Lupe Gomez Is a Triple Player

The Santa Ana businessman's big idea got the Mexican government to help spruce up immigrants' hometowns and got him into politics back home

Martha Esquivel Arrona works with the tres por uno program at the LA office of the Mexican Secretary of Social Development. A few other states, such as Guererro and Guanajuato, also forged successful remittance-matching programs with governmental entities, she says, but Gómez's success and the "Zacatecan experience" is undoubtedly the best-known and well-documented example. "Now, it wasn't just for Zacatecans, but for all the states, and in these 10 years since it was institutionalized, the program has improved and grown," Esquivel says. Aside from infrastructural projects—such as baseball fields, roads, bridges and sewage systems—the program also funds scholarships and unites and strengthens the Mexican community abroad, she says.

Since 2001, his program has grown to boast more than 1,000 hometown associations around the world; the vast majority are in the U.S., but there are several in Canada and a few sprinkled elsewhere, including St. Lucia, northeast of Venezuela. The clubs, which need at least 10 people to form, are located in 43 U.S. states and represent 28 of the 31 Mexican states. Although every state can participate in the program, there's a self-selection bias; some of the poorest states have very low immigration rates and, therefore, don't have enough people abroad to band together to form associations.

For 2011, the federal government budgeted $50 million for its share of the program. "There's a possibility of increasing that," Esquivel says, "if the matching funds of the clubs go up." Even if they don't, when you consider the money from the three other involved parties, that's at least $200 million that will be invested in Mexico this year alone under tres por uno.

Felipe de Jesús Martínez Núñez at the Mexican consulate in Santa Ana
Brandon Showers
Felipe de Jesús Martínez Núñez at the Mexican consulate in Santa Ana
José Guadalupe "Lupe" Gómez de Lara
Brandon Showers
José Guadalupe "Lupe" Gómez de Lara

*     *     *

A fringed gold banner shimmers outside Gómez's income-tax business, which shares a dreary industrial park with a taco shop and a bar called El Fracaso ("The Failure") on Harbor Boulevard in Santa Ana. Inside, the main lobby is plain and tidy. The only pop of color comes from candy balls in small dispensers near the door. Inside Gómez's office, the arrangement of magazines, frayed envelopes and documents on the desk tells of his recent workload. Typically, everything is stacked rather neatly toward the end of the desk, with only a few stragglers toward the center. When things are busy, though, everything's scattered haphazardly, with only a bit of free space for the keyboard. "I hope you don't mind my mess on my desk," Gómez apologizes as he leans back in his desk chair. His jet-black, shoulder-length hair occasionally falls into his eyes. When he pushes the strands behind his ears, light catches a few gray hairs. "I might as well grow it now," he says of his coif with a laugh, "'cause sooner or later, I'll be bald."

Pictures plaster the walls, reminders of where he has been and whom he has met. A small, framed picture of the rolling hills of Santa Juana sits on a cabinet near his desk. A larger picture of him shaking then-President Vicente Fox's hand hangs to the right of his doorframe. It was taken on March 22, 2001—a date Gómez recalls from memory with ease—when Fox and several other politicians flew from Mexico to Santa Ana to sign the paper that institutionalized the tres por uno program. Some days, Gómez wears a T-shirt and jeans; other days, it's a cotton button-up and khakis. Casual and quite different from his days of black-tie affairs, but, he says, a lot like those of his childhood on the rancho.

Gómez emigrated at age 13. His father was part of the bracero program. "My dad was a farm worker all his life, in Mexico and here," he says. "We're peasants, basically." At 14, Gómez got his first job, cleaning sand and guts out of seashells. His boss, the husband of a distant relative, used them to make bells and ashtrays, which he sold at Knott's Berry Farm and Disneyland. Gómez spent the next summer picking celery from the fields at the Seal Beach Naval Weapons Station. "In the morning, the celery had ice, so we were working in the mud," he recalls. "You'd get cold, and I was 15—I was young. You'd take a one-minute break, stick a burrito in your mouth and go back to workin'. Every time I got on the 22 freeway to go to Seal Beach, I was just hoping to God that the day would be over now."

He finished high school at Los Amigos in Fountain Valley and took accounting classes at both Santa Ana College and Cal State Fullerton, although he never earned a degree. He worked at a restaurant, grocery store and tennis-shoe factory, as well as for the city of Santa Ana's Parks and Recreation Department, before starting his current gig as head honcho and namesake of an income-tax company, which also does immigration consulting, more than 20 years ago.

As with his career, his leadership role at the Federation of Zacatecan club in Southern California took awhile to cultivate. After his hometown association joined the federation in 1993, he spent the first six months or so sitting quietly at the meetings. Slowly, he began to ask ambitious questions, which, he says, the executive board often ignored. "I guess they thought I was crazy," he says.

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