For an evening, "the Tomato King" reigned.
Andres Bermudez, the first U.S. citizen to win elected office in Mexico, took a victory lap through Southern California this weekend to the thunderous applause of fellow natives of Mexico's central Zacatecas state.
Bermudez, a Yolo County farmer known as the Tomato King, was elected mayor of Jerez, Zacatecas, on July 1, a victory that signals increasing flexibility in Mexico's political system.
Late Saturday, the charismatic Bermudez appeared before 500 former Zacatecans in Santa Ana, many from his hometown neighborhood, El Cargadero, in Jerez, a city of 40,000 people. About half of Zacatecas' residents have emigrated, most--like Bermudez--to seek work in the United States.
"I said I was a candidate of two nations, the Jerez that is here and the Jerez that is there," Bermudez, 51, said amid deafening cheers at the Laborers International Union Local 652 hall in Santa Ana. "I hope [my victory] will open doors for others to come home and help."
Bermudez appeared at one of El Cargadero Club's three annual fund-raisers that generate about $30,000 a year for public works projects in El Cargadero.
Bermudez, who entered the United States illegally 30 years ago, was granted U.S. residency in 1982 and in the early 1990s became a U.S. citizen. His work within another Zacatecas civic club in Northern California helped build the support that made him a candidate of the left-center Democratic Revolutionary Party.
Bermudez and two other U.S. residents were the first to campaign for Mexican elective office since the country's "dual nationality" provision went into effect in 1998, allowing Mexicans who had become citizens of other countries to regain nationality and property rights in their homeland.
The men ran on opposition party tickets in three cities challenging the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which held near-absolute power in Mexico for seven decades. The other two men, Juan Duran of Oxnard and Martin Carvajal of Fort Worth, Texas, lost their races.
Bermudez, who began his campaign in Jerez in May struggling to read from a script, put aside a handwritten speech Saturday and delivered impromptu remarks.
"My victory will change politics in Mexico," Bermudez told the crowd. "Mexican politicians will have to change. They will have to do better to stay in office."
Earlier Saturday, Bermudez was taken by club leaders to a fund-raiser for California Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante in Silverado, where he met state Sen. Joe Dunn (D-Santa Ana) and U.S. Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Garden Grove). He also met with supporters in East Los Angeles.
"Everyone knows who he is," said Felipe Delgado, president of the Zacatecas Civic Front. "At this point, many people even think he could be [Zacatecas] governor in 2004. It makes people think what they can do, if they can return and try for public office."
Bermudez will spend 10 days in California and hopes to meet with agribusiness leaders who he believes could bring jobs to Jerez. Among his ideas is to increase Jerez's production of bell peppers to export to California.
In addition, he said he is meeting with a Taiwanese doll company that he hopes will establish a plant in Jerez.
Bermudez, a onetime farm worker who now earns an estimated $300,000 a year, will receive $1,500 a month as Jerez mayor. He has said he will donate the salary to charity after taking office Sept. 15.
His rise as a farm worker with little formal education to a wealthy farmer attracting international attention makes fellow migrants beam with pride.
"He's working for the little guys, for all of us," said Fernando Mejia, an Anaheim resident who left Jerez 20 years ago. "We hope he can help the people we've left behind."