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By 1995, Gómez decided to run for president of the federation, but he lost. "I was too young, or so they said," he says, "and I lost by one vote."
But he stuck around and served as the federation's secretary of public relations under Rafael Barajas. By 2000, Barajas' presidency neared its end, and he was ready to pass the torch to Gómez, but one person stood in the way: Ricardo Monreal, then-governor of Zacatecas.
"Monreal wanted a friend of his to be the next president," Barajas recalls, "We were in a car leaving a restaurant and headed back to Los Angeles. It was Ricardo Monreal, his representative, a friend of his named Felipe Delgado, Lupe Gómez and me. And so Ricardo said, 'Hey, Rafa, what do you think about Felipe Delgado?' And I said, 'No.' Felipe's my friend, too, but I said, 'No, he won't win. We're going to support Lupe.' And Ricardo wasn't expecting that because governors are used to getting what they say. But I said, 'Look, we're going to win with Lupe.'"
And they did.
The day after he was sworn in as president of the federation in 2001, Gómez flew to Mexico City to lobby Mexico's congress to make tres por uno a nationally institutionalized program. "We challenged the government. 'Here's our money; here's our share. We're not asking for everything for free. Where's your part?' That's the attitude we had, and it worked for us," Gómez says.
His political recognition spread quickly and internationally. "I was invited by President George W. Bush to the White House," he says. "I don't know if President Fox told him about our organization, but one day, I received a call from the office of the president, saying he wanted to invite me to the White House, and I said, 'Well, I'll go.' I suppose word gets around, right?"
Word, both good and bad, certainly did get around. "A lot of people in Zacatecas [were] against me," Gómez says. "Even the governor was against me for doing this because we were the kings; we got anything we wanted. We were the models of Mexico. We were the models of the diaspora. Everybody looked at us as the best-organized community abroad. We were the example."
Gómez became a leader of public opinion. "I was receiving phone calls from Mexico City from different radio stations to give my opinion about our government, our politicians," he says. "I went through a time when there wasn't a week I didn't get an interview."
But then, he says, things at the federation got dicey. With millions of dollars and lots of strong personalities—many of them politically motivated—at play, there was no shortage of infighting and allegations at the federation during Gómez's presidency, nor is there now.
* * *
Carnicerías and panaderías butt against one another, as do the bumpers of the rusted cars lining the potholed streets of East LA on a recent Thursday night. In the starkly lit room above a sheriff's office building on Miller Avenue, people trickle slowly up the staircase and into the room for the federation's monthly meeting. Eight years ago, Gómez was at the helm of the federation, but now Manuel Salazar commands it. Like Gómez, he finds the club in disrepair as he finishes up his presidency.
Three elderly women, each wearing neatly matched outfits and subdued smiles, greet one another with kisses before shuffling to their seats. They catch up and share gossip. Across the room, a burly, thick-mustachioed man sits alone, his arms folded across his chest and facing the front wall. Then a man with a toss of curls atop his head bursts through the door and belts out a question: "¿Cómo están, mis paisanos?" "How are my countrymen?" he asks.
"¡Cállate!" retorts a stern-faced woman near the entrance. "Shut up!"
That juxtaposition of camaraderie and conflict sets the tone of the next hour and a half.
Three men sit behind an expansive table. Salazar, who sits in the center, holds a microphone and speaks meekly into it, guiding the meeting's direction, but he slumps into his chair and takes solace in his smart phone most of the time. About 35 people scatter around the room; Salazar remembers the days when people sat elbow-to-elbow, packing the room. "We're in the middle of a serious internal crisis," he says. "Not too many people come to the meetings anymore 'cause they're tired of the people who make lots of problems."
One of the men in charge calls on a woman who raises her hand to speak. "Pancha," he acknowledges. She snarls her lip and quickly corrects him: "Call me Francisca." So much for nicknames.
Accusations and insults fill the air, but the occasional bit of good news still comes up. A recent event at a local nightclub brought in more than $5,000, a smiling woman reports. The crowd seems only mildly impressed.
In an effort to soften the mood, a man steps down from the leadership table and asks each member of the audience to share, in a few words, what they expect from the federation. The resounding response: unity and respect. From the back of the room, a younger man offers a different response: "The projects," he says. "The projects are the most important thing."