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Two-country Candidate.

U.S. immigrant bets on long-distance mayoral bid.

NEARLY 27 YEARS AGO, FARM WORKER Andres Bermudez and his new bride left Jerez, in Mexico's north-central state of Zacatecas, in the trunk of a car.

Now 51, Bermudez wants to be mayor of Jerez. He has no political experience, has never voted in an election and dislikes politics. And he still lives 2,000 miles away from Jerez, in Winters, near Sacramento, California.

If he wins the July 1 election to lead the 50,000-residents of Jerez, it's believed he'll be the first U.S. resident to become mayor of a Mexican town.

Mexicans in the United States have financially supported and frequently visited their home towns. But they are often called traitors for moving away, and they cannot vote while living abroad. "Those of us who left Zacatecas did so because there weren't any opportunities," says Bermudez, a tomato farmer and labor contractor. "[But] there isn't any who doesn't think of Mexico and think of returning here."

Bermudez, who shuttles between California and Jerez, sees both Mexico and the United States as home. He donated US$10,000 to public works projects in El Cargadero, the Jerez-area hamlet where he was born. He employs hundreds of jerezanos in his businesses. If elected, Bermudez says he'll move permanently to Jerez, leaving his son to run the family business.

"This is the beginning of a new political era," says Luis Medina, state president of the center-left Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), with which Bermudez has affiliated. "After him, we think it'll be easier for other immigrant candidates to successfully participate."

There may no better testing ground for this cross-border political experiment than Zacatecas. Per capita, that state sends more immigrants to the United States than any other in Mexico. University of Zacateca researchers say about 600,000 Zacatecans live in the United States--about half the state's population of 1.2 million.

The same researchers estimate those stateside Mexicans send a million dollars a day to drought-stricken Zacatecas, where ranching and agriculture are moribund. As a result, the political power of U.S. immigrants in Zacatecas is unquestioned--and growing.

Times are changing. President Vicente Fox and key Congress members have vowed to give Mexicans abroad the vote by 2006, perhaps as early as 2003. Some Mexicans in the United States have become well-to-do and are anxious to turn their economic power into political clout back home.

Ricardo Monreal became Zacatecas governor in 1998 in part because he campaigned extensively among immigrants in the United States. He has also urged the political participation of Mexicans living abroad, perhaps because he has presidential aspirations for 2006, when immigrants might be able to vote.

Bermudez personifies the immigrant constituency tapped by Monreal. From a poor seasonal worker he became a thriving businessman who employs several hundred jerezanos tending animals at the University of California at Davis and at nurseries for the Oregon Department of Forestry.

Hybrid hype. Still a Mexican citizen, Bermudez talks like a U.S. businessman. "I want to turn Jerez into a little United States," he says. "People [in Mexico] see a rock in the road and it's been there for 50 years and it seems to them natural that it's there. But those who come from outside say, 'Why don't you just remove the rock?'"

He talks of bringing in investment, of showing Jerez farmers how to export, of creating jobs--instead of public-works projects--and of making city employees work an 8-to-5 day.

Bermudez's campaign has been controversial. He won the PRD primary, but opposition city officials denied him a residency card. Bermudez went on the radio to plead his case. The next day, 2,000 people took over city hall. He got the card.

Alma Avila, a legislator and PRI activist, says Bermudez has no business running for political office. "He's been living in the U.S. for 30 years. He isn't rooted here," says Avila, the PRI candidate for mayor. "He doesn't have an education. He doesn't know the municipio."

Bermudez counters that his "bi-national" perspective is precisely why he's a suitable candidate. "The eyes of both countries are going to be on me," he says.
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Publication:Latin Trade
Date:Jul 1, 2001
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