Tijuana: first assignment--the good, the bad, the bizarre.

Author:Smith, Keith C.
Position:Essay

During my long career, I heard many colleagues reflect on their first Foreign Service assignment--usually recalling it as a highly positive experience. Unfortunately, my first post left me disillusioned by the Foreign Service and vowing to leave it as soon as feasible. Many of us who have served in Mexican border posts encountered work and management issues quite different from those who witnessed the full range of foreign service life in a large or medium-sized capital. For slightly more than one year (April 1963-May 1964) I decided the futures of large numbers of poor Mexicans anxious to move to the U.S., observed the human tragedy encountered by a duty officer on the border and participated in a sub-rosa rebellion by junior staff against the imperial management style of the Consul-General (CG). Fortunately, the following 36 years in the Foreign Service were very different. The people I worked with and the intellectual challenges offered were sufficient to keep me from walking away from what turned out to be a satisfying career.

I joined the Foreign Service in the fall of 1962, and had little idea of what I was signing on to. Like all new FSOs at that time, I had to endure an A-100 Course that was as boring as it was useless. I could relate to nothing covered in the day-to-day lectures. Nevertheless, as the orientation course neared its end, all of the new FSOs waited anxiously for the list of overseas assignments. I had not put down an assignment preference, which was not a smart thing to do. In any case, I was first assigned to Managua, Nicaragua as vice-consul. According to the post report and State's medical staff Managua did not have adequate health care facilities to cover the special needs of my family. I assumed that the Department might instead assign us to Europe or someplace more exotic than Managua. As I was explaining my problem to the personnel people, the FSO assigned to Tijuana, Mexico was complaining to Personnel about his assignment.

Personnel, in its wisdom then informed me that after Spanish language training I should go to Tijuana, where we would be close to US medical facilities. At that point I had no recourse, even though I felt embarrassed at the thought of being assigned to a post a three-hour drive from my hometown of Pasadena, California, particularly after the hoopla of becoming a diplomat. Most of us growing up there assumed that Tijuana was primarily a vice-ridden hole where tourists went to gamble or...

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