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Activist to Head Agency on Mexicans in U.S.

Some worry Candido Morales, a newcomer to big-time politics, won't be effective.

November 25, 2002|Jessica Garrison | Times Staff Writer

Mexican officials swooped into Candido Morales' small-town life earlier this fall and plunked him onto the world stage, unexpectedly appointing the quiet American social worker as Mexico's point man for immigrants in the United States.

Morales, a 57-year-old immigrant from Oaxaca, faces a daunting job: He must address the fraying marriage between an estimated 20 million Mexicans living in the United States and their sometime suitor, Mexican President Vicente Fox.

He must build a new organization for Mexican immigrants while negotiating politics on both sides of the border. And all the while, he must contend with U.S. critics who say he does not understand Mexican politics and was picked as director of the Institute for Mexicans Abroad precisely because he is expected not to make waves.

"He is a go-between. He is not a problem solver," said Felipe Aguirre, spokesman for a group called Mexicans in the United States, which advocates giving immigrants a political voice in both countries. "I wish him well, but the whole point of this is basically to shove the problem under the rug."

But the potential of the job is huge -- both for the immigrants and the country from which they came. Mexicans in the United States send an estimated $9.2 billion a year south, equivalent in value to Mexico's tourism industry and second only to oil and manufacturing as a source of national income. They also influence relatives back home politically and, in the future, may even be able to vote in Mexican elections.

"We're talking about a new, transnational politics," said Rafael Fernandez de Castro, a Mexico City specialist on U.S.-Mexico relations. "There is a Mexican nation within the U.S. nation.... They could become a heck of a foreign lobby for Mexico."

Morales' job is twofold. He is expected to advocate for and aid Mexicans living in the United States. But he is also supposed to harness their political and economic power to help their native country, to encourage them to "participate in the transformation of Mexico," said Carlos Gonzalez Gutierrez, head of Latino affairs at the Mexican Embassy in Washington.

Guiding Morales' agenda will be a council of 120 advisors drawn mostly from within the United States. In a sign of the complicated politics Morales must negotiate, some Mexican immigrants earlier this month launched a protest of the way the Mexican government is picking the advisors, charging that it is undemocratic.

"This is not the right way to handle the Mexican immigrants in the U.S.," said Carlos Villanueva, president of Pasadena-based Worldwide Assn. of Mexicans Abroad.

The council's first meeting is set for December. Observers say major issues are likely to include proposals to legalize undocumented workers in the United States and ways to reduce the often-huge fees charged for wiring money back to Mexico.

In October, Morales moved from his house near his parents' home in the tiny Sonoma County town of Windsor to an apartment in Mexico City.

He said he cannot discuss specifics of his agenda until the advisory council meets, but he has already embarked on a dizzying series of trips to U.S. cities to meet with Mexican and Mexican American groups.

Mexico's Economy

Earlier this month he popped in at UCLA for a symposium on human rights and Mexican migrants. Sitting beneath a poster of crosses representing all those who have died traversing the border, Morales talked of improving Mexico's economy so people won't feel compelled to emigrate in the first place.

Then, even before the piping hot empanadas had been served, Morales was out the door, headed for Milwaukee.

UCLA professor James Wilkie, who helped organize the conference, said he was moved by the responsibilities that have suddenly landed on Morales' shoulders. He also noted that, six weeks into Morales' tenure as a jet-setting diplomat, the Mexican government had yet to give him a cell phone to help him stay in touch on the road.

"Here's a leader who had breakfast with his parents every morning, and now he has to negotiate Mexico," said Wilkie. "It's probably not humanly possible for anyone."

"He's kind of humbly innocent," the professor said. "Maybe it's refreshing to get someone in this position who doesn't claim to know it all."

Knows the Struggles

As Morales climbed into a taxi after the UCLA appearance, he seemed unfazed by the politics that swirl around him. His expression is one of perpetual, thoughtful calm, broken occasionally by a broad smile.

"I hope it doesn't become political," he said. "I'd like to be in a position where we can work with all parties.... This is grass-roots work."

He does make one thing clear: He knows the struggles and problems of the people he represents.

Born in a tiny village in southern Mexico, he is a Mixtec Indian whose father fled the poverty of Oaxaca for the United States in the early 1950s, trying to cross the border more than 30 times before finally settling in Healdsburg, north of San Francisco.

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