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Yucatan Emigres Seek to Aid Wilma's Victims

Clubs stage fundraisers in part to keep residents from risking their lives by crossing the border.

October 27, 2005|Lisa Richardson | Times Staff Writer

When Hurricane Isidore smashed through the Yucatan Peninsula three years ago, natives of the area living in Southern California rapidly tied a loose network of social clubs into a taut disaster response organization.

Three years almost to the day of the founding of the Federation of Yucatec Clubs, the organization once again is racing to provide aid to the area devastated by Hurricane Wilma.

"This is our home now, but we have families back there and strong ties that will never be dissolved, so we have to help," said Sara Zapata Mijares, president of the Federation of Yucatec Clubs, which consists of the 12 Yucatecan clubs in the Los Angeles area.

The response testifies to the strength immigrant communities have achieved in Los Angeles, where scores of clubs that formed with little more than a sense of nostalgia have combined forces to become a political and economic force in their home states.

Federations from the major immigrant-sending states have formed a Council of Federations of North America, which last year completed 1,100 projects, including schools, parks and potable water systems. In the U.S., the council focuses on housing, education and obtaining driver's licenses for undocumented immigrants.

"We get criticized a lot for the work we do because people say we are just here to send money back there, but it's not true," Mijares said. "But one of our preoccupations is that people do not keep coming. Our goal is to make those communities self-sustaining."

Estimates of damage to the Yucatan Peninsula's tourism industry, its economic engine, are in the billions of dollars, and Mijares said she fears the disaster could spark an exodus of the destitute and jobless.

One goal of providing emergency aid as soon as possible is to keep people from risking their lives in an attempt to cross the border, Mijares said.

The clubs' fundraising efforts for Wilma's victims in the Yucatan are strictly grass-roots. There is no hurricane relief button to click on EBay or Amazon.com as there was for Katrina.

Nor are locals encouraged to send their donations to a major relief group such as the Red Cross. Instead, the Federation of Yucatec Clubs has opened a bank account at the East West Bank and the organization will see to the disbursement of funds.

Small businesses are volunteering goods and services, conjunto bands are playing dinner dances for free and restaurants are offering their facilities for events.

Last Friday, as Wilma bore down on the Yucatan, the Federation of Jalisco Clubs chose to divert proceeds from a previously scheduled dinner-dance in Arcadia. It raised $17,000, and plans another dance Sunday at Lugar Latino on 104th Street in Inglewood.

As soon as Wilma struck the peninsula, George Vasquez went to the Mexican Consulate to offer his help.

President of Quality Frames and Furniture, an El Monte store that furnishes hotels, he is holding an art auction from Friday to Sunday, with proceeds to benefit the Yucatan.

Vasquez is from Cuernavaca, but his family vacations every year in Cancun, and television images of the destruction moved him.

"Every year we go there. Mexico is beautiful, really Latin America is beautiful, the whole continent is beautiful. But the Yucatan is the most beautiful of all. It's sad. I don't want to cry," he said, halting abruptly.

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