When using Spanish to address crowds of mostly Latino immigrants, Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff draws cheers when he invokes the words of the late farmworker rights leader Cesar Chavez: "Yes, it can be done."
Shurtleff is about to join the ranks of leaders like Chavez when he receives Mexico's Order of the Aztec Eagle Award, that nation's highest honor for foreigners who serve Mexico or humanity.
"I'm blown away," said Shurtleff, who will receive the award Friday in Mexico City. "It's too big for me to even figure out."
Past recipients include the likes of Chavez, late Texas Sen. Lloyd Bentsen and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson. The award is given by the office of the foreign minister on the instruction of a selection committee established by the president.
Shurtleff's work on "human issues" in terms of protecting minorities has distinguished him as likely the first Utahn and Mormon to receive the honor, said Mexican Consul Salvador Jimenez.
"It's a reflection of his close ties with Mexico, and his friendship toward Mexico, our community and our country," Jimenez said. "He is also in favor of bringing our country closer to the great state of Utah."
President Vicente Fox, whose term expires Dec. 1, started the process after his visit to Utah in May, where he witnessed one of Shurtleff's fiery speeches to a gathering of Mexican Americans, Jimenez said. Fox was impressed by the "spontaneous and genuine" response to Shurtleff's remarks, he said.
"That was a very tangible demonstration of how much appreciation the Mexican people in Utah have for him, and how much he appreciates the rights of the Mexican immigrants," Jimenez said. "The president was touched by that reaction."
Fox's visit to Utah was the result of a personal invitation from Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. during a visit by the governor to Mexico to promote an economic, educational and cultural alliance between Utah and Mexico. That visit was widely seen as a thank you to Huntsman for leading the Western Governors' Association in a call for comprehensive immigration reform.
"The attorney general is a recognized public servant and this award is a broader acknowledgement of his work," said Huntsman spokesman Mike Mower.
Shurtleff speaks Spanish fluently and has two adopted daughters from Mexico, one of whom will be traveling with him to receive the award.
"I've always just loved the culture and felt it was important," said Shurtleff, who supports comprehensive immigration reform, regularly reaches out to the Latino community on issues from education to public safety and encourages Latino couples to adopt foster children.
"I think (the award) builds on the positive that came out of President Fox's visit here and I hope it adds a positive dimension to the immigration debate," Shurtleff said.
Armando Solorzano, Mexico native and professor of family and consumer studies at the University of Utah, said he was surprised by Shurtleff's selection for the award, which normally goes to those whose work has a national impact. He said the award was likely a reflection of Fox's warm welcome here, along with Shurtleff's potential."Utah is new in the agenda of Mexican politicians," Solorzano said. "They usually give (the award) to people who have done, now they are looking more at possibility of what people can do. ... I think Mark has that potential."