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.

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.


Mexican politicians “see us as idiots,” says Francisco Javier Gonzalez, new president of the Frente Civico Zacatecano (Zacatecan Civic Front), a political organization in Los Angeles. “We’re just supposed to send the money back and that’s all. We send $500 million back a year. Don’t you think we have the right to demand those rights?”

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.”

As his liaison to U.S. clubs, he appointed Manuel de la Cruz, a federation founder and past president. Based in Norwalk, de la Cruz travels the country organizing clubs.

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.

A consensus seems to be emerging that the federation should not support candidates — either in Mexico or in California — but should lobby on issues that concern members.

Yet the days when Mexican politicians could ignore or control immigrants are also over.

“We’re telling [Mexican politicians] now that it’s not like that,” says Efrain Jimenez, federation vice president and a San Fernando mechanic. “We sent a clear message: ‘Yes, we’re with you. We want to be part of the solution in Mexico, but don’t try acting like you did when we lived back in Mexico.’ . . . If they want our [political] support, we’ll be watching from here what they do.”

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