government of Mexico decorates you with the Insignia of the Aztec Eagle.

(palabras de Wayne Cornelius)

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Chef Bayless: please step forward.

Richard Bayless, for the great service you have performed in deepening and fostering the understanding between our two nations, and of behalf of President Felipe Calderón, the Government of Mexico decorates you with the Insignia of the Aztec Eagle. (palabras de Rick Bayless)

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Ladies and Gentlemen,

I repeatedly underscore that the key to successful societies depends on human connections. There is no doubt that the contributions of all three honorees have made a qualitative difference on the nature of the connections between Mexico and the United States.

Philosopher William James once said, that “If you care enough for a result, you will most certainly attain it.” The work and contributions of our three honorees tonight are a true testament of individuals who care about Mexico, its people and its culture, and it also underscores the many different ways civil society can be costakeholders of our shared prosperity by fostering stronger links between our two peoples, and a better understanding between our nations. All three represent distinct paths through which transformations can be implemented in order to bring Mexico and the United States closer together.

As Ambassador to the United States, it is a privilege to recognize these friends of Mexico, whose passion, energy and personal commitment has done so much to promote and build stronger ties between our two nations.

Felicidades!