Revolution of Words : Oxnard Activists Drive Home View That Mexican Presidential Election Was Stolen

Times Staff Writer

Nearly 5 months after Mexico voted in a new president, a group of Mexican citizens and Mexican-Americans living in Oxnard continues to protest the outcome of the election, which the country's opposition parties believe was rigged.

Through announcements on a local Spanish-language radio station, petition drives and local political rallies featuring Mexican politicians, the group drives home its view that the election was stolen from the most popular opposition candidate, Cuauhtemoc Cardenas.

"Sometimes we feel hatred for Mexico, but this isn't right," Ines Solis, 36, the founder of Oxnard's Committee in Support of Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, said at a rally Sunday. "We should hate these unpatriotic people who contradict the law and the constitution to rob power from us."

Conducted in Spanish at Oxnard's Del Sol Park, the rally drew about 150 people, who listened to speeches by organizers of similar Southern California groups, as well as a member of Mexico's Chamber of Deputies--the equivalent of a U.S. Congressman.

Organizers said the gathering was an example of lingering resentment for the Mexican ruling party, the PRI, or Partido Revolucionario Institucional , whose presidential candidate, Carlos Salinas de Gortari, will be inaugurated next month.

The crowd, which dwindled to about 50 as the cold, rainy afternoon wore on, heard speaker after speaker urge pressure for change in the country they left behind.

"Viva Mexico! Viva Cuauhtemoc Cardenas!" they yelled.

To one side, a Los Angeles-based organizer gathered a circle of young men whose eyes grew wide as he rambled on about the possibility of distracting the police in Mexican state capitals in order to seize the cities' central plazas.

But for the most part, talk centered on what one organizer called "a revolution of words," with participants urged to sign petitions and attend future rallies in front of the Mexican Consulate in Los Angeles.

"We feel cheated," explained Jose Solis, 40, a former PRI official who has organized the Oxnard committee with his brother, Ines Solis, who runs a labor contracting firm in East Oxnard. "We're trying to show the PRI that it's not going to be so easy to ignore the will of the people."

The Oxnard committee is believed to be one of the larger groups among 20 groups from San Jose to Riverside that constitute a loose coalition called the Mexican Democratic Assembly.

The groups were organized in anticipation of fraud in the July national elections, and they gained momentum when political parties on the right and left later disputed election results, which gave Cardenas 31% of the vote to Salinas' 50%.

Organizers think that interest is high in Oxnard because of the city's large population of Mexican immigrants from the state of Michoacan, where Cardenas, a 54-year-old engineer, served as governor until 1986.

Cardenas--whose first name comes from that of an Aztec warrior who died fighting Spanish conquerors--also has far-reaching appeal in Mexico. His father was one of Mexico's most popular presidents, Lazaro Cardenas, who in the 1930s distributed land to peasants and nationalized the oil industry.

"We have confidence in him because of his father," explained Margarita Terro, 38, an Oxnard factory worker who attended the rally with her young son. "We think he can do the same things."

Protests Unusual

Raul Ruiz, a professor of Chicano studies at Cal State Northridge, said protests are unusual for a people who usually feel powerless to change their country's power structure.

"This is the first time that the expatriate population has taken an interest in Mexican politics," Ruiz said. "Everyone used to take for granted that change was impossible with the PRI. But when Cardenas surfaced as a strong candidate, a lot of people got interested. He represents a real potential for change in the way Mexico governs itself."

The PRI has dominated Mexican politics for 59 years, with each president handpicking his successor. Resentment has heightened under the administration of outgoing President Miguel de la Madrid, whose attempts to repay Mexico's overwhelming national debt have escalated unemployment, inflation and long-simmering resentments, Ruiz said.

"The poor really never had a chance of improving their lot, but the middle class really can't make it anymore," Ruiz said. "All of a sudden, the bottom fell out for them too."

Continued Monitoring

Although the organizers of these California-based groups hold no hope of blocking the Dec. 1 inauguration of Salinas, they plan to continue monitoring the PRI. And they hope eventually to take on other expatriate causes, such as the treatment they receive from Mexican border officials, said Samuel Orozco, a production coordinator for a Fresno radio station who organized one of the first pro-Cardenas groups in California.

Oxnard's committee maintains that Mexicans who return to their country are forced to pay morditas , or bribes, to Mexican customs officials who threaten to confiscate clothing and other possessions.

Steps that leaders of Oxnard's Committee in Support of Cuauhtemoc Cardenas said they have taken to voice their concerns include:

Collecting about 1,000 signatures locally to protest the July election.

Staging four other rallies in the Oxnard park and another in a Santa Paula park, attracting 200 to 700 people. Porfirio Munoz Ledo, a former PRI president who defected to serve as Cardenas' campaign manager, spoke at an Oxnard rally in October.

Appearing on the Oxnard Spanish-language radio station KTRO, which also has broadcast public-service announcements publicizing the group's rallies.

Circulating a petition to protest the alleged coercion of Mexican nationals by Mexican customs officials, a problem that the Mexican government acknowledges and says it is trying to remedy.

Participating in two large rallies in Los Angeles, with a third next week to protest the Salinas inauguration.

Oxnard's committee also plans to join a longstanding movement to allow Mexican nationals living in the United States to vote in presidential elections in Mexico, much the way Americans who are abroad on Election Day can file absentee ballots. Mexican officials rule out the idea as logistically impossible because of the millions of their citizens living in the United States.

"We're sending the message that we're concerned and that we're monitoring them," Alicia Solis, Ines Solis' wife, said, referring to the PRI. "Any wrongdoing, any robbery or fraud and we're going to . . . let the people know what they're doing."

Uncertain Impact

Whether the Mexican government has been listening is questionable.

The director of the Mexican Consulate in Oxnard, Enrique Silva Guzman, said he has not heard of the committee and that he doubts whether it exists.

"Oxnard is a small community," he said. "Mexicans living here are not in touch with protests like you find in urban areas."

Silva directed further inquiries to the deputy consul of Los Angeles, Eduardo Ibarrola, who said he was aware of the Oxnard group but doubted that such pressure in the United States will have an impact on Mexican politics.

"I don't think you can make a revolution by pressuring consulates in a foreign country," he said.

Ibarrola also said he does not believe pro-Cardenas groups like Oxnard's "are representative of the feelings in Mexico. For me, it's very clear that the vast majority of the Mexican population doesn't want turmoil."

Pablo Quiroz, a Los Angeles organizer of the Mexican Democratic Assembly who spoke at Sunday's rally, does not agree.

"It is important to unite with different groups from all over California to bring democracy to Mexico," he told the crowd. "We need to bring an end to this fraud that the PRI is perpetrating."

Blamed for Crisis

Another speaker, Baldomero Capiz, blamed corruption in the PRI for the country's financial crisis, which, he said, drove most of the rally's participants across the border in the first place.

"The large part of the reason we're here is because of bad administration in the PRI," said the 35-year-old machinist, an organizer in the Los Angeles-based Mexican Committee in Support of Cuauhtemoc Cardenas. "The PRI has created the greatest economic crisis in our country's history."

A third speaker, Nicolas Salazar Ramirez, 79, urged the Oxnard residents to support Cardenas and his newly founded political party, the Democratic Revolutionary Party.

"Whatever problems you have, please help us," entreated Salazar, who was recently elected to the Chamber of Deputies from the State of Yucatan under the banner of the leftist party.

The message hit home for Jose Alfaro, a 30-year-old broccoli picker who slipped a crisp $10 bill to organizers.

"I'm here, but I haven't stopped feeling like a Mexican," said Alfaro, who moved to Oxnard 7 years ago from a small city in the State of Guerrero. "We are worried about what's happening in Mexico. It's where our families are."

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