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Politicos Caught Between Two Cultures

Returning migrants are running for Congress in Mexico, stirring up race with American ideas.

June 29, 2003|Richard Boudreaux | Times Staff Writer

CHIMALHUACAN, Mexico — "How many of you have relatives on the other side of the border?" the guest from California asked 200 fellow Mexicans at a political rally here.

At least 50 hands went up and the visitor, newly energized, railed against the plight of undocumented Mexicans in the U.S. "Migrants are treated like criminals there," Jose Jacques Medina declared, and they need one of their own -- namely, himself -- to represent them in the Mexican Congress.

Days earlier, Alberto Alvarez greeted vendors in a Mexico City street market, schmoozing with a faint Chicano accent acquired in Connecticut. The candidate's selling point sounded even more foreign -- accountability.

"Tired of electing candidates and not hearing from them again?" he asked, taking down each voter's address. "I will write and tell you where to find me. I will not disappear."

The veteran Los Angeles County labor organizer and the young New Haven real estate agent are pioneers on Mexico's campaign trail. They are among half a dozen congressional candidates seeking to give the country's diaspora, including as many as 27 million people in the U.S., a voice in governing Mexico.

Three of the candidates, including Jacques and Alvarez, have a chance of winning seats in a legislature where only one returning migrant has ever served before.

As the July 6 election nears, these outsiders are stirring up the campaign with American ideas -- and meeting some resistance.

Jacques, for example, took his own party to court, claiming bias against migrant candidates.

Alvarez, meanwhile, has been labeled a pocho -- slang for an Americanized Mexican caught between two cultures -- by his political foes. During a radio debate, one of his rivals declared: "I do not come from abroad to impose solutions."

For decades, Mexicans who went north were scorned at home, branded as traitors by governments deeply suspicious of the U.S. That prejudice has been eroded by the flood of migrants and the remittances they send home -- about $10 billion last year.

A law that took effect in 1998 allowed Mexicans who had become citizens of other countries to regain their nationality and property rights in their homeland. Mexicans in the U.S. suddenly were able to see their potential as a force for democratic change south of the border. But they have made few inroads.

Although President Vicente Fox's election in 2000 ended a 71-year monopoly by the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, Mexican politics remains insular. Expatriates face legal and political obstacles to getting on the ballot and advancing their demands, which includes the right to cast absentee votes in Mexican elections.

Of the six expatriates who made publicized bids for office in 2000 and 2001, only Los Angeles business consultant Eddie Varon Levy was elected. Activists in the U.S. say his term has achieved little. "As a migrant, you get no special favors in Congress," Varon says. "You're just one of 500 members."

Two years ago, Andres Bermudez, a flamboyant California grower known as the "tomato king," won the mayorship of Jerez in the state of Zacatecas but was disqualified on a technicality: His obligatory six-month residency in the city prior to the election included extended trips back to his Yolo County farm.

In this year's election, the PRI rejected two migrants as candidates because they are U.S. citizens -- even though election officials say Mexican law does not clearly prohibit dual nationals from holding office.

A bill that would explicitly recognize that right languishes in a congressional committee.

"The political establishment is afraid of migrants entering Mexican politics," said Jose Miguel Moctezuma, a specialist on migration at the Autonomous University of Zacatecas. "Migrant candidates come from well-financed civic groups in the United States that are independent of Mexican parties. They cannot be easily bought off."

Mexican voters directly elect 300 members to the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house, from congressional districts. The other 200 seats are doled out to political parties according to their proportion of the overall vote in each of five regions.

Mexicans living in the U.S. currently are seeking five of the 200 at-large seats as candidates of the leftist Democratic Revolution Party, or PRD. Rather than appeal to voters, their challenge has been to win over the political bosses who draw up the PRD's regional lists of candidates. Victory or defeat depends on the party's regional showing and the candidate's ranking on the list.

Alvarez, 33, who left Mexico at age 19 and joined Fox's conservative National Action Party, or PAN, while living in New Haven, realized that a secure spot on that party's list was impossible. "The party says it welcomes migrants, but that list is really for the big fish," he said.

So he moved home to Mexico City last year, close to the rough Doctores neighborhood where he grew up, and launched a campaign for direct election as a PAN candidate.

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