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Nineteen years and more than 1,500 miles of roadway separated Santa Ana businessman José Guadalupe "Lupe" Gómez de Lara from the deep, green valleys of Santa Juana, but neither time nor distance got in the way of his big dreams for the small Mexican farming village of his childhood.
It was 1992; Gómez and his cousin had resettled in Southern California years before, but they never forgot what it was like to grow up in Santa Juana and not have a baseball field to play on. "In our state, we play baseball, not soccer," the now-51-year-old Gómez says of Zacatecas. "I remember when I was little, the community didn't have a baseball diamond, so we used to go to a different community, about 3 miles away. The kids from the other rancho used to kick us out, throwing stones."
He didn't want the kids living in Santa Juana to go through what he did, so he took action. He and his cousin (who has since died, and whom Gómez remembers fondly as "Mr. Baseball") founded a hometown association called Club Deportivo Santa Juana. Made up of emigrants who had come from that community to live in Southern California, it put on rodeos, dances, raffles and anything else that might raise money to build a baseball diamond back in Santa Juana. "We initiated this project because we knew that was the only way we were going to be able to construct this park," Gómez says. "We didn't expect much from the government."
That said, the project might not have reached fruition—and certainly would have taken a lot longer to complete—if not for the matching funds the state and federal governments pitched in. Under a then-newly forged agreement called dos por uno (two for one), the government entities matched funds the hometown associations raised. But, between 1985, when the partnership began, and the early '90s, only the state government contributed matching funds, Gómez says.
After Club Deportivo Santa Juana's small-scale success, Gómez went on to lead the Federation of Zacatecan Clubs in Southern California, a conglomerate of more than 60 hometown associations, all from his home state. Eventually—thanks, in part, to Gómez's efforts—municipal governments joined the program as well, making it the tres por uno para migrantes (three for one for migrants) program. During his stint as president of the federation, Gómez successfully lobbied the Mexican congress to institutionalize the program. His efforts forever changed the way Mexican emigrants support their hometowns and earned him the reputation needed for his political aspirations.
During his years in the federation, politicians greeted Gómez by name and with a hug. They gave him their personal cell-phone numbers. They talked about hot-button issues, and he kept up, never afraid to chime in. In a lot of ways, he was already one of them, but in 2009, he made it official. He launched a campaign, and soon crowds of thousands packed rodeos to hear the candidate for Zacatecas' second congressional district seat give a stump speech.
* * *
Just as an established name catapulted Gómez's campaign, a well-established and time-tested history of remittances in Mexico paved the way for tres por uno's success. In the years of the bracero program, remittance money was the fourth-largest source of foreign income for the Mexican economy, says David FitzGerald, associate director of UC San Diego's Center for Comparative Immigration Studies. "[Remittances are] even more important now. They're the second-largest source of foreign income, after petroleum."
Such remittances—about 99 percent of which come from the U.S.—reached an all-time high in 2008, FitzGerald says. The $25 billion that year accounted for about 3 percent of the country's gross domestic product. Although the funds have dropped off somewhat due to the U.S.'s ailing economy, FitzGerald says, they're now on the way back up. In 2010, Mexico received about $22 billion.
Hometown associations in Mexico date to pre-World War II, FitzGerald says, but they didn't emerge on an international level until the '70s, and they didn't become very important for a couple of decades after that.
"There was a huge push in the 1990s by the foreign ministry, based on the Zacatecas model," FitzGerald says. "They pushed that throughout Mexico, and they pushed the state and municipal governments to form institutionalized relationships with their migrants in the U.S. That is when they really took off 'cause they were being pushed from above at that point."
Despite the push, money from hometown associations—or collective remittances—exist on a vastly smaller scale than personal remittances, FitzGerald says. "It's a really small percentage. It's probably on the order of 1 percent or 2 percent," he says. "I think the economic importance of collective remittances can be great in some places, but in general, the real money flows from household to household."
According to FitzGerald, some traditionalists, who would like to see less migration from Mexico to the U.S., in general, say remittances put a drain on the U.S. economy. "At $25 billion, though, they're a drop in the bucket of the U.S. economy," he says. "It's like a rounding error." But such remittances can make a huge difference to a small Mexican town, which is why Mexico fears losing those funds. "The state of Zacatecas, which is the model state, is worried that as the percentage of zacatecanos who were born in the U.S. increases, ties to Zacatecas will fade and remittances will fade," he explains. Although he thinks the massive number of migrants that was born in Mexico and now lives in the U.S. will continue to send collective remittances and have a great impact, FitzGerald projects the impact will progressively lessen.