Martin Cruz was chopping onions in the cramped kitchen of the Birrieria Apatzingan restaurant in Pacoima and talking with his co-worker Bertha Infante about the violence that has gripped their hometown — the namesake of the eatery where they work.
Cruz, 47, and Infante, 36, are from Apatzingan in the Mexican state of Michoacan, where armed vigilante militias have recently made headlines around the world for their efforts to drive out the dominant Knights Templar drug cartel.
The Mexican government sent thousands of troops and federal police into the state last week hoping to avert a showdown as the vigilantes seized control of communities around Apatzingan and threatened to attack cartel members there. The vigilantes said they will not disarm until the government arrests the cartel's top leaders.
Cruz said he has not been back home in 11 years but has heard the stories about how the cartel had made Apatzingan its stronghold, burning down businesses, kidnapping residents and leaving decapitated bodies in town plazas.
Infante chimed in: "Over there, better to be silent, or end up on a street corner without your tongue or your head."
But despite the violence, both said that if they could, they would return to Apatzingan, if only to see home again.
"It's where I was born, where my father and my brothers are," Cruz said with a bittersweet smile. "You miss home. If I could return, yes, I would."
The conflict in Michoacan may be 1,500 miles away from Southern California, but it is deeply resonant with the more than 1 million residents here who have roots in the central Mexico state. By some estimates, there are nearly 5 million people with connections to Michoacan in the United States, with the largest communities in California.
One can see the Michoacan influence in popular carnitas shops and restaurants that bear the names of cities like Zamora and Uruapan and in paletas Michoacanas — popsicles with flavors such as mango and tamarind.
But Andrew Selee, executive vice president of the Woodrow Wilson Center policy think tank in Washington, said few groups of Mexicans in the U.S. have forged as tight a connection with their home state as Michoacanos.
"They're particularly good at organizing and keeping in touch with their home communities," he said. "They have high rates of participation in hometown associations."
Historically, experts say, the central Mexican states of Michoacan, Jalisco and Zacatecas have sent more people to the United States than any other areas.
So it makes sense, some say, that many of the ragtag soldiers in the self-defense groups had been immigrants in the U.S., including some who had been deported. Jesus Martinez, an immigrant advocate in Fresno who served as a state congressman in Michoacan from 2005 to 2008, said he understands how some immigrants from Michoacan who have been in this country for years would voluntarily return home to help in the struggle for its future.
"It doesn't surprise me that some people decided to go back on their own, or that some individuals here in the U.S. have publicly expressed support for the auto-defensas," or vigilante militias, he said. "And it doesn't surprise me that among the auto-defensas, some leaders have been migrants."
Jose Sandoval, an activist in San Jose from Tepalcatepec in the region known as Tierra Caliente, or Hot Land, has helped organize demonstrations to rally support — including money, food and medicine — for the self-defense groups, which some of his own family members have joined.
Sandoval said it would be foolhardy for the self-defense groups to put down their weapons, as the federal government has asked them to, until the leaders of the cartel are arrested or killed.
He said Mexican immigrants in the U.S. can play a powerful role because their relative earning power has allowed them to send money back to their hometowns, where it can make a difference.
"It's not just Michoacan, but all of Mexico itself. We have to make a change for the good of all Mexicans," Sandoval said. "We need to unite to form auto-defensas in all the ranchos, and all the towns and cities, to send all these corrupt criminals fleeing."
After 25 years in Modesto, Luis Alberto Rivera, 46, moved with his wife and three young U.S.-born daughters about a year ago to his hometown of Coalcoman, a city of roughly 20,000 in the Tierra Caliente. There, he said, the cartel had "taken ownership of people's lives." Even the police waved hello to the armed drug dealers as they drove through the streets.
"I had a patriotic dream of returning to my homeland for many years. The lack of safety was a concern, but my rationale was, if 20,000 people were surviving in these conditions, then we would survive too," Rivera said. "It caused me a lot of anger that people were not even putting their mind to getting rid of these criminals. I was anxious to return to help be a part of a solution."