For years, Santa Ana resident Guadalupe Gomez, an immigrant from Zacatecas, Mexico, and now a U.S. citizen, has been urging immigrant groups from his home state to get more involved in issues affecting their lives in Southern California.
But many thought they would eventually return to Mexico, he said. They didn't buy homes here and lived in enclaves that kept them apart from the larger population. Hometown clubs raised money for public-works projects in their villages.
"I said, 'What about here? We have all kinds of issues here: education, drugs, children in gangs, health,' " said Gomez, an accountant who later served as president of the Southern California Federation of Zacatecan Clubs from 2001 to 2004. "They seemed to think I was crazy."
But things are different now.
Mexico hasn't made the economic changes necessary to keep people from leaving or persuade those living abroad to return. Many immigrants have become U.S. citizens or legal residents and have families here. And a growing number have bought houses for the first time.
"We all may think we're going to return, but time shows us that we're not," said Salvador Garcia, a former president of the federation from the state of Jalisco.
Now the federation that Gomez and Garcia helped establish hopes to start positioning itself this week as a new kind of Latino political force, one with broad immigrant membership and an agenda on both sides of the border.
The Council of Mexican Federations of North America -- made up of hundreds of hometown clubs -- will hold its first national conference at the Los Angeles Convention Center today and Saturday with the primary goal of educating immigrants about civic participation.
Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is among several U.S. dignitaries scheduled to attend. Mexican officials -- including governors, congressmen and a representative of President-elect Felipe Calderon -- also are expected to participate.
The event underscores a change in how Mexican immigrants view their place in American society, organizers said.
Gomez exemplifies that change. After he arrived in 1973, he also thought he would return to Mexico one day.
But as he married and had children, that idea began to fade.
"You set roots here and establish yourself," Gomez said. "You go back to Mexico and there's no money when you work. It took a long time for me to find myself. But I've come to realize that I'm from both places."
Garcia, Gomez and some others formed the federation in 2002 as an umbrella organization for the growing number of hometown clubs. The federation now includes about 450 Mexican clubs from 14 Mexican states.
The Mexican federations council conducted a series of polls among immigrants and found that many were going through a similar recognition, though slowly, leaders said.
When Mexican immigrants joined mass marches across the U.S. last spring to push for comprehensive immigration reform, officials decided to tap into this new wave of activism.
They were convinced that immigrant communities provided "the foundation to develop a national network," said Arturo Carmona, the federation's executive director.
With that in mind, the federation has sought to broaden its members' focus beyond the needs of their Mexican villages to more pressing issues that legal and illegal immigrants face here, such as healthcare, education, financial planning, small business development and legal residency.
In August, federation leaders made their first lobbying trip to Washington, D.C., to talk to legislators about immigration reform and binational economic development.
The federation also has professionalized its operations, courting -- and being courted by -- large corporations such as Anheuser Busch and Bancomer, a Mexican bank, which offers its members discounts and special services.
The federation has learned to petition U.S. foundations for funds. Its sponsors now include the James Irvine, Margaret E. Casey and Johnson & Johnson foundations.
The group is ensconced in gleaming new offices in downtown Los Angeles owned by the California Endowment. It has a paid executive director -- Carmona -- and a staff of four.
The group has also eased the petty jealousies that are notorious for dividing villages in Mexico and clubs and federations in the U.S.
When competing federations emerged here from the state of Puebla, for example, the Mexican federations council conducted some shuttle diplomacy between the leaders of the two groups until they settled their differences and merged this summer.
Still, the federations council runs a risk that too much sophistication and reliance on foundation grants may distance it from its grass-roots base, its leaders say.
They point to the Latino advocacy organizations born of the 1960s: the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, National Assn. of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials and League of United Latin American Citizens.
Through the years, those groups learned to use foundation grants, the courts and lobbying to work within the Democratic Party. But their membership is slim, Carmona said, and their leaders, who often speak spotty Spanish, don't have much in common with Mexican immigrants.
They "played a very important role in Latino advancement," he said. "But there's a definite disconnect with them and the immigrant community, which is the great majority of the Latino community in the United States."
Many Mexican federations' council leaders were miffed when these groups held a National Latino Congreso in downtown Los Angeles last month without the participation of Mexican immigrant clubs from Southern California.
"That just goes to show how disconnected these organizations are" from common immigrants, Gomez said.
On the eve of its convention, the federation faces another tricky task, its leaders say. It must find a way of involving its members in U.S. political issues while remaining nonpartisan. Most of its members come from Mexico's ranching states -- Jalisco, Zacatecas, Michoacan, Guanajuato, Sinaloa -- and are famously independent, bridling at political control.
Beyond that, though, lies the federation's even larger job: helping Mexican immigrants move beyond the enclave that has isolated them from their adopted country.
"Our challenge is getting these members who are not connected [to the U.S.] to be fully integrated," Carmona said. "We have a lot of work to be done in that area."
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The Council of Mexican Federations of North America has scheduled its national conference today and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. at the Los Angeles Convention Center, West Hall. For more information: (213) 346-3215 or www.cofem.org.