A new kind of politics?
MEXICANS IN CHICAGO: A NEW KIND OF POLITICS
Influence on both sides of the border
Activists' political power is rising in Chicago and their homeland, as they seek reforms through marches and money
By Antonio Olivo and Oscar Avila
Tribune staff reporters
April 6, 2007
To outsiders, the men and women gathered inside a sleepy West Side restaurant may have seemed unlikely power brokers: a janitor, a real estate agent and others hardly known outside their circuit of neighborhood dances and back-yard barbecues.
Jose Luis Gutierrez, who plotted strategy with the group as a soccer match flickered on a nearby TV, was himself a wholesale grocer until last year.
But Gutierrez is now a top aide to Gov. Rod Blagojevich, and he was joined at the table by leaders of Chicago-area Mexican immigrant clubs, the engines behind a new political movement that is making itself felt from Illinois to Michoacan.
Gutierrez received smiling nods when he likened the political muscle of the region's 563,000 Mexican immigrants to the power of Irish-Americans in the 19th and 20th Centuries, who came to control the Chicago machine.
In May, the strength of Mexicans will be on display when many of the region's 300 immigrant clubs -- known as "hometown associations" -- will help organize a march in downtown Chicago a year after their political coming-out party, demonstrations that flooded the Loop last spring and charged the national immigration debate.
For decades Mexican hometown associations have functioned as social networks whose members pooled their money earned here to help build new schools or churches back in Mexico.
But leaders in Chicago's largest immigrant group have a more ambitious worldview than their predecessors, even more than the ethnic blocs that preceded them decades ago.
Some, like Gutierrez, wield growing influence in both countries. One morning, he's unveiling a blueprint for more immigrant services in Illinois as director of the state's Office of New Americans Policy and Advocacy. The next night, he's brainstorming with activists in his home state of Michoacan about a slate of candidates for Mexico's congress.
An active role in Mexican politics might seem at odds with building political influence here. But Gutierrez and others say they form a budding new political consciousness among Mexican immigrants -- a "third nation" of sorts that transcends the border, advancing the community's cause on both sides.
"The nation-state concept is changing," said Gutierrez, 46, who came to Chicago in 1986 and led one of the Midwest's largest federations of hometown associations. "You don't have to say, `I am Mexican,' or, `I am American.' You can be a good Mexican citizen and a good American citizen and not have that be a conflict of interest. Sovereignty is flexible."
That concept worries some U.S. officials and scholars who see the dual loyalty as undermining the assimilation of Mexican immigrants.
Irish, German and Polish immigrants eventually melded into Chicago's landscape, their ties to their native soil largely sentimental. But Mexican immigrants today are linked to their homeland like no group before, scholars say, connected by NAFTA, satellite TV, the Internet, cell phones and cheap non-stop flights.
In Mexico, their power stems from the nearly $25 billion these immigrants send home every year, the country's second-highest source of income behind oil.
Their political influence surfaces in places like Teloloapan, far up in the cactus-filled hills of the state of Guerrero, where a Chicago restaurateur helped build new roads and business. Grateful townspeople elected him mayor in a landslide.
In the U.S., immigrants' power is driven by numbers and a growing deftness at the levers of this country's political machinery. That recently manifested itself in a fledgling political action committee called Mexicans for Political Progress, which raised $23,000 for Blagojevich's re-election and rallied volunteers to walk precincts during November's election.
An unfolding movement
Fabian Morales, a soft-spoken Realtor with a well-clipped mustache, stands at the center of the unfolding movement. He handled logistics for three massive immigration marches in Chicago last year -- including a four-day walk to suburban Batavia -- and co-founded Mexicans for Political Progress.
After coming to Chicago in 1970, Morales helped launch one of the city's then-few hometown clubs, devoted to his tiny native village of Xonacatla, Guerrero.
Back then, Xonacatla was without roads, potable water or electricity. It was a slow journey from other towns by foot or horseback, Morales said. The club members in Chicago resolved to change that.
Collecting $50 to $100 at a time, Morales and others raised enough through barbecues and door-to-door soliciting to replace a house used for worship services with a towering marble church that rises from the green hillside.
Morales has since helped develop CONFEMEX, an umbrella organization for most of the hometown clubs in the Midwest. Among other things, the group is a central voice in economic development in Mexico, representing an estimated $340 million in projects generated by U.S.-based hometown associations in the last five years, according to Mexican federal officials.
"We want to focus on creating more jobs there so they don't have to think about emigrating," Morales said.
The rising activity of hometown associations caught the eye of the Mexican government, which eventually created a "3-for-1" matching project, where federal, state and local governments split the cost of a new bridge or computer center with the U.S.-based groups.
Those projects have given Mexican immigrants "a great moral authority" in their homeland, as well as political cachet, said Carlos Gonzalez, executive director of the Institute for Mexicans in the Exterior, or IME, a Mexican federal government agency that fosters stronger ties with expatriates.
"During the 1970s, [Mexicans] called the people who left Mexico and acclimated to the U.S. 'pocho,' which, if you look in the dictionary, means 'spoiled fruit,'
" Gonzalez said. "The change we've seen in the public perception of Mexicans in the exterior has been 180 degrees."
In 2006, citizens abroad were allowed to vote in Mexican presidential elections for the first time. Leaders are also pushing for changes that would allow expatriates to vote in local elections and even hold elective offices while residing abroad.
Recently, Gutierrez and others persuaded Michoacan to become the first state in Mexico to extend voting rights to expatriates. Their rationale: Almost half of those born in Michoacan, Zacatecas and several other Mexican states now live in the U.S.
Timoteo "Alex" Manjarrez, 44, is among a small but growing number of Mexican immigrants making a bolder claim in their motherland.
Arriving from his native town of Teloloapan, Guerrero, in 1980, Manjarrez spent 19 years in Chicago. The stocky, boyish-looking immigrant worked for years as a dishwasher at the Columbia Yacht Club and, eventually, became owner of three Mexican restaurants in the city.
Fulfilling a desire shared by many immigrants, Manjarrez moved back to his native town in 1999 with enough money for his family to live comfortably.
But the place he had longed for all those years was still frustratingly poor, despite the investments Manjarrez's hometown club made in new roads and other improvements.
Manjarrez, who holds both Mexican and U.S. citizenship, settled in and quickly built a new health club and a hacienda-style restaurant named La Condesa, after the three he still owns in Chicago.
In 2004, he ran for mayor of Teloloapan. With long-distance backing from his hometown club friends in Chicago, who sent money and telephoned friends and local officials on his behalf, Manjarrez won handily.
'The city that works'
Since taking office, the man who sees Mayor Richard M. Daley as a political role model has pushed to remake Teloloapan into a Mexican version of "the city that works."
The effort includes newly paved streets, a recreation center that replaces a local swamp known as "black waters," and a towering hotel being built privately by Manjarrez's family.
Next to a new medical clinic, a donated Chicago ambulance sits in the parking lot. Its emblem has been painted over, but it serves as a reminder of the continued links Manjarrez has to his former city, where he maintains a home near Midway Airport, votes in U.S. elections and checks in on his businesses.
Aurelio Santamaria Bahena, mayor of a town near Manjarrez's called Tlapehuala, labeled such changes "a blessing" for an area of Mexico dominated by crumbling lean-to houses and children in bare feet pulling bone-thin donkeys.
But, as with other parts of the country where the immigrant handprint is deepening, the introduction of U.S.-style governance has also bred resentment.
Local leaders of Manjarrez's own Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) are trying to drum him out of office, arguing he is too brash and condescending. The mayor counters the fight is about his efforts to take away "a plate of corruption that they've been able to eat from for years."
The conflict was an uncomfortable backdrop during a recent PRD strategy meeting at a restaurant in Chilpancingo, Guerrero's capital. Headlines that morning featured a march against Manjarrez, orchestrated by his opponents.
"People see you as an outsider," a worried Santamaria cautioned Manjarrez. "People don't think you see things as they are here."
Manjarrez, wearing a black "La Condesa" windbreaker, patted his friend on the back and smiled. He had a media plan, one that might have made Daley proud.
"We'll publish photos of the streets of Teloloapan before and after I came into office," Manjarrez said. "And, we'll ask the people: `Which would you prefer?'
That same week, Mexican immigrants from the U.S. and Canada met in Mexico City, as members of an advisory council created by the Mexican government.
With a brash American style, they soon escalated their advice to demands, the members' voices echoing through the meeting hall.
Morales, the Chicago Realtor, and about 100 other council members pushed Mexico to lobby the U.S. harder on immigration reform. They chastised their hosts for not creating more jobs. Buttonholing federal legislators in hallways, they reminded elected officials how much their districts relied on money sent from the U.S.
They want 'results now'
Gregorio Luke, a blond member of the council from Los Angeles partial to designer suits, observed that this kind of behavior wouldn't exist in a purely Mexican forum, where deference toward authority guides nearly all dialogue.
"These people come here speaking Spanish, but they're negotiating as Americans," said Luke, a museum director who once oversaw cultural affairs at the Los Angeles Mexican Consulate. "They want to see results now."
The meeting of the advisory council also illustrated the provocative overlap of Mexican and American political action.
In addition to all-day strategy sessions on how to improve Mexico, council members brainstormed over late-night drinks on next moves in the fight for U.S. immigration reform. Many members had used their existing e-mail network to coordinate simultaneous demonstrations in Chicago, Los Angeles and other cities.
Though not active participants in the U.S. immigrant movement, Mexican officials urged their compatriots to keep on fighting.
"Let there be no barriers or walls between Mexicans here on the inside and the outside," former Mexican President Vicente Fox told the group, referring to a 2006 U.S. law that allows for a 700-mile fence to be built at the border. The audience stood and cheered.
The idea that the Mexican government might be helping its nationals shape U.S. politics has raised red flags, both in the halls of academia and in the more volatile world of talk radio and the Internet.
Robert Leiken, director of the immigration and national security program at the right-leaning Nixon Center in Washington, argued that binational activism among Mexican immigrants is bad for both countries. In the U.S., the meetings in Spanish and the often-passionate interest in Mexico's future hinder assimilation, he said.
In Mexico, the relationship to hometown associations fosters an unhealthy economic dependence on U.S. remittances.
"If I went out to Pilsen and spent some time with people from a hometown association, I'd think these are really cool people," Leiken said. But, "Standing back and looking at this from a social policy standpoint, I see some real problems."
James McCann, a Purdue University political science professor, found that immigrants interested in Mexican affairs were more likely to participate in U.S. politics. He helped interview about 1,100 Mexican immigrants and found that hometown clubs promoted activism.
"The conventional wisdom is that any transnational engagement is going to suck the oxygen out of your civic life in the States," McCann said. "But it seems that if you open a new avenue of expression in Mexico, that new avenue might pay some other dividends in the U.S."
Some of those dividends went directly to the Blagojevich campaign last fall, when the governor found himself being serenaded by a trumpet-playing mariachi band inside the Hacienda Tecalitlan restaurant on the Near Northwest Side.
Near a trickling courtyard fountain, Morales praised the governor in Spanish at the kickoff dinner for the Mexicans for Political Progress PAC. While Morales once raised money for his hometown with $1 tamales, the price here was as much as $500 a plate.
"Let us demonstrate our political power by voting in the election, by voting for our friends interested in the prosperity of Mexicans. Friends like Gov. Rod Blagojevich!" Morales told the crowd.
Blagojevich, who speaks a hint of Spanish, took the microphone and shouted: "Viva Chivas!" a reference to a popular Mexican soccer team.
When the laughter and applause subsided, he switched to English and added: "By organizing, you are empowering a community. Your voice will be heard."
The mood is darker in northwest suburban Carpentersville, where a growing Mexican community has rallied in large numbers in the face of a local backlash against undocumented immigrants.
Last fall, about 3,000 Mexican immigrants and their supporters turned up outside Carpentersville's City Hall in an unexpected show of opposition to a proposed ordinance that would penalize landlords who rent to illegal immigrants and employers who hire them. The crowd was so riled a vote on the ordinance was postponed and has yet to be taken.
The quick response came largely due to the hometown association representing the village of La Purisima, Michoacan, local activists said. The club turned to its telephone list of 400 families, said Salvador Balleno, the group's president.
The turnout was a victory, but it has not deterred Carpentersville trustees from other proposals that would allow local police to trigger deportation proceedings against illegal immigrants and make English the village's official language.
And as Balleno has struggled to register voters and rally volunteers for this month's village elections, even sympathetic politicians have seemed hesitant to link themselves too closely with the hometown association. Balleno now fears the village's hard-liners have the upper hand, intimidating some of the immigrants who protested last fall.
"The [club] members know that if these people stay [in office] it is going to affect their kids," Balleno said, sounding anxious that an opportunity was slipping through his fingers.
Jose Artemio Arreola, a key organizer of next month's march in Chicago, has been actively monitoring the battle in Carpentersville.
He sees the activity there as part of a plan to create a political empire for Mexican immigrants, one linking hometown associations in Chicago and other cities to labor unions and Mexico's congress.
His strategy includes moving back to his native state of Michoacan to run for congress there, something Arreola never imagined doing when he left a town overrun by poverty and ruled by local drug kingpins.
He got his start in Chicago working in a plastics factory. Frustrated by the union representation there, he ran for shop steward and won. Unable to speak English, he relied on his bilingual co-workers to help him negotiate union contracts.
He has since become a school janitor in Oak Park. The position pays little, but it has allowed Arreola to climb the ranks of the Service Employees International Union, where he has become key in that union's national efforts to tap further into the country's exploding Mexican immigrant workforce.
All the while, Arreola has used the sharp elbows and old-school union tactics acquired in Chicago to become a power broker in his hometown of Acuitzio del Canje.
He started in 2004 when the local mayor refused to back projects proposed by his hometown association. Arreola, a burly backslapper partial to gold neck chains, recalled thinking: "I need to take them out."
He recruited a teacher to run for mayor in the Mexican town. Arreola then brought back a town phone book and, with others in Chicago, called voters one by one, promising a stream of U.S. investment if his candidate won. The incumbent opted for traditional rallies and car tours through town with a bullhorn.
More than two years later, sitting in a Pilsen restaurant, Arreola opened a laptop computer and showed off the fruits of what proved to be an easy victory. Pictures of a new retirement home popped onto the screen, one featuring a grinning Arreola at a groundbreaking ceremony.
Another showed a new computer lab with 40 computers for local schoolchildren, an investment in the future of Acuitzio del Canje.
The town's name comes from an 1865 decision to make it the site for a "canje," or exchange of prisoners between warring Mexican and French troops.
Sitting deep in the dusty mountains of Michoacan, it was neutral ground back then, Arreola explained, territory that didn't fully belong to either country but, in some ways, belonged to both.
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IN THE WEB EDITION
Jose Artemio Arreola is one of several Mexican hometown association leaders in Chicago with multiple connections in Mexico and the U.S. From helping organize last year's massive immigration marches to slating political candidates in his home state, he wields influence on both sides of the border. To learn more about Arreola, watch videos and see photo galleries, go to chicagotribune.com/mexicansinchicago.
Copyright © 2007, Chicago Tribune
- Anonymous1 decade agoFavorite Answer
i like to know what daily is doing about this. that is one of the reasons i moved from Chicago to the south. i got tired of the punks (gangs) shooting at each other when kids are out side playing. they will get the Italian mafia stirred up. they are only coming here to take over this country. it needs to be stopped.
- Anonymous4 years ago
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- Kevin ALv 61 decade ago
If you think I'm reading all of the BS you are as crazy as any lieberal!
- 1 decade ago
You have to read it. I know that it is too long.
- How do you think about the answers? You can sign in to vote the answer.
- MarkLv 51 decade ago
I'm not going to read all that! You will assimilate! Resistance is futile.
- 1 decade ago
The article was too long. Go Mexicans!
- Anonymous1 decade ago
Please ask it again, but using a link to the article, not a cut/paste.
- csucdartgirlLv 71 decade ago
This is too long.