A Northern California immigrant farmer who staged a triumphant return to his hometown in Mexico and won a mayoral election, only to see it overturned amid furious protests, said Sunday that he has given up his fight for the office.
But the battle to change Mexican politics has just begun, Andres Bermudez said from his home near Sacramento.
"I was going to start change, but they did not let me do it," said Bermudez, who entered the U.S. illegally 28 years ago in a car trunk and is now known as the "Tomato King."
Bermudez, 51, was among the first immigrants in this country to run for Mexican elective office after the country's dual nationality provision went into effect in 1998. The law permits immigrants from Mexico to regain citizenship and voting rights in their home country.
In September, just days before he was to be sworn in, his election was overturned by a federal electoral commission on the grounds that he was not a legal resident of Jerez. On his election form, he had listed his California residence as his permanent address.
His victory in the July 1 mayoral election in the Zacatecas city of Jerez turned him into a populist emblem for Mexican immigrants. The northwestern state is riddled with poverty, and most families there have at least one relative who has crossed to the U.S. seeking a better standard of living.
Bermudez, who earns an estimated $300,000 a year from his farming businesses in Yolo County, had said he planned to donate his mayoral salary to charity. He also hoped to bring agribusiness and manufacturing to Jerez, a city of 40,000 about 400 miles northwest of Mexico City.
Bermudez's fall has galvanized immigrants who say their homeland needs deeper political change, according to activists in this country.
"The politicians in Mexico are afraid of immigrants going back and taking their jobs," said Guadalupe Gomez, president of the Federation of Zacatecan Clubs of Southern California. "So they had to stop the guy who had all the possibilities, and did not need to take money from the people."
After the decision by the electoral commission, his supporters occupied city hall in mid-September, and a compromise was reached: Another person from Bermudez's party, the left-leaning Democratic Revolutionary Party, would assume the post for three months and then a public poll would determine who was the preferred man for the office.
In that December poll, 51% of voters preferred Bermudez; 31% wanted interim candidate Ismael Solis to remain.
But Solis refused to leave office, prompting Bermudez's supporters to stage another sit-in at city hall.
Late last week, however, Bermudez said he decided to give up the fight after Zacatecas Gov. Ricardo Monreal said he was backing Solis. Monreal had originally suggested that Bermudez and the two other mayoral candidates, Juan Duran of Oxnard and Martin Carvajal of Fort Worth, run for office.
From his comfortable home nestled against the hills on the western edge of the Sacramento Valley in Winters, Bermudez said Sunday that he phoned his supporters in Jerez to tell them to drop their protests.
A corrupt political machine, he told them, had snuffed out their hopes.
"I feel like I could do something for my town," he said. "I've got connections. I can invest money in Mexico. The Mexican people are hungry for the truth. ... I was crying, everyone cried."
But across California, leaders of Zacatecan immigrants said they will continue their fight for political change in Mexico.
Gomez, the president of the federation of Zacatecan clubs, said he is working with groups on both sides of the border to pass "the Bermudez Law" that would eliminate the strict residency requirement and allow people living abroad to run for office back home.
They also want to be allowed to vote in Mexican elections without having to travel back to that country. President Vicente Fox was helped to his historic victory in 2000 by thousands of immigrants who traveled to Tijuana and other border cities to vote.
In 2004, Gomez said, his group hopes to push a host of dual nationals to run for local offices in Zacatecas and in national elections.
Next month, immigrant groups have invited lawmakers from Zacatecas to meet with them to discuss their goals.
"This is for the future of all Mexicans abroad," said Gomez, who runs an income tax business in Santa Ana. "We had to leave the country because they couldn't provide us with a decent way of living
Back in Winters, Bermudez said his yearlong odyssey has soured him on politics in Mexico.
"I don't want to be a part of this anymore," he said. "I need to go back to my business."
But he will not give up completely. He plans to financially support projects in his hometown and he said he has not ruled out running for governor of Zacatecas in 2004.
"Maybe I will go again and fight again," he said.