Cecilia Levine has rubbed elbows with Pope John Paul II, the premier of China and powerful political leaders and economic advisers across the United States and Mexico.
But nothing has energized this widely respected border maquiladora owner -- described as a dynamic leader and highly successful entrepreneur -- more than her present role as one of the El Paso organizers on the steering committee of Juárez Competitiva.
The social movement is determined to prove that Juárez will shed the shackles of hopelessness and its bloodstained image and resurrect as a community offering economic prosperity and growth, plus a better future for young people.
"We have situations in Ciudad Juárez, which are going the wrong way instead of improving," Levine says. "I'm optimistic there will be positive change."
More than 8,000 people have been slain in the border city just across from El Paso since 2008, when the Sinaloa and Juárez drug cartels started fighting over lucrative smuggling corridors into the U.S. The daily bloodshed, plus routine extortions and kidnappings, have given Juárez a reputation as the most violent and dangerous city in the world, and have forced thousands of Juarenses to flee and start over in El Paso.
The campaign to reclaim Juárez will be highlighted Oct. 13-28 with a two-week series of dialogues and related events in Juárez and neighboring El Paso. Some of Mexico's most influential leaders, plus dignitaries from all over the
world, such as former Soviet Union leader Mikhail Gorbachev, will speak about wide-ranging topics.
"How can we not be proud and hopeful?" Levine asks. "Citizens in Juárez are still working there on a daily basis and being very productive."
Organizers also plan various cultural and athletic events. The grand finale is billed as a star-studded concert for peace across the Rio Grande from El Paso's Bowie High School. The wish list for mega-stars who may participate includes Juan Gabriel, Shakira, U2, Sting and Paul McCartney.
Levine is very optimistic the ambitious campaign will succeed: "For the first time, I see organizations from El Paso talking to organizations in Ciudad Juárez and saying, 'How do we make this happen?' "
Levine's optimism is fueled by a simple fact: The city of Juárez, the state of Chihuahua and the Mexican federal government have pledged to support Juárez Competitiva. Scores of businesses have donated money or in-kind services to the campaign, believed to be the first of its kind in Mexico.
Levine is president of MFI International Manufacturing, an El Paso and Juarez service company, providing contract manufacturing and shelter services in Mexico. The company serves various industries: such as: automotive, consumer electronics, home furnishing, medical, military and made to order industries, amongst others.
At 60, Levine is widely applauded for her business skills, for serving as a passionate advocate for the arts and for her dedication to tearing down barriers and making life better in the El Paso-Juárez region. Levine dreams big and makes things happen.
Levine, a grandmother who enjoys cooking Sunday brunch for her family, relaxed in her spacious home on a West Side ridge with a clear view of Mount Cristo Rey in the distance. She discussed possibilities for transforming the border.
"The quality of life and youth in Juárez is one of our main focuses and also promoting the region for economic development," Levine says. "By bringing jobs to this region, we'll bring more stability. By bringing a better quality of life to our people in Juárez and the region, we move our community forward."
El Paso arts advocate Adair Margo worked with Levine while heading George W. Bush's presidential campaign in El Paso County. Levine had become acquainted with the Bushes while living in Midland.
"Cecilia is a huge thinker and has big dreams for our border," Margo says. "She's a doer and works hard to put things together to bridge the border in a way that we desperately need now."
Gustavo Gonzalez, president of the Southwest Maquiladora Association, describes Levine as "an outstanding individual, great leader and just a great person overall." He is also on the Juárez Competitiva steering committee.
"She is the kind of person who is always looking to help our community," Gonzalez says.
Gonzalez credits Levine, the vice president of the Southwest Maquiladora Association, with playing a major role in lobbying for the maquiladora sector and promoting efficient international crossings in the region.
Michael Tomor, director of the El Paso Museum of Art, talked frequently with Levine when she was on the museum's foundation board.
"She thinks beyond the scope of what's possible and existing right now," Tomor says. "As a result, she gets very excited about potential opportunities to make this community grow and see beyond itself."
Tomor admires Levine's focus on creating better relationships and partnerships with Mexico. He, too, promotes partnerships with Mexico City and Juárez.
"Cecilia believes, as do I, that when something positive happens in the community of Juárez, it is of significance to the community of El Paso because we are in many ways one large community that shares a history, a culture and a people," he says.
Levine was born in 1950 in Chihuahua, the second of nine children born to Emma Bunsow de Ochoa and Juan Ochoa Reynoso, a cotton trader who did business in Mexico, Colombia and the U.S. She grew up in Delicias, a community southeast of Chihuahua that one set of her grandparents helped establish in the 1930s.
Levine acquired a passion for music and art from her mentors -- her parents and grandparents. One of her grandfathers was a concert pianist who also played violin and spoke five languages. Her mother painted. A grandmother ran a hotel, operated a pecan farm and once worked as a store designer.
"My grandmother would tell me we had the power to do things as women," Levine says.
Levine learned English at Loretto Academy, a boarding school in El Paso. After high school, she enrolled at the University of Texas at El Paso. She wanted to become a geologist but left her studies to raise a family and help her first husband launch his career.
"Once I separated from my ex-husband, I had to raise my children. I started my own business from scratch, one sewing machine and then two," Levine says. "I learned through the school of hard knocks by making mistakes."
The struggles paid off. Levine has accumulated a long list of honors and affiliations with scores of national and international organizations over the years. She has worked with the President's Export Council, has been a board member of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, and is current chairman of the U.S./Mexico Border District Export Council.
"As a Hispanic woman, I find myself very alone on boards at the national level," she says. "I'd like to encourage more women to feel they can also not only fit in but participate."
For Levine, Juárez and the region have the human capital and the talent to stimulate change.
"Faith makes you move forward," she says. "We want to bring hope and opportunities to the children."
El Paso Times & El Paso Style Magazine