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Politicos Caught Between Two Cultures

Times Staff Writer

“How many of you have relatives on the other side of the border?” the guest from California asked 200 fellow Mexicans at a political rally here.

At least 50 hands went up and the visitor, newly energized, railed against the plight of undocumented Mexicans in the U.S. “Migrants are treated like criminals there,” Jose Jacques Medina declared, and they need one of their own -- namely, himself -- to represent them in the Mexican Congress.

Days earlier, Alberto Alvarez greeted vendors in a Mexico City street market, schmoozing with a faint Chicano accent acquired in Connecticut. The candidate’s selling point sounded even more foreign -- accountability.

“Tired of electing candidates and not hearing from them again?” he asked, taking down each voter’s address. “I will write and tell you where to find me. I will not disappear.”

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The veteran Los Angeles County labor organizer and the young New Haven real estate agent are pioneers on Mexico’s campaign trail. They are among half a dozen congressional candidates seeking to give the country’s diaspora, including as many as 27 million people in the U.S., a voice in governing Mexico.

Three of the candidates, including Jacques and Alvarez, have a chance of winning seats in a legislature where only one returning migrant has ever served before.

As the July 6 election nears, these outsiders are stirring up the campaign with American ideas -- and meeting some resistance.

Jacques, for example, took his own party to court, claiming bias against migrant candidates.

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Alvarez, meanwhile, has been labeled a pocho -- slang for an Americanized Mexican caught between two cultures -- by his political foes. During a radio debate, one of his rivals declared: “I do not come from abroad to impose solutions.”

For decades, Mexicans who went north were scorned at home, branded as traitors by governments deeply suspicious of the U.S. That prejudice has been eroded by the flood of migrants and the remittances they send home -- about $10 billion last year.

A law that took effect in 1998 allowed Mexicans who had become citizens of other countries to regain their nationality and property rights in their homeland. Mexicans in the U.S. suddenly were able to see their potential as a force for democratic change south of the border. But they have made few inroads.

Although President Vicente Fox’s election in 2000 ended a 71-year monopoly by the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, Mexican politics remains insular. Expatriates face legal and political obstacles to getting on the ballot and advancing their demands, which includes the right to cast absentee votes in Mexican elections.

Of the six expatriates who made publicized bids for office in 2000 and 2001, only Los Angeles business consultant Eddie Varon Levy was elected. Activists in the U.S. say his term has achieved little. “As a migrant, you get no special favors in Congress,” Varon says. “You’re just one of 500 members.”

Two years ago, Andres Bermudez, a flamboyant California grower known as the “tomato king,” won the mayorship of Jerez in the state of Zacatecas but was disqualified on a technicality: His obligatory six-month residency in the city prior to the election included extended trips back to his Yolo County farm.

In this year’s election, the PRI rejected two migrants as candidates because they are U.S. citizens -- even though election officials say Mexican law does not clearly prohibit dual nationals from holding office.

A bill that would explicitly recognize that right languishes in a congressional committee.

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“The political establishment is afraid of migrants entering Mexican politics,” said Jose Miguel Moctezuma, a specialist on migration at the Autonomous University of Zacatecas. “Migrant candidates come from well-financed civic groups in the United States that are independent of Mexican parties. They cannot be easily bought off.”

Mexican voters directly elect 300 members to the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house, from congressional districts. The other 200 seats are doled out to political parties according to their proportion of the overall vote in each of five regions.

Mexicans living in the U.S. currently are seeking five of the 200 at-large seats as candidates of the leftist Democratic Revolution Party, or PRD. Rather than appeal to voters, their challenge has been to win over the political bosses who draw up the PRD’s regional lists of candidates. Victory or defeat depends on the party’s regional showing and the candidate’s ranking on the list.

Alvarez, 33, who left Mexico at age 19 and joined Fox’s conservative National Action Party, or PAN, while living in New Haven, realized that a secure spot on that party’s list was impossible. “The party says it welcomes migrants, but that list is really for the big fish,” he said.

So he moved home to Mexico City last year, close to the rough Doctores neighborhood where he grew up, and launched a campaign for direct election as a PAN candidate.

The PRI is distributing questionnaires asking voters whether they know that Alvarez spent much of his life in the U.S. and “cannot understand the essential problems of our society.” The PRD candidate leads in the polls.

Alvarez says he knows Mexico’s problems all too well.

“My sin was being born poor,” he said during the radio debate. “Like millions of Mexicans, I had to migrate because of a lack of opportunities, a lack of money, a lack of decent schools, because of corrupt politicians who mismanaged my country. But I left with the idea of returning, and I am here today to help transform Mexico, so that no one will have to migrate to find a better future.”

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While washing dishes and delivering pizzas in New Haven, Alvarez finished high school and attained a university degree. He earned some money in real estate and delved into Connecticut politics as a volunteer, helping politicians court the Hispanic vote. Alvarez gained U.S. residency through a 1986 amnesty.

Bounding through the Mexico City street market, the boyish-looking candidate engaged voters for more than two hours. Volunteers, drilled in American campaign methods, identified people willing to stop for a chat with the candidate, and afterward took their names for his growing direct-mail list.

“He seems honorable, a good boy, wherever he is from,” said Maria Elena Ortega Diaz, 60, who was selling clothes. “He seems like one of us.”

Jacques, the labor organizer, fled Mexico and the same Doctores neighborhood three decades ago but has not moved back home.

One of the PRD candidates for at-large congressional seats, the 58-year-old grandson of French immigrants is campaigning mostly in the United States, urging Mexicans there to add a persuasive word to the dollars they send relatives back home.

But Jacques did go to Mexico City recently to sue his party for a higher place on its candidate list. He had finished 12th in the voting at the regional nominating caucus but, to make way for better-connected candidates, had been pushed down to No. 16 -- a ranking that might or might not get him into congress.

In electoral court, he argued that the party’s affirmative action policy obliged the PRD to give him, as the migrant with the most votes, a preferential spot in the top 10, as it does for leading vote-getters among women, Indians and people under 30.

The court rejected his argument Thursday, leaving his election prospects uncertain.

Jacques has made a career of radical causes. A veteran of Mexico’s 1968 student movement, the young labor lawyer went into exile after his 1973 arrest in a campus protest. Settling in the Los Angeles suburb of Maywood, he organized Mexican migrant workers on farms and in factories while fighting his own deportation. He, too, gained U.S. residency in the amnesty.

Speaking in this slum on the edge of Mexico City, as party activists sat down for pork tacos, the graying firebrand drew loud applause when he warned the PRD against straying from its identity as “a party of the poor, of migrants who are forced to leave places like this.”

Three other PRD candidates are considered too low on party lists to win election.

That leaves Manuel de la Cruz, 53, a Norwalk-based organizer of Mexican migrant community clubs in California, with the best chance of any expatriate running for Congress -- although he may face a post-election challenge because he holds U.S. citizenship.

Many onetime allies spurn De la Cruz because he now does his community work as a paid representative of Zacatecas Gov. Ricardo Monreal rather than as an independent activist. That, they say, makes him a candidate of Mexico’s old politics.

De la Cruz belongs to no party and did not compete for votes in a nominating caucus. He was placed high on the PRD slate by the governor, who hopes to mobilize the diaspora in a run for the 2006 presidency.

“Manuel wants to manipulate us, not represent us,” said Guadalupe Gomez, president of the Southern California Federation of Zacatecas Clubs. “In the United States, we have learned a little bit about democracy. We do not accept leaders imposed on us from Mexico.”


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