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Expatriates Are True Patriots in Mexico

Many Mexicans have gone home this week to cast their vote in Sunday’s historic presidential election-- considered the most open, fair and intensely contested race since the revolution. But you don’t have to cross the border to feel the democratic fever that has electrified our southern neighbor.

Just stop at a dreary little strip mall on North Harbor Boulevard in Santa Ana. There’s a taco place that serves menudo, a music shop and a beer joint named El Fracaso, which means the Failure. At the corner, you’ll find the modest, slightly messy office where a slender, courteous man has been offering income tax and accounting services for 13 years.

His name is Lupe Gomez and he’ll greet you with a proper handshake and subdued smile that hints at shyness, or seriousness. He works out of a back room sparsely decorated with photos of his children and inspirational Christian messages. There’s only one clue to the high-level politics played by this small-business owner, the son of a farm worker.

It’s a crumpled campaign poster of a beaming governor hanging on the rear door. But it’s not Gray Davis of California; it’s Ricardo Monreal of Zacatecas, the Mexican state where Lupe was born and reared.

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Monreal looks young, like Lupe. He sports a mustache, like Lupe too. Both are part of a new generation anxious to transform Mexico’s political system.

It’s just that Lupe wants to do it from Orange County.

Lupe is a thoughtful man, not a boisterous backslapper or braggart. But he’s so proud of his connection to Monreal that he told me twice that the new governor had come to Southern California to campaign among expatriates.

Mexicans living in the United States lobbied hard for the right to cast absentee ballots in this critical election. Lupe said he’s disappointed they didn’t get it. But it’s not the vote that has earned these Zacatecans political clout back home. It’s the millions of dollars they send every year through a nationwide network of 200 hometown clubs, including one co-founded in 1993 by Lupe and others who hail from Santa Juana, his ranchito, or rural settlement.

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Lupe’s eyes lighted up over lunch when he told me about the brick-and-mortar accomplishments of these Zacatecan civic clubs. They have helped their towns and villages build roads, install computers in schools, upgrade irrigation systems, create centers to house the elderly and to train homeless street kids. They even built a bakery for the family of a young man who lost his legs here in a construction accident.

The government puts up matching funds for the projects. But the immigrants make sure the work gets done.

“We’ve already realized that if we don’t go head to head [al tu por tu] with the government, things will not get done,” said Lupe, using an expression in Spanish that connotes equality. “It’s the people who have to wake up.”

Monreal of the left-leaning Democratic Revolution Party (PRD) was elected two years ago, taking over the state Capitol from the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which has dominated Mexican politics for seven decades. Not many years ago, it was a big deal in Mexico when an opposition party pushed the PRI out of the governor’s mansion in any state.

Today, the opposition has gained momentum, gathering more power in Congress and now stands a real chance of capturing the presidency. Polls show Francisco Labastida, PRI’s presidential candidate, running neck and neck with Vicente Fox of the right-leaning National Action Party (PAN).

It may seem far away to the rest of us. But Lupe Gomez--who as a teenager cut celery in Seal Beach fields still visible from the San Diego Freeway--feels like a player with a stake on both sides of the border.

“We want to be accepted here and we want to try to change things there,” said Lupe, who is a U.S. citizen. . “Because we don’t want the people who are still back home to come here and suffer like we have suffered.”

J. Guadalupe Gomez de Lara wasn’t always so aware of his roots.

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His father, Zacarias, first came to the states as a bracero, a special program in the 1950s that allowed the legal flow of Mexican agricultural workers across the border. In 1975, he brought his whole family across.

Lupe was 15, the sixth of 10 children. His father wanted him to quit school and work in the fields. But after getting a taste of the backbreaking labor one summer, he decided to stick to his studies. He graduated from Los Amigos High in Fountain Valley in 1978.

Today, his parents, married 52 years, are back home in Santa Juana. At 83, his old man still milks cows and cultivates corn. All but one of their children, all American homeowners, still live in Southern California.

Lupe, who turns 40 next month, studied business administration at Santa Ana College and Cal State Long Beach, but never got a degree. At 18, he had married his wife, Martha, a native of Jalisco. They had four children, who range from third grade to college.

During the ‘80s, Lupe managed the produce department at a Stater Bros. store. With work, school and family, he was too busy to worry about conditions in Zacatecas.

Then one day he got a call from a cousin, Antonio Gomez Velasco, who lived in Norwalk. They weren’t close at the time, but they were about to become inseparable in pursuing a common mission for Mexico.

His cousin wanted to start a club for fellow emigrants from Santa Juana. The Zacatecan town needed a baseball diamond, and he wanted to help build it.

“It all started with this dream: The community would have a baseball park,” said Lupe, who played high school soccer.

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It was the beginning of Lupe’s lessons in international politics.

He recalls attending a meeting at the Mexican consulate in Los Angeles to discuss the baseball project. Officials representing the state of Zacatecas and the federal government were there. As part of their share of the project, Lupe said, they promised to help buy the land. (At the time, it was two government dollars for every one donated by immigrants; the ratio is now 3-to-1, with municipalities also pitching in.)

At the last minute, though, Zacatecas balked. Mexican law doesn’t permit a government to buy land for such public-private projects, Lupe said.

He and his cousin went home for a showdown. A top public works official in Zacatecas, the state capital, told them the deal made by those Mexican officials in Los Angeles was invalid.

Oh no, Lupe insisted. A deal’s a deal.

“You’re going to come through with your promises because we’re not used to this,” he recalled telling them, his fighting spirit breaking through his reserved exterior. “We live in the United States.”

The nerve of these wheeler-dealers, thinking they could come here and sweet-talk their paisanos with inflated promises. Lupe mocks their self-aggrandizing generosity by pretending to straighten his collar, a gesture of pomposity known in Mexico as pararse el cuello.

“They can’t come here and make themselves look good and not come through,” Lupe said, still seething a little. “After those arguments, let me tell you one thing, we earned a lot of respect.”

Lupe had threatened to mobilize the governor--a PRI man at the time whom he also considered an ally--against the reluctant bureaucrats. The shaken public works guy later called Zacatecan leaders in Los Angeles to complain about Lupe’s relentless jawboning.

“Don’t be sending this guy,” the Mexican official pleaded. “Es muy corajudo [He’s got a bad temper].”

The baseball diamond eventually cost $80,000. It’s “just like the ones we have here,” Lupe said. “The best in the state.” It’s behind his old grammar school, Escuela Miguel Hidalgo, and features a snack bar, restrooms and a picnic area with a kitchen.

Soon, it will be christened Campo Deportivo Antonio Gomez Velasco, in honor of his cousin, an asphalt paver who died of lung cancer June 19 at age 67.

Of the 300 projects built in Zacatecas with the help of immigrants in the United States, Lupe said, it is the first to bear the name of one of their own. It’s about time, he said, instead of always honoring corrupt politicians who steal from the people.

“We’re setting the stage for a big change in our state,” he said. “That we better start recognizing the people who do the work.”

A week ago, Lupe delivered the eulogy before his cousin’s burial at Forest Lawn in Cypress. Antonio Gomez leaves a legacy for his children, and for all immigrants to follow, Lupe said.

“They say we don’t have good leaders in Mexico,” he told the gathered mourners. “You know what? Your leaders are right next to you.”

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Agustin Gurza’s column appears Tuesday and Saturday. Readers can reach Gurza at (714) 966-7712 or agustin.gurza@latimes.com.


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