Breaking the Glass Piñata

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Diplomat meets our first ‘Ms.’ Consul General. She is a fast rising star who shared her inspirational story with us: an empowering message for aspiring young women.

Mencius’s mother could have told you how important it is to choose the right neighbourhood. The father of Alicia Buenrostro Massieu clearly understood this ancient Chinese lesson well. For his daughter, the results were life hanging.

Her neighbour, Mr. Bernardo Sepúlveda Amor, now the vice president of the International Court of Justice, received a visit at home from the Ambassador of the United States. It was a simple visit, ‘nothing special’, but for the 16-17 year-old back then, this “very handsome guy, John Gavin, in the Cadillac with flags” was so impressive that she abandoned her dream of becoming a doctor. Her thoughts at the time: »I want to do exactly what Bernardo Sepúlveda does!« That was how everything started. Before long, she was studying International Relations and started her career in the foreign service at the age of 23.

Her conservative father, a civil engineer, was dead set against her plans and didn’t want his daughter to get into ‘dirty’ politics and work for the government. He didn’t trust anything that would embroil his daughter in the messy world of politics. But she would not be denied.

Climbing the Mayan pyramid

Mexico’s foreign service system is a rigorous meritocracy where, to move up a rank, one must compete for a limited number of spots. At each stage, applicants must compete on a scale weighted 50% to academic and work performance and 50% to a grueling written and oral exam. Progress must be exhibited through the acquisition of new academic degrees, newly acquired languages, publications, and supervisor and colleague reports.

The exam occurs once a year, with perhaps a mere 20 positions for hundreds of competitors. One must hold their current rank for a minimum of 2 years before he/she can apply to move to the next level. Like a Mayan pyramid, the ranks shrink as you get near the sun. It can easily take about 20 years for some people to move from the third secretary rank up to the minister level. For Alicia, it took much less thank that. By the time she left the embassy in the UK, she was already a first secretary and was soon promoted to counselor when she got to the embassy in the US.

“I was always curious and eager to know more… to learn and do more. I didn’t really think of anything else because once you get on the path, it becomes automatic. You really need to prepare yourself and study and pass these exams…But I also felt so happy from the very early days in my career. The sense of importance of what you’re doing, and every day is so new and interesting…So in the end, even if I need to work 24 hours a day or so, I felt so passionate about what I was doing and learning.”

Alicia was promoted to full ambassador last year on June 1st, the highest rank within the Mexican diplomatic service. Not every minister will be given this honour and she is one of only 18 female ambassadors among over 100 at that rank, and likely one of the youngest.

Hong Kong the hectic

Alicia chose Hong Kong over options in the Southern hemisphere and the Mediterranean. With a staff of 12, she is bridging the Pacific. “We have built up a good momentum between Mexico and China and my job here is to keep the trend and open the doors and bring people back and forth between Hong Kong and Mexico…We just need to keep moving and promote Mexico at the top. That’s what it deserves! After all, half of the population in Mexico is still living under the poverty line. So the challenges are there and lots needs to be done but I feel very proud to represent Mexico because it is a country with huge potential in the future.”

On July 17th, the Mexican Minister of Tourism will bring a delegation of 20 to Hong Kong after Beijing. On July 23rd, she will accompany Fred Lam, the Executive Director of HKTDC to Mexico. “I have to let my people know that Hong Kong is not just about good restaurants and shopping, but also a place to do business….Everybody is taking advantage of the new wealth in China through Hong Kong. So we have to bring Mexican presence here…right now 82% of trade is with US and Canada. But we have free trade agreements with 44 countries, so we have to open up and diversify and look beyond the US and Canada.”

Hong Kong the romantic

Women were not made for diplomacy alone. Living in the whirlwind that is Hong Kong, she met the One.

“We met here in the 6th or 7th week after I arrived in Hong Kong. He is half-Spanish, half-French-British and works in the wine industry. Funny that he was living in Madrid all these years and I was the deputy ambassador in Spain from 2007 to 2011. But we never met till we were here in Hong Kong… Hong Kong is a special place for me.”

Wedding bells will ring in January, 2014. She will then have to manage the delicate balance between a relentless pace of work and the demands of maintaining a relationship.

“As usual, It is always harder for women. You are required to be nice, and elegant, and attractive…to be a good wife, a good mother, but also good professionally, and good… in everything”

Alicia described the all too common career track for women in the service. They move swiftly from diplomatic attaché to first secretary then…the marriage and children and the plateau at first secretary.

“So what I’ve been saying is that the foreign ministry should have part-time positions for women who have children.” Ideally they could have a planned slowdown in their career, followed by a return to full service and promotion. Even with this, it means that women arrive at counselor and minister at a later stage, compared to men.”

Don’t just hurry. Run like the wind.

She also advises young diplomats to take time and enjoy the trip. The “diplomatic path…is more than just a career or a profession but a way of life. It is a long process and a competitive one, so we have to enjoy every posting and get the most out of it, rather than rushing to climb the highest rank.”

One wonders if this ambassador-ranked diplomat would have agreed with this sage advice, dispensed from the safe heights of Mexico’s competitive system, when she was an ambitious 26 year old heading up political affairs in London during the first Gulf War. Likely not.

From London, this same woman jetted to Washington DC to be Mexico’s Press Counselor to the United States for 3 years. Trade, drug wars, immigration, border control and a transition to real democracy were her remit in America’s relentless 24 hour news cycle.

Then in 2000 – democracy. Real democracy. Mexico had been ruled for 71 years by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). Exactly 13 years to the day of Diplomat’s interview with Alicia Buenrostro Massieu, Vincente Fox became modern Mexico’s first freely elected President. July 2 was his birthday and a year later his wedding anniversary as he put ring to the finger of Marta Sahagún, who picked Alicia to be the foreign press spokesperson working in Los Pinos, the official residence and office of the President of Mexico.

“She is exactly the one I’m looking for. So she stays.” The first-lady-to-be called Foreign Minister Jorge Castañeda to thank him for his recommendation and thus Alicia became the new president’s voice to the entire world.

“It was very important to me. My father had just passed away and I was very sad…I was just thinking if only I could work for the president to make him the proudest father in the world and then the miracle came to me…there was quite a lot of pressure, working in the presidential office, being so close and dynamic… but also it has something to do with the national media. The national media was difficult to deal with… democracy came and all of sudden you have the openness and freedom of press and so on…but this freedom has to go along with good education levels as well”