Mexican emigrant returns home to try his hand at politics
'Pocho' phenomenon marks congressional candidate's campaign
By ALFREDO CORCHADO / The Dallas Morning News
One in an occasional series
MEXICO CITY – Pocho, a slang term used to describe Mexican-Americans
or Mexican emigrants who become heavily acculturated, for years was used
derisively. Now it's a word that might win votes.
That's why Alberto Álvarez, a 33-year-old Mexico City native,
returned from washing dishes and running political campaigns in Connecticut
in November to run for
the Mexican Congress.
But he is discarding the U.S-style mass-media campaign strategies that he helped manage in state campaigns abroad.
In Mexico, as he aims for election in the country's July 6 midterm races,
Mr. Álvarez is pressing the flesh, greeting voters one by one, and
campaigning on issues
close to people's hearts – jobs, public safety and good schools.
With the help of a Yale law student-turned-campaign manager, Mr. Álvarez
is carving out a niche as a native Mexican, back from the United States,
ambitious and determined to contribute to Mexico's democracy.
Mostly, he said, he's trying to prove that he can indeed come home again.
During the National Action Party internal campaign primary, Mr. Álvarez
was blasted by
rivals as an "outsider" and " pocho," a Mexican caught between two cultures, bleached by American ways. He still won.
"I want to be part of this fight for democracy, but it hasn't been easy,"
said Mr. Álvarez. "Not a day goes by that I am not reminded that
I left. Yet not a day went by
in the United States that I didn't think of returning home and making a difference."
With his run for Congress, Mr. Álvarez enters a political system
in transformation. Until President Vicente Fox's election in 2000, the
Congress was seen as a rubber
stamp for the Institutional Revolutionary Party, which ruled Mexico for 71 years.
Mexico's July 6 elections are drawing an unprecedented variety of nontraditional
candidates, young and old, including many women, actors, a kidnapping victim
Mr. Álvarez himself, an immigrant returning after 14 years to run in a district that covers the heart of North America's largest city. His candidacy illustrates the
transformation of Mexican emigrants from loyal source of remittances – wiring nearly $11 billion a year to family members – to bonafide political players back home.
"Emigrants understand that to really create change, they have to do
more than send money home," said Miguel Moctezuma Longoria, an expert on
immigration at the
Autonomous University of Zacatecas. "They have to hold people accountable, and what better way than by launching their own political campaigns?"
Two years ago, Mr. Moctezuma successfully ran a campaign for Andrés
Bermúdez, better known as the Tomato King because of his days as
a crop picker in
Northern California. Mr. Bermúdez, a beefy man with a trademark cowboy hat, returned from California to win the mayorship of Jerez in the central state of
Shortly thereafter he was stripped of the office by state electoral
officials because he didn't meet the six-month residency requirement for
holding office. Mr.
Bermúdez, now a wealthy California tomato producer, abruptly left Mexico, vowing to shun Mexican politics. These days, he's pondering a comeback, perhaps to
run for the state legislature.
Asked whether Mexico is ready for candidates from abroad, Primitivo
Rodríguez, coordinator of the Political Rights of Mexicans Abroad
Coalition, a group
lobbying the Mexican government for absentee voting privileges from abroad, replied: "Absolutely."
He added, "These immigrant candidates may even make better politicians
because they understand the word accountability, something that Mexicans
about, and can connect directly with voters, in contrast to U.S. politicians who rely too much on media campaigns."
Mr. Álvarez was born and raised in downtown Mexico City. Like tens of thousands of fellow Mexicans, he headed north in search of opportunities.
He worked jobs ranging from picking strawberries and babysitting in
San Diego to washing dishes, cooking and delivering pizzas in Connecticut.
Through the 1986
amnesty, Mr. Álvarez gained permanent residency. Always interested in public service, he turned to state politics as a volunteer, specializing in helping politicians win
the Hispanic vote.
He would visit visit his family in Mexico three to four times a year.
Last fall, after promoting Mr. Fox's party in the Northeast and helping
immigrants from Mexico
learn English and apply for citizenship, Mr. Álvarez realized he wanted more. He returned to embark on his own race with a team of what he jokingly calls "returning
His campaign manager, Claudio Aragon, is a Mexico City native who moved
to Canada and more recently became a Yale law student. Mr. Aragon's giddiness
returning home ended when a perplexed waitress, hearing him speaking English with Mr. Álvarez, asked him if he worked for the U.S. Embassy.
"I was so hurt," said Mr. Aragon. "I know I'm an emigrant, but I feel like I never left."
Now, Mr. Álvarez rarely speaks English in public for fear of
being labeled an outsider. And he prefers not to talk about the comforts
of U.S. life for fear of
Instead, Mr. Álvarez is using what he calls his "anger" and "passion
for Mexico" to portray himself as someone forced to leave his friends,
family and country behind
to make ends meet in a strange country, but also as someone who has not forgotten his roots.
"My goal is to contribute to a country where our best minds don't have to leave Mexico," he said.
Formal campaigning doesn't begin until Friday, but Mr. Álvarez
has already been meeting with voters. Sitting with disgruntled market vendors
around a small table
with cookies, Mr. Álvarez got an earful of complaints from owners of the Hidalgo Market who grumbled about their elected leaders.
One had not been seen since she was elected three years ago, they said.
The story is typical because the Mexican Constitution prohibits re-election.
Once elected, politicians typically become more beholden to party leaders
For example, market owners said, they have unsuccessfully tried calling
their elected leaders to remind them of campaign promises to install lights
and a new parking
lot, add police to tackle soaring crime, and help rid them of unlawful street vendors.
Later, when asked his opinion of Mr. Álvarez, many of the marketers seemed pleased.
"Well, at least he showed up, and seemed to care about our problems, but only time will tell," said Andres Ramos Sánchez, secretary of the marketers' association.
As they rode in a cab to their next meeting, Mr. Álvarez and Mr. Aragon quizzed the driver about Mr. Álvarez's electoral chances.
"Would you vote for a pocho?" asked Mr. Aragon.
"No," replied 50-year-old Luis Antonio Sánchez. "In Mexico we have a saying: 'Better the devil we know than the devil we don't know.' "
"This is what we're up against," said Mr. Aragon, "but we can't hide Alberto's past. It's part of who he is, part of this country's history."