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Turbulent times in local Zacatecan clubs

Photo by Slobodan Dimitrov

In 2001, bitter battles pitted compadre against compadre within the Federation of Zacatecan Clubs of Southern California.

The federation, the largest organization of Mexicans abroad, has 55 clubs and draws members from the north-central Mexican state of Zacatecas. Formed to raise money for public-works projects back home, it had never seen much intrigue. But as Mexico’s one-party state crumbled, first in Zacatecas and then in the country as a whole, the federation, like Mexico itself, went from somnolence to a hotbed of political dispute.

Zacatecan politics replicated itself in the federation. Friends faced off along Mexican party lines. Some immigrants accused the Zacatecan government of trying to divide and control the group from abroad.

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Not coincidentally, Mexico finished its first year on the road to democracy, and it has echoed through Los Angeles. Mexican immigrants now have a greater chance to participate politically back home. Zacatecans, due to their advanced organization, are better poised than many immigrants to take advantage of the political openings.

So when 150 of them gathered one recent Friday evening in their headquarters in East Los Angeles, the event was more than just a chance to elect a president. It was to determine the federation’s direction in a new era — a direction that other Mexican-immigrant groups might follow.

They re-elected president Guadalupe Gomez, an immigrant from the town of Jalpa and an accountant in Santa Ana. Gomez provokes strong opinions in the Zacatecan-immigrant community. Some believe he’s distanced it from the Zacatecan state government, thus hindering public works in villages back home; others, that he’s asserted the federation’s independence from Mexico.

“[My election] means the Zacatecan community is united and that our federation cannot be influenced,” Gomez says. “We are autonomous, and we are the owners of our own destiny.”

Within the Los Angeles federation is a story of how politics in Mexico can affect life in Los Angeles, an ex-officio capital of the developing world.

Mexican immigrants have generally been apolitical. Many could not vote here and become U.S. citizens until after the passage of Proposition 187 in 1997. By choice, they also lived apart from Mexican politics.

For years, if immigrant clubs wanted donations to be productive back home, they had to support the Mexican government. In a one-party state, they had little choice.

But they harbored deep suspicions of politicians and the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) that ruled Mexico for 71 years. When they left Mexico, many immigrants blamed the party.

Vicente Fox’s victory in 2000 opened a new era of relations with immigrants. Fox promised to allow immigrants to vote in Mexican presidential elections by 2006. So immigrants could soon form an enormous new source of votes and money, transforming Mexican politics.

In Zacatecas, that change came two years earlier. In 1998, Ricardo Monreal was a member of the PRI pushing to be a candidate for governor of Zacatecas. The party said no. So Monreal jumped to the center-left Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), taking with him a chunk of the Zacatecan PRI. He won the election. The split hastened the demise of the PRI nationally.

“No one ever thought, or dreamed, that Zacatecas or Mexico would change parties,” says Rafael Barrajas, a former L.A. federation president. “When this change did take place . . . it was reflected here.”

PRI and PRD factions formed in the federation. “When another party won, immediately the federation divided,” says Ramon Carreon, a furniture-store owner in Santa Ana who opposed Gomez.

These would be minor details were it not for the importance of Zacatecans among Mexican immigrants.

Zacatecas has sent a higher percentage of its population to the United States than any other Mexican state. Los Angeles has more Zacatecans than any city in the world, followed by Chicago, then Zacatecas, the state capital. Immigrants send an estimated $1.75 million a day home to their families. The state’s economy would halt without that money.

Zacatecans are also the most organized of Mexican immigrants. Today, there are some 240 Zacatecan village clubs in 15 federations in the United States, more than twice that from any other Mexican state.

They also donate millions of dollars a year for public-works projects in their villages: $4 million last year, matched by equal amounts from the federal, state and local governments in a program called “3 for 1.”

Most of that money — 70 percent — comes from Los Angeles, where a big Zacatecan business class forms the backbone of the federation.

All this has had several effects.

Years in the United States have opened the eyes of many immigrants. Better off and thus less docile than when they emigrated as poor rancheros, they want to be heard and taken seriously in Mexico. They are pushing to vote and be elected back home. Zacatecans are particularly insistent, arguing a “no taxation without representation” line.

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