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Meanwhile, as Mexican politics grows more fluid, politicians are eyeing the federation in L.A. as a source of money and, someday, votes.
One politician most interested in all of this is Zacatecas Governor Ricardo Monreal.
Monreal won his job because he campaigned hard among the clubs in Los Angeles and Chicago. Immigrants couldn’t vote, but their economic importance to their villages gave them influence over how people voted back home.
Monreal plans to run for president in 2006. To win, he’ll need immigrant support, including, especially, the L.A. federation. So he visits Los Angeles regularly. He’s proposed allowing immigrants to vote in the state election in 2004. He’s also aggressively expanded “3 for 1.”
Largely due to de la Cruz, there are more Zacatecan clubs than ever, just as immigrant participation in Mexican politics is possible.
In 1998, he, Gomez and others formed the Frente Civico Zacatecano solely to support Monreal. Gomez and de la Cruz grew so close that they became “compadres”; Gomez is godfather to de la Cruz’s daughter.
But last year, all that ended. Gomez and de la Cruz split ferociously. Gomez and his allies claimed de la Cruz, on Monreal’s behalf, was trying to divide and control the premier immigrant organization in the U.S., much the way PRI politicians controlled unions and civic and neighborhood groups in Mexico.
“It’s the old totalitarian tactics,” says Barrajas. “Those of us who work for the federation, we don’t need the government. Here we’re free to speak to the governor or president or whoever as equals.”
Over the summer, 13 clubs split from the Los Angeles federation to form an Orange County federation. Gomez says de la Cruz encouraged the split, hosting meetings of the O.C. federation in his Norwalk office.
“I don’t know what his problem is,” says Gomez. “It’s wrong for a government official from another country to try to disunite a federation of clubs.”
De la Cruz claims Gomez is using the ä clubs to launch a political career. “I’ve been in this for 17 years. I’d never destroy what’s cost me so much work. But I’ll also be the enemy of him who wants to use these clubs that we’ve worked so hard to organize,” de la Cruz says. “Never have we had so many problems and so much distance from the Zacatecas government as under Guadalupe Gomez.”
Gomez, once a Monreal supporter, now has strong words for the governor, whom he feels should have repudiated de la Cruz.
Meanwhile, Gomez has attempted to focus the federation on issues affecting immigrants on both sides of the border.
“As long as I am the president, we will be working to [fund] projects in Mexico,” he says. “But I also want the clubs to realize that once they accomplish their goals over there, we need to keep united and focus on things here.”
He’s done things that were unthinkable before the changes in Mexico and the new voting strength of immigrants here.
He lobbied the Mexican Senate for more “3 for 1” funds. He invited Fox to Orange County in March, and because of this, the L.A. federation was the only community group Fox met on that trip. He helped with a get-out-the-vote effort for L.A. mayoral candidate Antonio Villaraigosa and lobbied Gray Davis for drivers’ licenses for illegal immigrants. He says he wants the federation to hire lobbyists in Washington, D.C., and Sacramento.
“We come from small communities. Sometimes people there view politics as bad. In Mexico, it didn’t matter who you voted for, we knew who was going to win. Those attitudes are changing,” Gomez says. “We need to take charge of our own future. We need to participate politically.”
But many immigrants still deeply distrust politics and those who engage in it. “An organization has to stay out of that,” says Carlos Jacobo, a leader of the Orange County federation. “He went to Mexico to talk to politicians, and a federation leader shouldn’t be doing that. He only thinks of appearing in [news] photos.”
All of this is to say that the ZAcatecan clubs are feeling their new power and groping for a new direction in an era of emerging Mexican democracy.
Nor is the federation alone. Francisco Javier Gonzalez was elected president of the Frente Civico Zacatecano in September, ousting L.A. businessman Felipe Delgado, a close Monreal ally.
Gonzalez promised to make Frente Civico an autonomous political voice for immigrants, and has even urged the creation of an immigrant political party.
As Mexico moves into democracy, most Zacatecan immigrants want independence from Mexican politicians. Still, Gomez’s re-election, and the changes at Frente Civico, won’t end the infighting; opponents have already questioned his election. Mexico’s one-party state is gone. The PRI-PRD division is part of Zacatecas, and anything felt in Mexico is usually felt in Los Angeles. Zacatecan immigrants in L.A., precisely because they are so well-organized, will find more Mexican politicians courting them.