1998-10-30 Tijuana City Councilman
Tijuana's first Jewish city councilman
David Saul Guakil, who
comes from a community
San Diego Jewish Press-Heritage, Oct. 30, 1998:
By Donald H. Harrison
Tijuana, Mexico (special) -- When David Saul Guakil, son of Turkish immigrants, begins his three-year term of office Dec. 1 as a Tijuana City Councilman, he will be the first Jew in that city's history to occupy that office.
But PRI's choice of Saul to be its fourth-line candidate was not without controversy. Some party activists who had waited for years to be nominated wondered how someone as young as Saul could advance so high in the PRI ranks. And labor unions, a traditional PRI power bloc, were suspicious of the businessman.
Overriding such concerns, in Saul's view, was the desire of the PRI leadership to put forward a slate of comparatively "fresh faces," candidates who were not identified with a string of election losses the once dominant PRI had been suffering since 1989.
Saul suggested that Mexican voters now are looking beyond party labels to examine the qualifications and ideas of each person listed on the slates. As a businessman, he has been stressing projects he says are needed to assure Tijuana's economic well-being.
Among these are a binational airport to handle flights to and from other countries to the San Diego-Tijuana region; more commercial and tourist development at the proposed Virginia Street Bridge border crossing; joint collection of border crossing duties to pay for new projects, and development of more attractions in Tijuana to reinvigorate the city as a tourist destination.
Saul said Tijuana's border industries--known as maquiladoras --have received too much government support at the expense of Tijuana's more traditional tourist sector.
"Yes, maquiladoras employ people, but they are not paying taxes" Saul said in an interview in which he sometimes spoke in English and at other times in Spanish. San Diego residents Elena "Jaya" Saad and Jackie Jacobs graciously translated the councilman-elect's Spanish-language answers for HERITAGE.
In the last several years, Saul said, the industries along the border- where low wage-earning workers assemble parts that are then shipped back to the United States--have received many incentives from the government such as waivers on taxes for water and for electricity.
"But my sector, the commercial sector, doesn't get them," Saul said. Yet "when the commercial sector grows and employs people, they make better salaries than the people who are employed in the maquiladoras."
Saul said some of the tax revenues now supporting maquiladoras could be put to better use developing new tourist attractions.
While tourist revenues have been declining in Tijuana, Saul said, they have increased 300 percent in the last decade in Ensenada, about 65 miles south of Tijuana. "I think others have more attractions," he added.
On such kinds of issues was the election fought, Saul said. Not once did anyone comment adversely on the fact that he is Jewish, notwithstanding the novelty of his religious background to most Mexicans. With a population of more than 2 million, Tijuana probably is home to less than 2,000 Jews.
"Since I am a little kid, I have had friends in the city, because I have lived here already 30 years," Saul said. "I have friends who are Jewish, who are not Jewish; I have friends without money and I have rich friends. Everybody is my friend.. I went to school here. I know many people. "
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Saul's grandparents decided times in Turkey after World War I were so difficult economically that their families would be better off moving somewhere else. He said he is not certain how they picked Mexico; perhaps it was the first or best destination available.
His parents' families settled initially in Mexico City, where Saul was born in 1963. When Saul was 3 years old, they moved to Tijuana where he attended public primary, secondary and high schools. He supplemented that education with afternoon Hebrew school taught at the Centro Social Israelita (Jewish Social Center) by Cantor Max Furmansky.
Following his graduation he attended the Autonomous University of Mexico City, where he completed all his studies, save the final examinations, for a degree. After marrying a fellow student, Lorena, he decided it was time to start building his nest egg. They moved to Tijuana, and he soon took a job across the border in San Diego with Isaac Kamahi importing and selling watches.
After three years, a change occurred in Mexico's laws that granted merchants in other parts of the country the right to purchase goods in Tijuana's free zone, Saul said.
This was a great opportunity for me because I worked with imports," he said. "With the money I made from the watch company, I went on a trip to Taiwan and I started to get to know the market. I met people in Taiwan who helped me to grow my business. ...We became the first clothing importers now in the market.
"Now I import clothes, design the clothes, have my own design department and have my own maquiladoras overseas. We closed them in Taiwan, and opened them in India and in the Philippines. Our designers are Chinese. My company supplies clothing to all Mexico."
Saul's company, Comtex, received an award from the Clothing Business Association of Mexico and from the Tijuana Chamber of Commerce for its sport clothes. The chamber award was soon followed in 1986 with an invitation to become a member.
Because of his expertise in importing, Saul subsequently was invited to become a vice president of the chamber in charge of relations with other countries, particularly those of the Pacific Rim. He focused on the Philippines.
"The next year, they invited me to become the second most important member of the board, the executive vice president," Saul said. One of his mentors at the chamber was a retail clothing dealer, who also is Jewish: Marcos Levy.
Levy, a former chamber president, helped arrange a meeting for Saul with Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo and other members of the national government, who further whetted his appetite for elective office.
Saul said the PRI discussed with him such options as possibly running for Congress, or even mayor, before settling on nominating him for the City Council. "I have a business," he said, "and being mayor would require me to get out of my business totally and go full-time into politics. When they invited me to become a city council, I said maybe I can spend half-time on politics and half on my business. So I accepted." His wife also works in the business, carrying the load when his public duties take him away.
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With a permanent residence in Tijuana and a vacation home in Bonita, Saul is familiar with the Spanish-speaking communities on both sides of the border. He speaks approvingly of a plan now being formulated to develop a new Ken Community Center in Bonita which would serve Spanish-speaking Jews on both sides of the border.
"We have to work to be only one community because there are not too many Jews in San Diego and Tijuana," he said.
Integration of Spanish-speaking and English-speaking Jews will be more difficult in the estimate of Saul, who served in 1995 as president of the Centro Social Israelita. Many of the same linguistic and cultural differences that separate the general Mexican and U.S. populations also divide American and Mexican Jews, he said.
"We are not prejudiced against American Jews," he said. "But their education is different; their upbringing is different. We are different, but we also have very much in common."
Quizzed about some of the problems in U.S.-Mexico relations, Saul consistently called for the two countries to work cooperatively to find solutions.
Concerning the sewage that flows into the Tia Juana River and across the border to Imperial Beach, Saul said Tijuana "does not have the infrastructure to solve the problem" because it is not as technologically advanced as the United States. There should be a joint effort, he said.
Illegal migration not only affects the United States adversely; it also hurts Tijuana, Saul said. He said people seeking to migrate to the United States collect in Tijuana not only from throughout Mexico but also from throughout Central America.
By and large the Central Americans come to Mexico illegally, hoping to get from Tijuana into the United States, Saul said. When the United States returns illegal immigrants to Tijuana, a great burden is placed on that city's economy, he said.
"We have a big problem," Saul said. "We are the last point in Mexico, and we have to carry all the problems. But it is not us who are the problem. We find boats of Chinese people coming to the States via Tijuana. People from other countries come to this area."
Saul said he is quite concerned that the United States may be using inhumane methods to stem the flow of illegal immigration given incidents of shootings by the Border Patrol. He said all people have the right to be treated humanely.
As for the flow of drugs across the Mexico-U.S. Border, he described the problem as "very hard."
"I think that the two Presidents have to talk about this," he said. "Once again, the problem is that Tijuana is the last city in Mexico and the city they are using to smuggle in everything."
When he takes office Dec. 1, Saul hopes to be given the portfolio overseeing the city's economic development. He said if he can do a good enough job in his position, he would like to consider running in 3-6 years to become Tijuana's mayor.
"I hope to become the first Jewish mayor," he said.