As a candidate for governor of the southern state of Oaxaca, Jose Murat rushes from one key campaign stop to another. The mist-shrouded Indian villages in the mountains. The poor fishing pueblos on the coast. The Los Angeles suburbs.
Los Angeles? With about 200,000 Oaxaca natives in Southern California, it's now part of the Mexican campaign trail. Murat recently barnstormed through L.A., lunching with Mexican American businesspeople, addressing students at UCLA, greeting the mayor of Bell Gardens--all for an election Sunday nearly 2,000 miles away.
Murat's campaign swing is just one sign of a new phenomenon in U.S.-Mexican relations. Once ignored by politicians back home, Mexicans in the United States are fast becoming a prize--so much so that Mexican candidates are crossing the border to woo them. With their money and influence back home, the Mexicans are an important constituency, even though they can't vote from abroad.
"These people have extended families and political ties," said Art Montez, a Latino political organizer in Santa Ana and past president of that city's League of United Latin American Citizens. "There is a huge revenue stream that flows from the U.S. to family members in Mexico, and Mexicans have always loved politics."
And trips like Murat's may just be the start. A Mexican government commission is studying whether Mexicans abroad might be allowed to vote absentee for president in 2000. If the plan is approved, expect to see more Mexican candidates roaming California and other states with big migrant populations. Call it the rubber-chicken-enchilada circuit.
"It's an important part of the new binational reality for Mexico and the United States," said Douglas Massey, an expert in migration at the University of Pennsylvania.
"Mexicans are a lot more attuned to what NAFTA means politically than Americans are," he added. While the North American Free Trade Agreement mainly addresses economic issues, he said, "it's a framework for integration."
The current electoral season in Mexico--in which 10 governors will be chosen, three of them Sunday, in Oaxaca, Aguascalientes and Veracruz states--is providing a taste of the new cross-border politics.
For example, the governor-elect in the border state of Chihuahua, Patricio Martinez, made three U.S. appearances during his recent successful campaign. The winner in the state of Zacatecas, Ricardo Monreal, was in California twice this spring seeking support from Mexican natives. "It was very important, if not definitive," said Jesus Cardona, who coordinated Monreal's campaign trips.
The candidates come from a handful of states in which up to 20% of the native sons and daughters are living in the United States.
Because Mexicans can't cast ballots from abroad, the politicians' U.S. campaigns are not directly seeking votes. Instead, the candidates are seeking legitimacy--conferred by the hard-working Mexicans who clip gardens, pick fruit and do other jobs in the United States. Those migrants talk by phone frequently with the relatives they support in Mexico.
The migrants' opinions carry weight, therefore, not only in places like Los Angeles, Calif., but in Los Angeles, Mexico--a hodgepodge of aluminum-and-concrete shacks clinging to a mountain near the city of Oaxaca. Eva Caballero, a mother of two girls, is typical of residents here; her husband spends much of each year in the United States picking cucumbers, onions and peaches.
"I think there are women here whose husbands [in the U.S.] tell them how to vote," the 29-year-old said. She admitted that she also follows her spouse's advice on candidates, but "my husband hasn't told me [whom to choose]--yet."
The U.S.-based migrants' impact stretches even beyond their immediate families. The Mexicans send millions of dollars to their communities to build roads, improve schools, maintain orphanages. That gives the Mexican migrants a lot of clout in their pueblos.
"Although they don't vote, they have an important moral presence. Our communities [in Oaxaca] are very poor," noted Murat, 48, a husky, bespectacled candidate for the dominant Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI.
Impressing migrant workers in the United States, however, is just one reason Mexican candidates cross the border. They also play to the crowd back home, analysts say. For example, in meeting with Mexican American business executives, candidates send the message that they'll be able to lure investment back to their states. And the politicians frequently pledge to protect migrants, a key concern in their states.
"I made a commitment to the Oaxaca natives in the United States to help defend, if necessary, the human rights of our people against racist measures like those put in place by Pete Wilson," Murat said in an interview, referring to the California governor. In reality, however, it's usually Mexican diplomats who intervene on behalf of Mexican workers.
The U.S.-based Mexicans also can help fill candidates' coffers. Gov.-elect Monreal of Zacatecas, for example, managed to pass the hat indirectly while in California, campaign worker Cardona said.
"Those whom he convinced--many people in California--sent money to their families so they in turn could contribute to the campaign," he said.
The political importance of the U.S.-based Mexicans first emerged a decade ago, when leftist leader Cuauhtemoc Cardenas sought the Mexican presidency. At the time, the authoritarian, one-party system denied him access to the media and other resources. The candidate responded by turning to Mexican migrants.
"Since they were north of the border, they were outside the usual mechanisms of political control. And they had access to independent resources," Massey said.
Thanks to sweeping electoral reform, Mexican opposition candidates now have a much better shot at winning office--in fact, Cardenas is now the mayor of Mexico City. But that doesn't mean the U.S.-based Mexicans have declined in importance. As elections become increasingly competitive, Mexican candidates have to fight for every vote they can get--including those influenced from abroad.
The migrants' political importance could soon balloon even further. In the spring, a Mexican law took effect permitting dual citizenship for Mexican migrants and their children. Mexico's Congress will soon consider whether to extend those rights to allow Mexicans to cast absentee ballots in the presidential race.
Their vote could be decisive. Electoral authorities estimate that 7 million U.S. residents--both legal and illegal Mexican migrants--could be eligible to cast Mexican ballots, a huge bloc considering that 35 million Mexicans participated in the last presidential election.
A government commission is expected to provide recommendations to Congress in November on whether such an absentee ballot is feasible. But already, presidential candidates are discreetly making appearances in the United States.
Cardenas, considered a likely candidate for the Democratic Revolution Party, or PRD, led the Cinco de Mayo parade in Chicago this year. Gov. Vicente Fox of the conservative National Action Party, or PAN, is another frequent flier to the United States, where he plugs his state--Guanajuato--and himself for president. He will be visiting Los Angeles in mid-August.
Not everyone is keen on the cross-border campaigning. Some Mexicans fear that a presidential campaign waged in Mexican communities such as East L.A. could prompt an anti-immigrant backlash in the United States.
Jose Angel Pescador, the Mexican consul in Los Angeles, worries about U.S.-based Mexicans feuding over politics instead of being united to fight for their rights. He complains that rival candidates for the Zacatecas governorship wound up bitterly dividing local Zacatecans in their California visits this spring.
Finally, some Mexicans have a longer-term concern. If Mexican politicians stump in the United States, how long can it be before the likes of Dianne Feinstein, Gray Davis and George W. Bush seek to bolster their standing among Mexican Americans by crossing the border?
"If our candidates come to do campaigns here, perhaps the same will happen there," Pescador said. "This must be regulated."