January 21, 2005

Mexican State Gains First Representative of California Migrants

By Elena Shore

FRESNO — Jesús Martínez Saldaña last week followed in the tradition of Mexican immigrants before him — he crossed the border, leaving his wife and child behind, and began a new job to make life better for his family back home.

But Martínez didn’t leave Mexico for California; he made the trip in reverse.

Martínez quit his job as a professor at Fresno State University to move to the Mexican state of Michoacán, where he became the first representative in the history of the state’s legislature to work for the rights of Mexican immigrants in California.

“We contribute many things as immigrants — our labor, our sacrifices,” Martínez told immigration activists, professors and friends at a bittersweet good-bye party at the offices of the Oaxacan Indigenous Binational Front (FIOB) in Fresno on Jan. 6. “We live in divided families, and that’s what will happen again to me.”

Born in Michoacán to a family whose history of emigration goes back five generations, Martínez moved to the United States as a child. With a masters in Latin American studies and a doctorate in ethnic studies from University of California in Berkeley, Martínez is a founding member of the Coalition for Political Rights of Mexicans Abroad (CDPME in Spanish) and has been an active voice for immigrant rights.

Martínez received the unanimous support of immigrant organizations like the Binational Michoacan Front (Frente Binacional Michoacano) for his campaign as a “candidate of unity.”

Michoacán is the second Mexican state to elect a migrant representative to its legislature. The first, Zacatecas, passed a reform in 2003 that reserved two permanent spaces in its lawmaking body to represent Mexicans living outside of Mexico. In July 2004, Zacatecas elected its first two representatives, from the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) and the Institutional Revolution Party (PRI).

Immigrants from Michoacán have lobbied for the right to vote in state elections and gain representation in their state Congress since the 1980s. But partisan politics have foiled these attempts. A bill presented by the PRD governor of Michoacán in July 2003 to give them the right to vote in their state’s elections and have their own seats died due to lack of support from other political parties.

Unlike Zacatecas, the Michoacán Congress has given no official support to migrant representation, compelling communities to organize and lobby political parties to set aside a seat for a representative of Mexicans living abroad. Only one party agreed to do so. The PRD, which was assigned six seats according to Michoacán’s proportional voting system, gave its third seat to Martínez, a migrant representative.

Since the beginning of the last century Michoacán has been among three Mexican states with the highest rates of emigration to the United States. Neglect of migrant rights has been longstanding, says Martínez.

Mexico generates the highest number of emigrants, followed only by India, Pakistan and the Philippines, according to the United Nations’ Population Division. The state of Michoacán has lost nearly half its population to emigration. Some 2.5 to 3 million Michoacán citizens — about 12 percent of all Mexican immigrants, according to the Binational Michoacán Front — live outside of Mexico.

The most pressing issue for Mexicans abroad is the right to vote in their state’s elections, and gain more political representation at state and local levels. “Everywhere you go,” says Martínez, “that’s the number one issue for us.”

Martínez also hopes to increase the budget and power of the General Coordination for the Attention of the Michoacán Migrant, an office funded by the current Michoacán governor.

Mexican immigrants in the United States are a top source of income for Michoacán, and they “want to find a way of making their money serve Michoacán better,” says Martínez, pointing to the success of local projects in Atacheo and other communities.

Martinez wants to promote pro-migrant policies at a federal level in Mexico and collaborate with California legislators and other U.S. authorities in health and education so that “migrants can be better served on both sides of the border.”

“If we can promote economic development in Mich-oacán, then there is going to be less of a need for people to migrate,” says Martínez. “Trade can increase tremendously between the U.S. and Mexico with an increase in the standard of living in Mexico,” he adds.

The current shift towards an increase in migrants’ political power, Martínez says, is part of the trend toward democratization in Mexico that began in the 1980s. “Migrants are trying to find a way of making Mexico more accountable to them.”

Though he sees his position as Michoacán’s first migrant lawmaker as a positive step, he sees a difficult path ahead. Surrounded by his family, Martínez became emotional at the thought of leaving his wife and 2-year-old son. “This opportunity to do pioneer work is not going to be easy at all. And leaving my son and my family is going to be the hardest part.”

Martínez, whose position was approved at the PRD’s state convention on July 25, started his job on Jan. 14.

Elena Shore is a writer and editor for New California Media, a nationwide association of over 700 ethnic media organizations representing the development of a more inclusive journalism.

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