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Home is where the vote might be


JEREZ, Mexico - As a poor newlywed farmworker, Andres Bermudez took his wife, left this town in the north-central state of Zacatecas, and sneaked across the California border in the trunk of a car. That was in 1974.

Almost 30 years later, Bermudez has returned to Jerez to run it.

Bermudez, 51, is a tomato farmer and labor contractor who lives in Winters, near Sacramento. He is also running for mayor of Jerez, about 2,000 miles away.

"Those of us who left Zacatecas [for the United States] did so because there weren't any opportunities," Bermudez says. But "there isn't anyone who doesn't think of Mexico and think of returning here."

If he wins the July 1 election - and there's a good chance he will - he apparently would be the first immigrant residing in the United States to become mayor of a Mexican town.

"This is the beginning of a new political era," says Luis Medina, state president of the center-left Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), with which Bermudez is affiliated. "After him, we think it'll be easier for other immigrant candidates to successfully participate."

Mexicans in the United States have long been shut out of politics here. Though they have financially supported their hometowns and states and returned to them frequently, they usually have been viewed as traitors for going to the States and have been barred from voting in Mexico while abroad.

But times are changing.

After years of one-party rule by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), political competition has come to Mexico and Zacatecas. President Vicente Fox and key congressmen have promised to allow Mexicans living abroad the right to vote by 2006, if not 2003.

Today, immigrants who went to the United States when they were poor have enormous economic power. They are poised to turn that into political power as well. Bermudez's candidacy is a step in that process.

His candidacy challenges political concepts of home, community and residency. Like many Mexican immigrants, Bermudez considers two countries his home and moves back and forth between California and Jerez throughout the year. He has donated $10,000 to public works projects in El Cargadero, a hamlet near Jerez where he was born and that would have disappeared without immigrant support.

"We have communities who are living in two different spaces at the same time. Immigrants are absent, but they're always present," says Miguel Moctezuma, a professor at the University of Zacatecas. "[They] demonstrate that you don't need to entirely fulfill all the constitutional requirements to be a full citizen."

Zacatecas is the likeliest birthplace of immigrant political power.

Per capita, no Mexican state sends more immigrants to the States. Researchers at the University of Zacatecas estimate that 600,000 Zacatecans live in the United States - about half of the state's current population of 1.2 million. In the 2000 census, 33 of the state's 57 municipios - similar to counties - lost population.

Immigrants send a million dollars a day home to Zacatecas, university researchers estimate. The state has no industry, and its ranching and agriculture are moribund - and suffering from a prolonged drought.

"The most important industry in Zacatecas is the production of workers" for the United States, Moctezuma says.

Zacatecan immigrants are also the most organized Mexicans in the States, with 239 village clubs formed into federations in Los Angeles, Chicago, Colorado, Texas, Northern California and elsewhere. The clubs raise money for public-works projects in each village, money that's matched by the federal, state and local governments, in a program called 3-for-1.

In no other Mexican state do immigrant dollars do more of what the government should be doing: paving streets, digging wells, and building schools, health clinics, plazas and sports facilities.

Bermudez personifies this immigrant constituency.

From being a poor farmworker, he became a successful businessman. He employs several hundred Jerezanos on his tomato farms in Winters, and under the labor contracts he has tending animals at the University of California at Davis and nurseries for the Oregon Department of Forestry.

Bermudez also has invented a tomato-planting machine that he says reduces the cost and time of transplanting tomatoes and was used by farmers to plant 100,000 acres last year in California.

Bermudez has no political experience and has never voted. He admits to disliking politics and politicians and has a businessman's impatience with bureaucracy.

"He's got the freshness of not speaking like a politician in a country that's had it with politicians," Medina says. "This is why he's had success."

Indeed, Bermudez looks every bit the wizened ranchero, with a prosperous belly, sunburned skin, snakeskin cowboy boots, black jeans and a black cowboy hat. He speaks rough Spanish and English in a voice hoarse from going back and forth between 100-degree tomato greenhouses and 40-degree fields in California.

"Seeing what I could do in a country that wasn't mine, that I entered in the trunk of a car, and seeing that my municipio didn't advance, I decided to participate in politics," he says.

Though still a Mexican citizen, Bermudez talks like the businessman he learned to be in the States.

"I want to turn Jerez into a little United States," he says. "People here see a rock in the road and it's been there for 50 years and it seems to them natural that it's there. But those who come from outside say, 'Why don't you just remove the rock?'"

He talks of bringing in investment from the Zacatecan clubs, of showing Jerez farmers how to export to the United States, of investing 3-for-1 money in businesses that create jobs, instead of public-works charity. He talks of knowing "how to put money to work."

In Jerez, Bermudez's residency has caused the greatest controversy.

Though he won the PRD primary, PRI city officials denied him the required residency card, saying he didn't live full time in the municipio.

Bermudez, who has donated thousands of dollars to public-works projects and returned frequently to Jerez during his years in the States, went on local radio to plead his case. The next day, 2,000 people took over the city hall, some even standing on the mayor's desk and chairs, and Bermudez was given his residency card.

Indeed, Bermudez's candidacy highlights the divisions between rural folks and middle-class town folks - between those who left poor and uneducated for the States and returned prosperous and those who have run the town for decades.

The priorities of immigrants occasionally are different from those of city residents. The city government closed downtown to traffic during the immigrants' return for the annual April fair. Townspeople liked it because it cleared the area of cars. Immigrants complained because it prevented a yearly tradition: cruising downtown in the new cars they bring back every year.

"He's been living in the U.S. for 30 years. He isn't rooted here," says Alma Avila, PRI candidate for mayor. "He doesn't have an education. He doesn't know the municipio."

Avila symbolizes what Bermudez is running against. Her father was mayor and state legislator in the 1960s. She has a college education, is a state legislator and long-time PRI activist, and has never lived in the United States. Avila, meanwhile, has reservations about immigrants' involvement in Mexican politics.

"They're immersed in another kind of society that isn't in tune with the reality of Zacatecas and Mexico," she says. "Our country is very different from the U.S. They are 'de-culturized.' Their values are less solid than ours."

As the campaign gets under way, Bermudez is no shoo-in. His rough ranchero manner may put off many folks. There are more city residents than rural residents in the municipio of Jerez. Most of his natural constituency - poor ranchers - lives in the United States.

Moreover, his background is of self-reliance, of making decisions alone, not of balancing interests of competing groups. If elected, he may find a vast difference between running a business and running a government, particularly on the slim budgets Mexican municipalities receive.

Still, the PRD is strong in Zacatecas, and so is immigration.

"I can't fail, because I come from two countries," Bermudez says. "The eyes of both countries are going to be on me. If this fails, the door will close to those in the U.S. who want to come down. So I can't fail. I'm a binational candidate."

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