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{The New Foreign Aid: Mexico}

Migrants Reshape Villages With Ideas del Norte

The New Foreign Aid

April 16, 2006|Sam Enriquez | Times Staff Writer

Nochistlan, Mexico — Workers in the United States helped pay for the grand boulevard leading into town, a four-lane thoroughfare whose center divider is planted with palm trees and roses. A large sign declares in Spanish: Migrants, this is your home.

They are making it more so every day. Work crews pour concrete on Calle Manzano, transforming a washboard into a paved street. Carpenters and masons put the finishing touches on a new sanctuary at St. Sebastian church. Clean water and electricity reach farther into outlying neighborhoods of this town in Zacatecas state.

Nearly every public works project here, as in dozens of towns throughout Mexico, is subsidized and overseen by Mexicans working in the United States.

Unlike past generations who melted into the American mainstream, a new breed of migrant is determined to straddle the border. They are on a mission to reshape their old country with ideas from their new one. Along with cash, they are bringing notions of open government and accountability.

"American ideas have gotten in the heads of Mexicans," said Efrain Jimenez, the owner of an auto repair shop in San Fernando who is project director for the Federation of Zacatecan Clubs of Southern California, one of many U.S.-based migrant groups investing in Mexico.

He grew up near Nochistlan, in the tiny pueblo of La Villita, and believes U.S.-style democracy can reshape his homeland as dramatically as "the tortilla reshaped the American menu."

The Mexican government, for years content to ignore those who went north, is now an eager suitor.

In 2001, President Vicente Fox agreed to allocate three pesos for every one raised by Mexicans abroad for public works. Federal, state and local governments provided about $60 million last year to match $20 million from expatriates.

Because of pressure from emigres, public works projects in Zacatecas state now must be approved by neighborhood committees, the mayor and federal and state representatives, as well as immigrants' hometown clubs in the U.S. Two signatures are required on checks. Books are opened, costs scrutinized.

The demand for transparency was evident at a meeting in the city of Zacatecas, the state capital, to distribute public works funds. All day, questions were raised and arguments hashed out in a smoke-filled room:

Zacatecan clubs pledged more money than the government had matching funds. Which projects would be funded now, participants asked, and which should be put off until next year?

Mayors have always bought cement through middlemen. Why not buy directly from the manufacturer, someone asked?

"It used to be the decisions were all from the top down," said Guillermo Briceno de la Mora, a delegate to Zacatecas state from the federal Department of Social Development. "To reach a consensus is new for us, and new for the migrants too."

Rafael Barajas, an electrical engineer living in Anaheim, recalls what it used to be like. He hails from a town called Jomulquillo. It is divided by a creek, and when it rained, his mother sometimes slipped on stones as she made her way across. In 1992, he persuaded other immigrants from his hometown to raise money for a bridge. Barajas said he was certain it could be built for a quarter of what Mexican officials estimated.

"Bids are always inflated, and then money gets passed under the table," he said. "I told them, 'I'll do the bridge.' " He coordinated construction.

Now, "I don't get my shoes dirty when I go for a walk. I can take a shower. There are restaurants," he said. "It's like a real city.... Women always used to be out carrying babies, even toddlers. Now they can push strollers down the street."

Jimenez has turned over management of his auto shop to an employee, allowing him to coordinate public works projects full time for Zacatecan immigrant clubs. His two cellphones -- one with a Mexican number, one with a U.S. number -- ring every few minutes regardless of which side of the border he's on, usually with some question about the 300 projects in the works.

People in Nochistlan wave as he drives by in a pickup, the local boy who's helping bring roads, electricity and big ideas.

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