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"When I went to different towns, 5,000 people filled the rodeo, just waiting for me to speak," he says. "I got into the rodeo on a horse. I'm not a horse guy, but I had to, with a big sombrero. It felt good. To get out of the rodeo, they had lines of people trying to get my autograph. That was the fun part. . . . I told my guys, 'I'm starting to like this—all the attention.'"
About a month into the campaign, Gómez was dead-even with the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) candidate in the polls; a couple of weeks later, he says, he led by five percentage points. Even though the official results say Gómez lost, he insists it's not that simple. "I did pretty good, and I believe we did win the election, but, you know, they stole it," he claims. "You know the way they buy votes." It wasn't the PRI candidate, but rather the candidate of the more left-leaning Partido de la Revolución Democrática who edged Gómez out by a little more than 2,000 votes. "Tell me how they did it. Even by their own polls, they knew: 'Look, this migrant is kicking your ass.' They purchased the election, but, you know, it's fine."
Still, Gómez can't help but think about what could have been. "I would have been more involved in politics," he says. "I probably, most likely, would have ran for governor 'cause that's what people wanted me to do. Anyway, my biggest contributions to Mexico, they're right there," Gómez says, pointing to a letter that he wrote to members of the federation as he finished up his presidency, detailing the successes of the tres por uno program.
Gómez, who hopes to retire within the year and leave his business to his son, says even if he had won the congressional seat, he probably wouldn't have relocated, but rather commuted between Zacatecas and California. Many times, the tres por uno money goes to spruce up communities that have became little more than ghost towns after the mass exodus of emigrants. Gómez's community of Santa Juana, for example, has only 100 homes, and although he boasts of all the improvements it has seen, he acknowledges that its population has certainly diminished. He doubts he'll ever permanently move back to Mexico. His work is here. His mom and five kids are here. His life is here.
But Zacatecas will always hold a big chunk of his soul and his memory. "During the yearly celebration of our town, las fiestas, we're all out on the streets," Gómez says. "So, you follow the burrito, and the tamborazo is right behind you, and you're dancing. They put two little clay jars on a ribbon, and they hang it on you. It's got mescal—like tequila. You drink it, drink it, drink it, and before you know it, man, you're partying big-time. You go through all the streets, and then at a designated point, people are waiting for you with and food and all that, and it's nice."
This article appeared in print as "Triple Player: Lupe Gómez's big idea got the Mexican government to help spruce up immigrants' hometowns—and got him into politics back home."