Mexican Politicians Tap Potential of L.A. Ethnic Community

Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari was here to watch as a landmark accord was signed this week between his government and the United Farm Workers of America. Mr. Salinas didn't speak. He only witnessed the occassion and shook hands with the popular head of the UFW, Cesar Chavez, as flash bulbs popped and TV cameras whirred.

Across town in a Chinatown restaurant, Salinas's principal rival in Mexico, Cuauht'emoc C'ardenas, denounced the pact, which extends Mexican health and social security benefits to families of Mexicans working on United States farms, as ``just not enough.''

The exchange could be dismissed as mere Mexican politics. To a certain extent it was, but in a different and increasingly important arena.

For years, Jews in the United States have exerted considerable influence over Israeli politics and Washington's stance toward Israel. Now more Mexican politicians are discovering the potential power of the Mexican community in the United States to sway public opinion at home and abroad.

The visits of Mr. Salinas and Mr. Cardenas here this week underscore the community's growing importance.

While neither politician came explicitly for political reasons - and both insist their parallel visits were coincidental - the two rivals met with supporters while in town and competed for favorable publicity throughout their stays.

Their visits were the latest in a flurry of recent sojourns to southern California by leaders of all of Mexico's major political parties. ``The cactus curtain is moving northward,'' says says Armando Navarro, a political scientist and head of the Institute for Social Justice in San Bernardino, Calif.

Numbers account for much of the bond. More than 20 million Mexicans and Mexican-Americans live in the United States. Three million reside in Los Angeles, the largest concentration outside Mexico City.

While relatively few Mexican citizens living here go home to vote, people constantly flow back and forth across the border. Many of the emigrants have relatives in Mexico, to whom they send money and ideas.

``They don't come here necessarily to address voters but to address a public that has some resonance with people back home and with the American public,'' says Juan Gomez-Quinones, a history professor at the University of California Los Angeles.

Some clearly would be interested in votes.

The son of a revered former president of Mexico, Cardenas ran against Salinas in the presidential election last year. He has suggested that Mexican emigres be allowed to vote by absentee ballot. He undoubtedly assumes most Mexicans who come here will vote for an opposition candidate.

Some Chicano activists here worry that absentee voting would keep 'emigr'es too enmeshed in the politics of their homeland and undermine participation in US society.

Others advocate dual citizenship: Mexicans could become US citizens but not lose rights back home.

While Mexican politicians have long courted ethnic kin abroad, the activity intensified before and after last year's presidential election. In that race, Salinas and his ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) won with 50.36 percent of the vote, the lowest margin in the party's history.

Cardenas captured a surprising 31 percent.

Salinas is prohibited from seeking another term. Cardenas is expected to run again in 1994. His trip here this week was the second since November. Salinas's visit was the first to Los Angeles by a sitting Mexican president in 18 years.

``It points up clearly that Los Angeles is the center of Mexican politics away from home,'' says Sergio Munoz, executive editor of ``La Opinion,'' the largest Spanish-language newspaper here.

The rivals took their messages to receptive audiences. The bald-pated, Harvard-educated Salinas stressed free trade and open markets to a group of newspaper publishers. Cardenas poked pins in the president's economic plans before the liberal Americans for Democratic Action.

Some activists see dangers in the politicking by Mexicans here. They worry that if the fights become too divisive, they will undermine the unity of Latinos and their drive for empowerment in US politics.

``There is a danger it will divide us,'' says Mr. Navarro.

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