The Dallas Morning News
April 17, 2003

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, wiser, more
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 and
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
Zacatecas.

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 know nothing
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
renegades."

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 at
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
appearing condescending.

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 than to
constituents.

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."

E-mail acorchado@dallasnews.com