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Candidates From Mexico Go Stumping in Southland

Politics: Efforts seek to woo nonvoting migrants in U.S., whose money and influence stretch to homeland.


OAXACA, Mexico — As a candidate for governor of the southern state of Oaxaca, Jose Murat rushes from one key campaign stop to another. The mist-shrouded Indian villages in the mountains. The poor fishing pueblos on the coast. The Los Angeles suburbs.

Los Angeles? With about 200,000 Oaxaca natives in Southern California, it's now part of the Mexican campaign trail. Murat recently barnstormed through L.A., lunching with Mexican American businesspeople, addressing students at UCLA, greeting the mayor of Bell Gardens--all for an election Sunday nearly 2,000 miles away.

Murat's campaign swing is just one sign of a new phenomenon in U.S.-Mexican relations. Once ignored by politicians back home, Mexicans in the United States are fast becoming a prize--so much so that Mexican candidates are crossing the border to woo them. With their money and influence back home, the Mexicans are an important constituency, even though they can't vote from abroad.

"These people have extended families and political ties," said Art Montez, a Latino political organizer in Santa Ana and past president of that city's League of United Latin American Citizens. "There is a huge revenue stream that flows from the U.S. to family members in Mexico, and Mexicans have always loved politics."

And trips like Murat's may just be the start. A Mexican government commission is studying whether Mexicans abroad might be allowed to vote absentee for president in 2000. If the plan is approved, expect to see more Mexican candidates roaming California and other states with big migrant populations. Call it the rubber-chicken-enchilada circuit.

"It's an important part of the new binational reality for Mexico and the United States," said Douglas Massey, an expert in migration at the University of Pennsylvania.

"Mexicans are a lot more attuned to what NAFTA means politically than Americans are," he added. While the North American Free Trade Agreement mainly addresses economic issues, he said, "it's a framework for integration."

The current electoral season in Mexico--in which 10 governors will be chosen, three of them Sunday, in Oaxaca, Aguascalientes and Veracruz states--is providing a taste of the new cross-border politics.

For example, the governor-elect in the border state of Chihuahua, Patricio Martinez, made three U.S. appearances during his recent successful campaign. The winner in the state of Zacatecas, Ricardo Monreal, was in California twice this spring seeking support from Mexican natives. "It was very important, if not definitive," said Jesus Cardona, who coordinated Monreal's campaign trips.

The candidates come from a handful of states in which up to 20% of the native sons and daughters are living in the United States.

Because Mexicans can't cast ballots from abroad, the politicians' U.S. campaigns are not directly seeking votes. Instead, the candidates are seeking legitimacy--conferred by the hard-working Mexicans who clip gardens, pick fruit and do other jobs in the United States. Those migrants talk by phone frequently with the relatives they support in Mexico.

The migrants' opinions carry weight, therefore, not only in places like Los Angeles, Calif., but in Los Angeles, Mexico--a hodgepodge of aluminum-and-concrete shacks clinging to a mountain near the city of Oaxaca. Eva Caballero, a mother of two girls, is typical of residents here; her husband spends much of each year in the United States picking cucumbers, onions and peaches.

"I think there are women here whose husbands [in the U.S.] tell them how to vote," the 29-year-old said. She admitted that she also follows her spouse's advice on candidates, but "my husband hasn't told me [whom to choose]--yet."

The U.S.-based migrants' impact stretches even beyond their immediate families. The Mexicans send millions of dollars to their communities to build roads, improve schools, maintain orphanages. That gives the Mexican migrants a lot of clout in their pueblos.

"Although they don't vote, they have an important moral presence. Our communities [in Oaxaca] are very poor," noted Murat, 48, a husky, bespectacled candidate for the dominant Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI.

Impressing migrant workers in the United States, however, is just one reason Mexican candidates cross the border. They also play to the crowd back home, analysts say. For example, in meeting with Mexican American business executives, candidates send the message that they'll be able to lure investment back to their states. And the politicians frequently pledge to protect migrants, a key concern in their states.

"I made a commitment to the Oaxaca natives in the United States to help defend, if necessary, the human rights of our people against racist measures like those put in place by Pete Wilson," Murat said in an interview, referring to the California governor. In reality, however, it's usually Mexican diplomats who intervene on behalf of Mexican workers.

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