January 28, 2005

Immigrant Representative Takes Office in Michoacán

Part 1 of 3

In the midst of high expectations on both sides of the US Mexican border, this past January 14, the first elected official representing citizens of the Mexican state of Michoacán residing in the United States was sworn into office in Michoacán.

By Eduardo Stanley

Morelia, Michoacán (Mexico) — He entered the legislative chambers almost shyly and looked up toward the public gallery, where his relatives and friends were seated, and smiled in greeting to them. Scarcely past 11:00 a.m., Jesus Martinez Saldaña took his oath as one of the 40 elected deputies of the 70th State Legislature of the state of Michoacán.

Martinez’ swearing-in ceremony was the culmination of a long process supported by a large number of organizations of michoacanos living in the United States and backed by the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) of Michoacán, which had included Martinez as a “plurinominal” or “proportional” nominee in its slate of candidates. Martinez had worked long and hard, as he consulted with and sought the support of organizations, civic leaders, and citizens from Michoacán within the United States, to draw up the legislative agenda that he will pursue for the next three years.

Dr. Jesus Martínez Saldaña during the first session.

“I feel a great responsibility to publicize the issues and effects of immigration about which many people are unaware, both here in Michoacán as well as in the United States,” said Martinez. The state of Michoacán has a population of four million, and nearly 2.5 million immigrants from Michoacán live in the United States and send 1.5 billion dollars back every year. This money is crucial for the economy, because Michoacán, a name of Nahuatl origin meaning “Nation of Fishermen,” where industrialization is minimal, still depends on agriculture as its primary source of revenue.

Martinez Saldaña was born 44 years ago in Santiago Conguripo, in the municipality of Angamacutiro. In 1969 he joined his family in the United States. Martinez graduated from San Jose State University and then obtained his masters and doctoral degrees from the University of California, Berkeley. Upon taking office as a state deputy, he resigned his teaching position at the State University of California, Fresno.

“I’m very pleased, even though it is somewhat difficult for me be separated from my family,” Martinez commented. Martinez experienced this kind of separation, common to a great majority of immigrants, when his father settled in California before the rest of the family joined him. Now, Martinez’ wife, son, and parents will continue to live in Fresno. However, the new representative will need to travel periodically to the United States to meet and maintain in contact with the people he represents. It is precisely a similar process that contributed to Martinez’ agenda, one that supports the right to vote of all natives of Michoacan living abroad, a proposal that was defeated by members of the PAN (National Action Party) and the PRI (Revolutionary Institutional Party) in the previous legislature. By extension, Martinez’ proposal also calls for the enactment of a federal law to permit all Mexican citizens to vote in the presidential election of 2006.

In this light, on Monday, January 17, when the makeup of legislative committees was determined, Martinez Saldaña emerged as a member of the committee on immigration.  Martinez’ remaining agenda items includes proposals to elevate the status of the Commission on Migratory Affairs to Cabinet level, support educational and cultural projects organized by michoacanos residing in the United States, establish and strengthen health initiatives for migrant workers, and foster relationships among local institutions on both sides of the border.

Martinez Saldaña recognizes that his agenda is, indeed, an ambitious one and a starting point to strengthen the presence and decision-making power within Michoacan of its people who live abroad. “He will be our voice in the local Congress. Up until now, we¹ve practically been ghosts,” was the emphatic statement provided by José Manuel Correa, a native of Ciudad Hidalgo and resident of Chicago since 1960. “We would also like to lend our support to projects involving our local products and exportation so that Michoacan’s economy will improve.” Correa is the leader of one of the many clubs formed by michoacanos living in the United States and an active member of the Illinois Federation of Michoacanos. He is presently one of the forces behind the Binational Federation of Immigrants from Michoacan, an organization whose primary aim, unlike that of other social clubs and support groups, is participation in the political process.

In addition to Correa, other representatives of Michoacan from Alaska, California, and Texas attended the swearing-in ceremony of Martinez Saldaña in Morelia, in support of his taking office. Their presence underscored the historical significance of the election of a deputy who represents immigrants.

“I am confident that Dr. Jesus Martinez will contribute to raising the awareness of the people of Michoacan of migratory issues and of the necessity to enact legislation for the betterment of those who have had to leave and for their families who remain here,” stated Claudio Mendez Fernandez, 33, a delegate to the government Commission on Migratory Affairs. Like Martinez, Mendez migrated to the United States and decided to return to Michoacan to participate in the political movement toward positive change that accompanied the 2002 arrival of Lazaro Cardenas Batel to the state governorship.

“I am certain that Martinez’ presence will be very important to the campaign for extending the vote to michoacanos who live abroad, especially now that six of the deputies representing the PRD also were immigrants in the United States” was the enthusiastic comment made by governor Lazaro Cardenas Batel in an exclusive interview that took place on January 13 in Morelia, the state capital. Cardenas Batel, 40 years of age, is the son of Cuauhtemoc Cardenas Solorzano, and grandson of the legendary General Lazaro Cardenas.  

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