GLOBAL CALIFORNIA - Mexicans in U.S. take 'great new step' to create a political voice
Sunday, December 1, 2002
The elections last month selected a new, 120-member council that will advise Mexican President Vicente Fox on how to improve services for the estimated 13 million Mexican citizens living in the United States.
Up to now, they have been almost completely disenfranchised, on both sides of the border.
In the United States, Mexicans have been represented mainly by lobbying groups dominated by Mexican Americans, who are U.S. citizens and thus often have different interests than noncitizens. Few Mexicans travel back to Mexico to vote in elections there, and proposals in Mexico's Congress to allow voting for Mexican elections in consulates abroad have stalled recently.
Such powerlessness has been compounded by lack of unity.
"I know a lot of state and national leaders, but when I went to the meeting,
I found that these were a different group of people, and I had met only three or four of them beforehand," said Maria Cedillo, a San Francisco resident and national president-elect of the Mexican American Political Association.
Cedillo, who lost in her bid for one of the positions, praised the results anyway.
"This is a great new step. It's the first group for Mexicans that has a direct connection to the Mexican government to solve practical problems," she said.
The winning candidates said their first priority will simply be to take inventory.
"The biggest challenge is that we simply don't know the existing organizations and resources out there in our own community," said Xochitl Castaneda, director of the California-Mexico Health Initiative, a University of California project aimed at improving health care for migrant workers.
Castaneda, from Berkeley, said outreach will be key in her new position, because, as she knows from her day job, many Mexicans are illegal immigrants and thus keep a low profile.
The other council representatives selected in the Bay Area were Maricela Monterrubio, a Brisbane activist, and Aurelio Hurtado, a Napa social worker.
The new organization, dubbed the Advisory Council for the Institute for Mexicans Abroad, is composed of 100 members elected by the candidates who showed up at all 47 Mexican consulates across the United States, plus 10 representatives of the largest Mexican American lobby groups and 10 members chosen from communities in Mexico that send the greatest number of migrants northward.
Presiding over the project is Candido Morales, a Santa Rosa social worker who was plucked out of relative obscurity by the Mexican government in September to be the new institute's director.
The council will hold its first meeting with Mexican government officials in Mexico City on Thursday and Friday. Included on the agenda will be proposals to improve service at consulates and to lower fees for wiring money back home.
Another focus will be the campaign in California and other states to allow undocumented immigrants to obtain driver's licenses. Gov. Gray Davis vetoed such legislation in September, and its sponsors plan to reintroduce it next year.
But the council's work will be hampered by distrust among some Mexicans who see it as a stalking horse for Fox's conservative National Action Party.
"This council was formed merely to be political cannon fodder for Fox," said Miguel Araujo, a San Bruno restaurant owner who also is coordinator of Centro Azteca, a nationwide activist group, and is secretary-general of the California chapter of Mexico's left-of-center Democratic Revolution Party.
"It was a shameful election for a stupid project that is guaranteed to fail, " he said.
In fact, Mexican officials appear to have gone to great lengths to open the process to the community.
In October and early November, for example, Georgina Lagos, the Mexican consul general in San Francisco, crisscrossed the Bay Area, speaking in churches, community centers, and in public service announcements on Spanish- language television, explaining the work of the new council and urging all comers to run as candidates.
Only 23 came forth here, however, many fewer than in other cities, such as Los Angeles, where 250 candidates ran for the 11 seats allotted to that consulate.
Angel Calderon, a social worker in Napa who lost his bid for election, blamed the scanty turnout on the Mexican government's refusal to offer a salary to council members or even pay their travel expenses for meetings in Mexico.
"It isn't a perfect setup, but it was a clean and open process, and it's a major advance," he said. "We have to take advantage of this."
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