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Mexico's 2006 Race Comes to Santa Ana

Immigrants: A Zacatecas club convention draws a presidential hopeful to meet potential voters.

July 05, 2002|JENNIFER MENA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Ricardo Monreal, governor of the Mexican state of Zacatecas, comes to Santa Ana today for the third annual convention of Zacatecan clubs from around the United States, he'll be stumping for his nation's presidency some four years ahead of schedule.

The clubs were started by immigrants to raise cash and other aid for their villages in the impoverished agricultural state. They have grown fivefold in number since a Monreal political operative began an organizing drive across the United States.

Monreal's early campaigning for the 2006 presidential race might seem unorthodox, but it only reflects political reality: Half of Zacatecans now live in the United States, and they soon may be able to vote in Mexican elections.

"Monreal has a big stage here and he's using it to better the state," said Manuel de la Cruz of Norwalk, who has helped Monreal garner support in the United States and is on the state payroll to establish more clubs among Zacatecan immigrants.

Some club founders worry about the shift in emphasis to politics.

"The government is involved in what are supposed to be nonprofit organizations," said Felipe Cabral, a real estate agent who lives in Cypress and is one of six U.S. representatives to Mexico's Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI. An activist in his local Zacatecas club, he has charged in his columns that many of the new clubs cropping up are nothing more than names with few people in each.

De la Cruz, however, says the convention will prove that "these clubs are not ghost organizations. They are backed by people. They are funding projects."

There's ample reason for Monreal's focus north of the border as he seeks the nomination of his left-center Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) for president in 2006. Mexico's congress is expected to determine before then how Mexicans abroad can participate in the election.

Many of those potential voters are from Zacatecas, which sends a higher percentage of its population, 50%, to the United States than any other Mexican state. Los Angeles has more Zacatecans than any other metropolitan area in the world. Chicago and the state's capital of Zacatecas come in second and third respectively.

Aid from Zacatecans in the United States is vital to the survival of those left at home. Banks report an estimated $1.3 million a day is wired from the United States to relatives in Zacatecas. Without those funds and other donations from clubs, the state's economy would collapse, De la Cruz said.

Monreal also may very well need the political support of Zacatecans in the United States. A measure that would allow Mexicans abroad to vote died in the Mexican senate in 1998, but representatives of several political parties say they still favor legislation giving voting rights to the estimated 10 million to 20 million Mexicans living in the United States. They remain at odds only over how to make a voting system that would be fair and fraud proof.

"They have a direct influence with their families; they send money and they tell family members whom to vote for," Monreal said. "We are talking about millions of people who could vote in 2006. For me, they are fundamental for a victory."

Other frequently mentioned possible contenders in the 2006 presidential race are Roberto Madrazo, PRI president; PRD President Rosario Robles; and Manuel Lopez Obrador, Mexico City's mayor and a member of the PRD.

Since being elected governor three years ago, Monreal has worked to established 16 federations of 274 Zacatecan clubs in 12 American states with De la Cruz's help. The clubs conduct fund-raisers to send money to Mexico, which then is matched by local, state and federal governments for public works projects.

The Monreal strategy mirrored the efforts of the federal government, which began using U.S. clubs to spread its influence in the 1990s. At the time, it was hoped that the clubs would build support for the Institutional Revolutionary Party, said Eva Garcia Valle, a sociology professor specializing in immigration at the Autonomous University of Zacatecas.

The professor and others recognize that the U.S. Zacatecan clubs have changed the face of many small towns. They have raised $6 million in the last three years, which was matched by $12 million in government money. The funds paid for hospitals, schools, wells and paved roads.

Much of the money comes from the Southern California Federation, which includes 55 clubs linked to an equal number of towns in Zacatecas. The federation sent $2.5 million last year that was matched by $7.5 million in government funds.

Las Animas, a farming village of 2,500 people, was one benefactor. The residents had long sought to have potable water and drainage. A California club sent $300,000 for the $1.2-million project.

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