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Mexican president's humble but elusive migrant kin

March 22, 2007|Carlos Martinez and Sam Enriquez | Times Staff Writers

MORELIA, MEXICO — As many as half the citizens of the home state of Mexican President Felipe Calderon are believed to be working in the United States. So it was no great surprise when Calderon revealed recently that among Michoacan's migrants were some of his own kin.

What's odd is that apparently no one here in Calderon's hometown, not even his family, seems to know who they are.

"I don't know of any relative that is or has been in the United States," said Luis Gabriel Calderon Hinojosa, a physician and the president's eldest brother. "There are more than 100 cousins and we're all over the place. Maybe, by chance, there's someone on the other side."

At an international news conference with President Bush last week, Calderon said that he had relatives working in the fields, "probably handling the vegetables you eat." He cited them, as he had during last year's presidential campaign, to urge a new U.S. immigration accord and more investment in the Mexican economy to slow the expatriate flow.

"I hope one day I can see them, greet them, hug them," Calderon told Bush and reporters.

Calderon's poignant revelation that he had family working the lowest rungs of the U.S. labor market triggered a brief media stampede to find out who they were. Later, his office said it would not reveal any names, to protect the relatives' privacy.

Many in this state capital, including Calderon's former high school teacher, were puzzled by the news.

"The Calderons are not farmers," said Father Eliseo Albor, who taught the president and three of his four siblings at the private Instituto Valladolid. "They don't have the need to cross the border.... They've done well. They've got good jobs."

A cadre of presidential police guard the home where Calderon grew up and where his mother, Maria del Carmen Hinojosa de Calderon, still lives. It is a walled, three-story stucco house in an aging but upscale neighborhood. The president's late father was a founder of Calderon's National Action Party, known as PAN.

The state PAN president, Francisco Javier Morelos Borja, said he didn't doubt Calderon's claim. "Nearly all of us have someone abroad," he said. Maybe they're relatives of Calderon's mother, from Puruandiro, he said. The town of about 65,000 has one of the state's highest emigration rates.

Morelia Mayor Salvador Lopez Orduna has been pals with Calderon since childhood and grew up on the next block.

"I'm sure they have relatives who are migrants," said Lopez, who's seeking the PAN nomination for governor. "They could be from Puruandiro, or if not, some other pueblo. I don't know of anyone, personally, but I'm sure it's true."

In Puruandiro, a 90-minute drive north of Morelia, signs of the region's longtime migration patterns are everywhere: pickup trucks with U.S. license plates. The town is small enough for people to know where to find a Calderon relative.

"Yes, we're cousins," said Jesus Madrigal Hinojosa, the owner of an auto repair shop. "But I don't know of any relatives living in the United States."

Calderon's description of relatives working with lettuce and other vegetables suggests they would be in California, which supplies most of the nation. Tens of thousands of Mexican immigrants work fields in the Imperial Valley, the Oxnard Plain and the Salinas Valley, as well as the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys.

Michoacan has supplied California with field hands for generations. But a brief survey of passersby in Morelia's main plaza revealed the reach of their relatives' work abroad: New York high-rise construction, San Jose tiling, Los Angeles roofing, Oregon logging, Sacramento fruit packing and New Jersey factory work.

Shoeshine man Gabriel Ortega Zarco, 55, said eight of his 10 children are working illegally in New Jersey. "My kids tell me to meet them up north, but I'm too old for that," he said. "The last time I was up there I froze" for three days.

Nearby, Father Gabriel Ruiz, a parish priest, said he had known the Calderon family for six years but didn't know about any relatives living in the United States. The president's mother attends Mass two or three times a week in Our Lady of Fatima parish. "She's very reserved, never talks," he said, "so I wouldn't know much."

Juan Luis Calderon, a civil engineer described by the president in his biography as his closest sibling, heads the local water agency. The mayor's office called to arrange for a interview with him Tuesday to clear up the matter. He tentatively agreed.

Later on Tuesday, however, Juan Luis Calderon's secretary said her boss could not make the meeting. And on Wednesday, she said he would be busy the rest of the week.


Martinez reported from Morelia and Enriquez from Mexico City.

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