February 4, 2005

Immigrant Representative Takes Office in Michoacán

Part 2 of 3

This past January 14 the first representative of citizens of the Mexican state of Michoacán living in the United States assumed his responsibilities as a deputy in the local legislature. The Michoacán state government appears to have indicated its support for the economic development and participatory politics of its residents abroad.

By Eduardo Stanley

Morelia, Michoacán (México) —Jesus Martinez Saldaña decided to leave his teaching career at California State University Fresno for something as uncertain as political participation in México. Proposed as their candidate by organizations of citizens of Michoacán throughout the United States, Martinez accepted the invitation of Michoacán’s local Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) for inclusion in the ballot as a “plurinominal,” or proportional, candidate in the legislative election of November 2004.

Martinez, an immigrant from Michoacán who came to California at the age of nine, decided to return to his homeland to represent fellow michoacanos. Such a radical career change is, by no means, devoid of risks. And pressure. So much is expected of Martinez, on both sides of the border.  

Martinez is not alone in this process of returning to one¹s place of birth. Many immigrants voluntarily decide to return to their place of origin to begin a new life. It is not at all surprising, then, that in Morelia, the beautiful capital of Michoacán, travelers encounter young people who speak excellent English. And also having participated in this journey back to one’s homeland are several state legislators and other officials.

“In the current state legislature there are five other representatives of the PRD who at one time were immigrants in the United States, especially in California,” said Michoacán state governor Lazaro Cardenas Batel in an exclusive interview. “In total, approximately 38 percent of the mayors and other regional officials were immigrants.”

Cárdenas Batel, 40, assumed the governorship three years ago, along with his party, the often-labeled “leftist” PRD. However, labels and categories can be misleading. “My government could be considered left-leaning because its goal is social equality, that is, equal access to education and to jobs,” Cárdenas said. And he immediately added that improving the economy requires private investment. “The state must guarantee these investments in a responsible manner by creating the necessary infrastructure and by not failing to protect social welfare.”

Cárdenas Batel continued to say that, on all accounts, his government is one that is “leftist in the modern sense, not aiming for state control, but rather promoting the kind of balance that would favor economic development.”

Such concern for social welfare appears to be a family endeavor, since Cárdenas Batel is the son of Cuauhtemoc Cárdenas (born in 1934), founder of the PRD, and the grandson of the legendary general and president Lazaro Cárdenas (18951970).

Immigration generates a widespread market for regional products that, when added to the entrepreneurial bent of some immigrants, contributes to solidifying socioeconomic binational relations. “Participation of the migrant community in this development is fundamental,” affirmed the governor. He went on to say that his government is looking to turn into productive investments part of the funds sent to Michoacán by immigrants living abroad. Immigrants from Michoacán send more than 1.5 billion dollars back home each year.  

For example, in the municipality of Zamora agricultural and livestock projects for the growing and harvesting of vegetables and the production of goats’ milk are under development, as is a small factory for the production of stereo speakers. In Tierra Caliente another similar agricultural project is underway. In both areas, the projects were initiated with investments provided by Michoacán immigrants and the support of the government. Similar projects promoting small businesses and industries headed by immigrants and run by family members in Michoacan are already in existence. Economic participation goes hand in hand with political participation. “México would be making a grave error if it did not open its doors to greater political participation from our community abroad,” says Cárdenas Batel, referring to the immigrants’ right to vote. It is estimated that 2.5 million people from Michoacán and another 11 million Mexicans from all over the country currently reside in the United States.

The last state legislature “froze” the PRD’s proposal to give the vote to Michoacános living abroad. “No political party would now openly attempt to deny this right, and for this reason, the opposition did not publicly refuse to consider such a proposal. In fact, the opposition merely tabled the item without discussing it,” remarked a disillusioned Cárdenas Batel. “I believe that the presence of Jesus Martinez will be a very important catalyst with regard to this issue.”

The governor does not hide his hope that the representative of Michoacános living abroad will lead the debate around immigration in the state legislature, establishing consensus with other legislators, now that no one party holds an absolute majority. Of the 40 legislators, 17 belong to the PRD, 15 to the PRI (Party of the Institutional Revolution), six to the PAN (National Action Party), and one for each of the following parties: PT (Workers’ Party) and PVEM (Green Ecologist). The average age of state legislators is 41.1, with members' ages ranging from 24 to 66. Only seven are women, and 15 were elected by means of proportional, or “plurinominal” voting.

Cárdenas Batel’s government, according to some critics, has succumbed too many times to the demands of the opposition, to the point of having “inherited” strong social conflicts and debts instigated by the former PRI administration. On Friday, January 14, during the swearing-in ceremony for the new members of the legislature, an enormous public rally consisting of thousands of demonstrators provided an unexpected welcome.

The rally, organized by Antorcha Campesina (Rural Torch), publicized a list of demands ranging from the return of expropriated lands to the reinstatement of fired schoolteachers. “Antorcha Campesina was created in the mid-1980s by Salinas de Gortari, initially as a means to put pressure on internal opposition within the PRI. Then it became a hydra-like monster, but it has always been under the thumb of the PRI,” explained Jose Luis Gonzalez Carrillo, a Michoacán activist.

Jesus Martinez considers the rally an expression of political life in México. For someone who traded the tranquility of the classroom for politics, this attitude is encouraging.

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