Beyond Borders


Wife Uses Bicultural Background to Bring Mexico, U.S. Together

Veronica Valencia, wife of Mexican Ambassador Arturo Sarukhan Casamitjana, says that “to us, no other country is more important than the United States.” Along with the many obvious official reasons, 34-year-old Veronica has her own personal reasons for why she wants these two huge, and sometimes divisive, neighbors to become better friends.

A native of Mexico City, Veronica enjoyed a uniquely bicultural upbringing, with a Mexican father and American mother. Her parents divorced when she was 3, so every summer and Christmas after that, Veronica visited her mother and maternal family in Portland, Ore.—or wherever her well-traveled mother was living, perhaps San Francisco, Washington, New York or England. When Veronica turned 16 and it was time to think about college, she came to Portland with her mother for her junior year of high school to decide where she wanted to attend college. But otherwise, from the age of 3 to 18, she lived with her father and paternal family in Mexico’s capital city.

“I am very proud to be Mexican and I’m grateful I had the chance to grow up there,” she said. “I’ve always been glad that I have such a rich bicultural heritage and grew up with two completely different ways of looking at life from two very different parents. I understand how Mexicans think and I understand how Americans think. Obviously, this background is [an immense] help to me now.”

When it was time to select a college, Veronica chose American University in Washington, D.C., a city she said she fell in love with instantly. After graduating with a double major in international relations and economics from American, Veronica hoped to join the Mexican Foreign Service. But first, she took a position as an economic attaché at the Mexican Embassy in Washington—and that’s where our love story begins.

At that time, Arturo Sarukhan was the embassy’s first secretary. They met and started dating, but she was determined to go abroad and further her studies. After two years, she left her beau and the Mexican Embassy to go to England for a master’s degree in financial and business economics at the University of Essex.

However, Veronica and Arturo kept in touch and in May of 1999, a few months after her return from England, they were married in a civil ceremony in Mexico City.

Interestingly enough, she and her husband, representing a country that is 98 percent Catholic, are not Catholic themselves. “My husband is here on merit alone. Religion, fortunately, does not play a role in professional opportunities in modern Mexico,” she said.

“Although I never formally joined the Mexican Foreign Service, I did in a way when I married my husband,” she reflected. “And now we’ve been given this great once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

And even though she went to college and previously worked in Washington, she admitted, “Nothing prepares you for being Mexico’s top representative in Washington. It is completely different than New York or any place else. Here, it is a job for both the ambassador and the spouse. I can’t imagine being here and not helping my husband.”

“Veronica is a key asset of Mexico’s diplomatic outreach in Washington and beyond the Beltway,” the ambassador said of his wife’s support. “She is a true partner in Mexico’s soft power as she engages Washingtonians on issues pertaining to cultural promotion and social, educational and philanthropic outreach.”

On an offbeat side note, there’s something else the ambassador relies on. “My husband collects mermaids,” Veronica said, referring to a colorful carved mermaid hanging from a swing in the corner of the couple’s official residence. “They are all over this house. He thinks they are his ‘lucky charms.’

“We love to collect contemporary art,” she added. “I’ve always loved art and taken art history courses. Arturo loves contemporary [art] and was already collecting when I met him. We complement each other’s tastes in art.”

During the first four years of their marriage, Veronica and her husband lived in Mexico City, where he was chief of the policy planning staff to the foreign affairs secretary and she was an account director at two top public relations and communications firms. In early 2003, Arturo was appointed consul general of Mexico in New York.

“Those three years in New York are among the happiest in my life,” Veronica recalled. “I had a wonderful job at Galeria Ramis Barquet, a major Latin American art gallery, enjoyed my responsibilities as the consul general’s wife, and loved the liveliness of New York City. Our daughter Laia was born in New York in October of 2005 and I still feel very much at home in the city.”

In March 2006, Arturo resigned his position as consul general and took a leave of absence from Mexico’s Foreign Service to join the presidential campaign of Felipe Calderon as his international affairs campaign coordinator, international spokesperson and, later, head of his Foreign Affairs Transition Team. That year back in Mexico City, Veronica was busy with little Laia but missed New York.

Soon after Calderon took office last December, Arturo and Veronica discovered they were headed for Washington and that her husband would be named ambassador. They arrived in February to snow and ice

“That first week was a total immersion week for me. It was fun but I had to handle everything at once, by myself, because as soon as we got here, Arturo went back to Mexico with President Bush,” she remembered. “It was snowing, I had the baby adjusting to a new place, it was Monterrey Week in Washington, and there were lots of events for me to attend by myself in the snow and ice.

“We are both very dedicated,” she added. “But my husband is a workaholic.”

That means no coming home for long lunches or relaxing siestas. “He never takes any time off. It’s hard to get him to even take a vacation. He works very long hours, doesn’t come home for lunch and regularly works late. He tries to see Laia every day when he comes home at night,” Veronica said. “Laia stays up late, sometimes 10 p.m., so they can be together.”

On weekends when they can grab rare free time together, this young family loves to go for a drive or visit a park, museum or the National Zoo. “But we don’t have much private time together as a family. My husband was away four weekends in a row in October,” she noted.

When they do take that rare vacation, they’ve enjoyed visiting some of the most exotic spots on earth: Bali, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos, as well as scuba diving in Bora Bora and the Caribbean.

“We don’t travel much because of my husband’s job, but when we do travel we like to go far, far away and meet people from different cultures. Plus, I taught Arturo to scuba dive and we love doing that together.”

Although Veronica is one of the youngest ambassadorial wives in town, if not the youngest, she believes that “people take me seriously because I want to get involved in important things and try to make a difference and people know that.”

She has chosen to be involved with several specific organizations and programs: Innocents at Risk, Deborah Sigmund’s new effort to raise awareness about the trafficking of women and children; the Washington Performing Arts Society and its Embassy Adoption Program; and two arts organizations “that are perfect for me”: the National Museum of Women in the Arts and the Women’s Committee of the Corcoran Gallery of Art.

Veronica is also involved in SED, the Spanish Education Development Center, a preschool that offers courses on English as a second language for low-income adults and their families.

In addition, she tries to support the almost daily programs at the Mexican Cultural Institute, which she calls a “beautiful, mesmerizing landmark building for Mexican culture. There is no better way to get to know a country than through its art and culture, and Mexico has so much of it. We are very proud of our cultural heritage, and the Mexican Cultural Institute is doing a wonderful job.”

It’s all part of Veronica’s mission to remind Americans that Mexico and the United States are more alike than different. “Most people don’t realize what this continent once was—it was all one place with no borders. We are much closer to each other than we think in many ways, plus history and geography bind us.”

Although she points out there are of course some lifestyle differences between the two cultures: “Americans may be more open minded, more easily accepting of things that are different. That’s why I felt so at home in New York—all religions, any political belief, any background is OK—the more variety, the better. That’s the way the entire world should be—more open and less judgmental,” she said.

“On the other hand, in Mexico, life is very family oriented and people stay close to their families throughout their whole lives. Mexicans don’t move as much as Americans, and they often live where they were born or at least, not far away. For instance, our colleges there don’t even have dorms. The students live at home with their families.”

As the mother of a 2-year-old, one of Veronica’s first jobs here was to create the kind of life she wanted for their daughter. This fall, Laia started “school” at the DC Jewish Community Center on 16th Street. “I love their program for 2-year-olds through pre-K,” she explained. “It’s a very warm atmosphere with children from a wide variety of cultures, backgrounds, religions, which will teach her to appreciate and accept the diversity in the world.”

In fact, Laia is already learning several languages. Her Mexican nanny and her mother speak to her in Spanish, but Veronica sings and plays with Laia in English. And, the ambassador proudly speaks to her only in Catalan, the native tongue of his mother who came from the Catalonia Province of Spain—home of Barcelona, Spain’s most progressive city.

Today, Veronica loves being back in Washington, living right down the street from her old college and keeping a busy schedule with the man she met and fell in love with here. So far, diplomatic life seems to agree with her. Originally, she expected to enter Mexico’s Foreign Service herself and living abroad would have been a natural consequence.

“My mother used to move around quite a bit. First, she would pick a city in which she wanted to live and then find a job as a computer consultant. I think I have my mother’s nomadic blood in me. I love moving and I think I’m very well suited for this huge responsibility, understanding both cultures as well as I do and feeling at home in both countries.”

About the Author

Gail Scott is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat and lifestyle columnist for the Diplomatic Pouch.