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California and the West

Zedillo Courts L.A.'s Latino Community

Tour: Leader urges Mexicans and Mexican Americans to help improve relations between the neighboring countries.

May 20, 1999|MARY BETH SHERIDAN and DAVE LESHER | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo, on his first official visit to what he called the world's second-most populous Mexican city, urged Los Angeles Latinos on Wednesday to play a bigger role in improving the strained ties between the two neighbors.

Zedillo's appeal, on the second day of a historic goodwill swing through the state, came in a heartfelt speech that underlined the Mexican government's efforts to court a community it had often ignored in the past.

"I'm convinced the best of our relations [with California] are to come," Zedillo told a jubilant crowd of about 400 mostly Latino politicians, activists and students at Union Station, where he was greeted by mariachi bands and girls in beribboned Mexican dresses. "In this task . . . the population of Mexican origin of California and Los Angeles has a very important role to play. You represent, in more than one sense, the virtues of us Mexicans."

Mayor Richard Riordan, on hand to deliver the keys to the city, welcomed the president in stilted Spanish: "Nuestra casa es su casa"--Our house is your house.

But the fiesta atmosphere was not everywhere.

Waiting to greet Zedillo outside the Westin Bonaventure Hotel downtown, where he addressed a luncheon, was an odd but boisterous mix of more than 200 protesters. There were pro-immigrant urbanites and anti-Mexico, anti-immigration activists from Orange County and the San Fernando Valley, carrying signs saying "Deport Illegals" and "What Part of Illegal Don't You Understand?"

"This is a victory parade by the Mexican president through a conquered California," said Glenn Spencer, president of Voice of Citizens Together, a Valley group that was a major backer of Proposition 187, the controversial ballot measure to limit state benefits to illegal immigrants.

Earlier, about 150 supporters of Mexico's left-wing Zapatista rebels and Mexican opposition parties demonstrated on Alameda Street outside Union Station.

The Zedillo trip reflects the growing influence of the state's Latinos--in state politics as well as in Mexico. Latinos make up one-third of California's population and nearly half of Los Angeles County's. More than 80% of them are of Mexican ancestry.

In his speech at Union Station, Zedillo reached out to that community, emphasizing Mexico's pride in the contributions Latinos have made to California's economy and culture.

"With pride and emotion, I tell you: Keep struggling, keep being an example and source of satisfaction for us Mexicans south of the border. But also, keep being good citizens of this country," Zedillo said in Spanish.

Mexican officials had long been ambivalent toward migrants to the United States. On one hand, the officials tried to defend those whose rights were abused. On the other, migrants were often scorned as virtual traitors.

But that attitude has changed in recent years, as Mexicans and Mexican Americans living here have become more influential economically and politically south of the border. They are a major source of investment in Mexico, sending $5 billion home every year.

That power has translated into sway over how their families and friends in Mexico vote. Recognizing this, Mexican gubernatorial candidates have begun to campaign in California--even though Mexicans living abroad can't vote.

The Mexican community in California would become even more of a political prize if its members received the right to vote in presidential elections, something now being debated in Mexico's congress.

While the invitation-only crowd at Union Station constantly interrupted Zedillo with cries of "Bravo!" and "Viva Mexico!" some questioned whether the trip's symbolism would be matched by real achievements.

"It's wonderful they [Gov. Davis' administration] bring the Mexican president, but they have to deliver the real stuff," said Marta Samano, 41, of Montebello, a Latina leader.

She complained that Davis had not acted aggressively against Proposition 187. Davis, who opposed the initiative, has proposed court mediation of the measure, which was largely struck down by a federal court last year.

Davis said in a live Spanish-language television interview Wednesday afternoon that he chose "a middle path" to try to satisfy opponents of the measure as well as the voters who supported it.

Zedillo said during the same interview on KMEX-TV in Los Angeles that the initiative is a matter of internal politics for California to resolve. But he said he received a commitment from Davis to treat the issue carefully.

"I have received the commitment of the governor to do whatever he can so the negative effects that this Proposition 187 could generate . . . do not materialize."

Zedillo's Los Angeles pep talk wasn't limited to the Mexican community.

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