Teodoro Maus tenido un sueño; it’s still just a dream

Twenty-five years ago, Mexican diplomat Teodoro Maus envisioned a sweet assignment to an international city that was going to host the Olympics.

Instead, he got sent to Atlanta.

At the time, his first choice, Barcelona, was hustling to welcome the world in 1992. But as fate would have it, a few months after Maus came here to be the Mexican consul, Atlanta got picked to host the 1996 Olympics. Construction for the Games helped turn the region into a destination for Hispanic workers.

During the past 25 years, all but three of them spent in Atlanta, Maus has not only represented the Mexican community but became the go-to guy for a fast-growing, multi-national Latino population, one that has increased eight-fold during that time and, by some estimates, includes one million people.

Even so, those numbers have not translated into political power. Although almost one in 10 Georgians is Hispanic, perhaps a dozen (that’s right, 12) hold elective office of any kind in Georgia. Think of that. There are thousands of positions available. There are 159 counties, 236 state legislators, at least 521 cities, 70 state courts, 49 Superior Court circuits and so on.

It’s a shortcoming not lost on Maus. He has for years predicted a movement toward electoral success, but so far it has proved to be out of reach.

When he first came to Atlanta he met with black leaders at the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, figuring he could set up some sort of like-minded minority coalition. But a black leader quickly clued him in on the Atlanta Way.

“She said, ‘It’s important you know that in Atlanta it’s black and white. There is no brown. There is no blue. There is no purple. We’re not going to allow someone to take away what we fought so hard for.’”

And Republican orthodoxy has called for tough anti-immigration measures, so the GOP route has never been popular with Hispanics.

All of which has left Georgia’s’ Latinos nibbling around the edges of political power. At best.

A couple weeks ago, many in Atlanta’s Hispanic community gathered to honor the 80-year-old retired diplomat; it was the sort of event held to recognize someone notable while they are still above ground.

Maus, who has become a U.S. citizen, joked that the Mexican government didn’t realize they had made a mistake in appointing him until his 12-year-stint was over. He was kidding, sort of. Maus was not your normal consul; he was part diplomat, part activist, a man who once told a crowd the Statue of Liberty should be torn down because the American promise to accept the world’s huddled masses had largely become a myth.

He became the rallying point in Georgia, “not because I was great, but there was no one else. What was happening to the Latino community was unfair and was damaging. I was angry and frustrated. Sometimes you’d have to turn it into a fight.”

Maus rarely bit his tongue. Within days of coming here, he wrote a letter to the editor of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution calling a critic of Hispanics “a textbook example of an Ugly American.”

He was off and running. There were battles with cities, counties, school boards and the state. He was confronted with English-only bills, efforts to limit day laborers, issues with getting drivers licenses, you name it. And, of course there was always the Big One: barriers to immigration, including deportations.

In 2001, he put it this way: “If you’ve never had a Vidalia onion or eaten a Georgia peach, if you’ve never bought chicken at 90 cents a pound for which some Mexican probably lost a finger in a processing plant in Gainesville, and if you’ve never been to a restaurant or used a road that was constructed using Mexican labor, then I will listen to your argument. Otherwise you’re a hypocrite for not accepting that there is a Mexican person bettering your life somehow.”

His stridency, as you might imagine, hit a lot of native nerves. I mean, who is this guy coming here and telling us what to do? In our own damn country?

“Teodoro Maus, the consul general, is a hypocrite,” one letter writer opined. “How dare he desert his own country to bask in the freedom, safety and prosperity of this country, and dare to lecture us on how we should treat lawbreakers.”

Sam Zamarripa, a former state senator, called Maus “our John Lewis,” referring to Atlanta’s favorite son, the civil rights hero-turned-congressman.

“We’re still on the back of the bus,” said Zamarripa. “Our bridge is the drivers license issue. Our church burning is people thrown in jail (by immigration authorities) and separated from their families.”

Zamarripa, the highest ranking Hispanic ever elected in Georgia, left office in 2006 when it was clear he’d be a back-bencher after the Republican takeover.

“The Latino community,” he said, “while it is acknowledged, is still mostly invisible. We have a perceived value, but no power.”

Last fall, the Pew Research Center wrote, “According to the Georgia Secretary of State Elections Division, voter registration statistics as of October 1, 2014 show that 92,000 Latinos are registered to vote statewide. Overall, Latinos make up only 1.8% of the state’s 5.1 million registered voters.”

Even in places where Hispanics make up a large part of the population, they are blips when it comes to voting.

In Dalton, 48 percent of the population is Hispanic, but just 13 percent of voters are. In Gainesville, 42 percent of residents are Hispanic, but only 7 percent of voters.

The Pew Center said 53 percent of Georgia’s Hispanic population is U.S. born, so one day — and my money is that it is still way off — they will have the electoral clout Maus has long envisioned.