The New York Times
July 5, 2004

Mexico's 'Tomato King' Seeks a New Title

JEREZ, Mexico, July 4 - For anyone in Milwaukee wondering why a south-side bar named Alex's Place suddenly closed for business two weeks ago, its Mexican owners rushed here to support a burgeoning movement aimed at giving this country's vast population of migrants real political power back home.

Today, those owners, Alejandro "Alex" de la Torre and his wife, Carmen Ribota, fight for the mayor's office. Tomorrow: the presidency.

The couple returned home to vote in a tiny election on Sunday that is considered a bellwether in the merging worlds of Mexican and American politics, a sleepy town on the arid plains of northern Mexico. They want to elect a trash-talking, kind-hearted millionaire migrant named Andrés Bermúdez as mayor.

With his thick gold chains, shiny satin suits, and black cowboy hats, Mr. Bermúdez sometimes looks more like a small-time gangster than a serious candidate for public office. But 35 years after he hid in the trunk of a car and sneaked illegally into the United States, Mr. Bermúdez, 53, has become a kind of folk hero in a nation desperate for leaders they can believe in, and a symbol to millions of Mexicans who earn their living north of the border but invest their hopes to the south.

His fortune comes from growing tomatoes in central California. His down-to-earth - some say down-and-dirty - personal style drives his fame. Most people know him as "the tomato king."

"He is our hope for the future," said Ms. Ribota, a naturalized American who has lived in the United States for more than 35 years. "Someday, I want to come home to Jerez. But first I want people like Andrés to come and make things better."

The Sunday election is the tomato king's second attempt to become mayor of Jerez, a staunchly Catholic community that, like most of the state of Zacatecas, has seen its population depleted steadily during the past two decades by migration to the United States. An estimated 800,000 people from the state now live north of the border, leaving Zacatecas with a population of about 1.3 million.

Mr. Bermúdez won the office by a wide margin three years ago. But electoral courts disqualified him from serving because he did not meet state residency requirements.

Rodolfo García Zamora, a political observer and a professor at the Autonomous University of Zacatecas, said government officials, who only halfheartedly supported Mr. Bermúdez's campaign, believed that his popularity would fall as fast as it had risen. They were wrong.

Mr. García said that although Mr. Bermúdez had joined the state's least popular party and endured scathing and mostly unfounded accusations by his opponents - in an interview, the candidate Otilio Rivera described Mr. Bermúdez as a drunk known to urinate in public - he had a strong chance of winning the race for mayor on Sunday. Final results were not likely to be known until Monday.

"I come to open doors for all migrants," Mr. Bermúdez said in an interview on the election eve. "The same way we left and conquered another country, we are coming back to reclaim our own."

Migrants have dominated the national spotlight in Mexico since the election four years ago of President Vicente Fox. Mr. Fox, a native of Guanajuato, another high-migration state in northern Mexico, hails migrants as national heroes for sending home an estimated $14 billion a year.

Mr. Fox unsuccessfully pressed the United States to give legal status to an estimated three million undocumented Mexicans who work there. Last month, he sent a proposal to the Mexican Congress that would give Mexicans in the United States the power to vote in this country's presidential elections without returning home.

The proposal does not provide details about the logistics and financing for such an enormous undertaking - experts estimate that two million to six million Mexicans would cast ballots across the United States. It also remains unclear whether a divided Mexican Congress will support the proposal.

"The bottom line is that not a single political party wants to include us because they do not know how we would vote," said Guadalupe Gómez, the former president of the influential Federation of Zacatecanos of Southern California who came here two weeks ago to support Mr. Bermúdez. "Since most of us were forced to leave Mexico because our government was not capable of supporting our families, the least they could do is give us our rights."

Last year, under pressure from migrants who send about $2 million a day to this state, Governor Ricardo Monreal signed a constitutional reform that ended the residency requirements, opened elected offices to Mexicans born in the United States whose parents are natives of this state, and set aside two seats in the legislature for migrants only.

Four migrants are expected to test those reforms in state elections on Sunday. Among them is the political operative Manuel de la Cruz, who swam across the Rio Grande around the same time Mr. Bermúdez was riding in the trunk of a car into California. Martín Carvajal, a furniture vendor and immigrant activist who lives in Fort Worth, is running for mayor in his native village of Apulco.

None of the candidates, it seemed, have sparked as many imaginations as the tomato king. His campaign - marked by promises to "make Jerez more like America" - has brought back migrants of all ages who said they are fed up with decades of poverty, political corruption and impunity. Others saw the campaign as an opportunity to give back a little of all they have received.

"We have learned a lot in the United States," said Juan de la Torre, who builds docks along the coast of Southern California. "Now we want to use what we have learned to make real changes in Mexico. And we need politicians, like Andrés, who will listen to us, not shut the door."

The couple from Alex's Place said it was time Mexico gave something back for all it gets from its migrants.

"We help maintain the economy of this country with our hard work," Ms. Ribota said. "We deserve to have a voice and a vote."