June 22, 2001

Candidate lives in U.S., but so does half the state

By Ginger Thompson
The New York Times

JEREZ, Mexico, June 19, 2001 — At first sight, the muscular, chocolate-colored steed intimidated Andrés Bermúdez. He had not sat on the back of a horse in more than 25 years, since he left a nearby farming settlement, climbed into the trunk of an old Buick and sneaked illegally into the United States in search of work.

Dressed in black from his cowboy hat to his boots, Mr. Bermúdez returned home a wealthy man. He has become a successful tomato grower in central California with hundreds of employees, many of them migrants from Jerez like him. He acknowledged that his native fascination for horses had been displaced by a passion for vintage Ford Mustangs.

But Mr. Bermúdez sucked in his round belly and mounted the skittish horse, determined to show the gathered peasants that he is still one of them; that although he lives 3,000 miles away, he understands their struggle; and that although he thinks like an American, he will always feel committed to his homeland.

Then he asked them for their vote. He has come home to run for mayor.

"When I left the country, I did it because there was nothing," Mr. Bermúdez said to a few dozen people gathered on the basketball court near the center of a community called Guadalupe Victoria. "There was no way to make a living. I have come back almost every year, and I see that nothing has changed. I believe it's time that things get better.

"If I could succeed in a country that is not mine, I asked myself, why can't I succeed here, too?"

His campaign seems an overdue political evolution in Zacatecas, a central Mexican state that sends more immigrants to the United States each year than any other state in Mexico.

Because of a lack of industry, declining agricultural prices and years of drought, the state's population declined in 34 of its 57 municipalities in the last decade, and demographers estimate that there are almost the same number of Zacatecas natives living in the United States as there are in their home state.

For decades they have sent portions of their earnings back home. The drought-parched state receives an estimated $1 million a day in remittances - to support relatives and neighborhood public works projects. And in recent years they have begun establishing more direct channels of political influence.

The sometimes slovenly, always gruff-talking Mr. Ber-múdez has ignited imaginations on both sides of the border. If he wins, he will be the first United States resident to serve as mayor of a Mexican municipality.

But even if he loses, he and a small group of other well-to-do immigrant candidates in other parts of the state have opened Mexican politics to a new class of participants.

President Vicente Fox, the first opposition politician in 71 years to wrest control of the government from the Institutional Revolutionary Party, has made the plight of Mexican immigrants a priority.

Governor Ricardo Monreal of Zacatecas says he takes at least 14 trips each year to the United States, principally to California and Chicago, which have the largest Zacatecas migrant communities. And he said that later this year he intends to send the state legislature an initiative that would allow immigrants from Zaca-tecas in the United States to vote in state elections.

President Fox and Governor Monreal hope that giving migrants real political power will make them more inclined to keep up their financial support to their homeland.

"What I am offering is equality for the Mexicans who are living here and those who are living there," said the governor, a presidential hopeful from the leftist Democratic Revolutionary Party. "What's more, I have more respect for those who have gone, for those who had to leave because of a lack of opportunities."

Mexican immigrants in the United States send more than $6 billion each year back to their homeland. They have formed fund-raising groups in the United States to support public works projects in their home communities, building roads and schools; renovating churches and upgrading water systems; granting scholarships; and establishing vocational education programs.

The clubs do not officially endorse candidates, but they wield important political influence. Candidates for office in high-migration states - including Zacatecas, Guanajuato, Jalisco and Chihuahua - often hold campaign rallies and debates in the United States.

Immigrant advocates argue that Mexicans in America, whose remittances are the third-largest source of national income, behind oil and tourism, have earned not only the right to vote in elections at home, but also the right to seek public office.

"They are not people who are distant from their communities," said Rodolfo García Zamora, an immigration expert at the Autonomous University of Zacatecas. "They are always closely in touch with what is happening at home."

It is a phenomenon evident as Mr. Bermúdez campaigns across the municipality of Jerez, which is estimated to receive at least $150,000 a day in remittances from migrants in the United States. The communities that greet Mr. Bermúdez seem to be thriving and dying at once.

Unlike impoverished rural villages farther south, many of the towns in Zacatecas have paved streets lined with houses made of brick rather than leaves and mud. Most of the children wear shoes and neat school uniforms.

But the steady human flow north has left many houses empty and streets barren. Campaign rallies are mostly attended by elderly men and abandoned young women.

In Guadalupe Victoria, many of the old men have worked with Mr. Bermúdez in Winters, Calif. "He is like a burro," said Lionel Campos Aguilar, 66. "He can't read, and he doesn't speak well. But he knows how to work."

Full of colorful, sometimes off-color stories about the desperate conditions that forced him to leave home, about run-ins with "coyotes" who smuggle people north and with border patrol officers, and about racist encounters with Americans, Mr. Bermúdez portrays himself as the embodiment of the migration that suffuses the culture of the state.

When asked whether he sees himself as a role model for young people, the 50-year-old husband and father of three said he did not intend to encourage migration.

If he wins on July 1, he has said he will donate his salary as mayor for college scholarships to give young people more incentive to stay home and study. And he said he would invest his own money to support agricultural programs. "I was able to make it, but I know so many people who go to the United States and never get anywhere," Mr. Bermúdez said. "I want to bring jobs here so that people will stop leaving."

But many of his campaign promises are aimed at constituents who live thousands of miles north. Mr. Bermúdez promised to erect a monument called "The Absent Man From Jerez." If he is elected, the candidate said, he intends to create a state holiday in honor of Jerez's migrants in the United States.

"I intend to make my government like a United States government," he said. "Migrants have not been contaminated by the corruption in the Mexican political system. We are not doing this for power. We understand how to get more for our money. And we want to use what we learned in the United States to make life better at home."

Reprinted from the Center for Immigration Studies email: msk@cis.org. Website: http://www.cis.org

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