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

Lupe Gomez Is a Triple Player

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."

Gómez in his office in Santa Ana
Brandon Showers
Gómez in his office in Santa Ana
Gómez (left) with former Mexican President Vicente Fox
Brandon Showers
Gómez (left) with former Mexican President Vicente Fox
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

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.

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.

*     *     *

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.

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."

When his turn comes, a man who has been sitting alone and with his arms crossed, stands up and begins a tirade, in which he claims to have started tres por uno. Across the room, a man shoots out of his seat and says, "No, that was Lupe Gómez." The man continues to mumble, but he stands corrected.

Aside from that single name-drop, the only other reminder of Gómez's 13 years and once-commanding presence in the federation is a faded picture of him on one of the walls. In it, he's wearing a slightly tilted smirk.

Salazar doesn't know Gómez well; he didn't join the federation until after Gómez had left, but he speaks of his predecessor with a certain tenderness, as though the men are kindred spirits. "I know he had a lot of problems at the federation, like me, and that has to do with interests in the group, which are totally different than what they should be focused on," Salazar says. "There are people who use the federation to raise their political status. In Zacatecas, being an important person in federations is a way to become well-known in political circles. When you clash with these people, they make things very difficult, and I mean very hard."

Barajas, Gómez's predecessor, is still involved with the federation, but he didn't attend the most recent meeting. He agrees that there are ulterior motives at play. "There's a lot of money, and the politicians are always campaigning," he says. "There's always elections for one person or another, and they take advantage of the money of the program for their campaigns."

Francisco Javier Aparicio is a professor at Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas, the nonprofit public institution in Mexico City that did an external evaluation of the tres por uno program for the federal government. He says his research found little evidence of the government unfairly funding more projects in areas ruled by the political party in power. "It's kept in balance by which clubs are actually making money in the U.S.," he says.

The most explicit exploitation happens on the local level, Aparicio says. "The mayor will bring the projects to who voted for him," he explains. "You can tell by walking through the localities that mayors use the program to reward loyal voters. That can be a problem. All politics is local, and it's human nature: If you have access to a program, you exploit it."

Like his picture at the federation, Gómez's notoriety has faded, but he hasn't been forgotten. "It's been awhile since I've seen him," says Felipe de Jesús Martínez Núñez, an employee at the Mexican consulate in Santa Ana. "I guess he's focusing more on his business now. He's very interested in politics, though. There's an election coming up soon, so maybe he'll come around more."

His paisanos in Mexico remember him, too—kind of. "Yeah, Lupe Gómez was the president of a club," says Edgar Sillas, who works in the economic-development office in Jalpa, the municipality Gómez grew up in. He pauses and seems to put a hand over the telephone receiver. "Wait, Lupe Gómez was a president of a club, right?" he asks, and then laughs.

"Yes," responds a hushed female voice.

"Yeah, he was the president of Club Deportivo Santa Juana, and he was very involved with the federation. He's a well-known person in social circles here."

*     *     *

On a recent morning at his office, Gómez's eyes light up as he recalls his days as a rising political star. He pops up from his chair and heads toward a photo of him nudged against U.S. Representative Grace Napolitano of eastern LA County, but his knee buckles. "Sorry," he says, "I'm getting old."

Instead, he plops down on a sofa near his desk to relive the time he spent with Nancy Pelosi. "I sat down with Nancy on a sofa like this, and I was like, 'Yeah, Congresswoman, we need to stop the closing of medical clinics in Los Angeles,' and I was fighting for my people," he says through a hearty laugh. "I couldn't believe I was doing that." Aside from Pelosi, Gómez also knows Josefina Vásquez Mota—"The Nancy Pelosi of Mexico" as he jokingly calls her.

During the early days of tres por uno, he met Vásquez, a declared candidate for Mexico's presidency in 2012, who, like Gómez, is a member of the conservative Partido Acción Nacional political party. "We worked together when she was the secretary of social development under President Fox. I invited her here, and she came," he says. "Every time after that that she came, she used to call me and invite me to dinner. Why not, you know? I was the only one of all the Mexican leaders invited to dinner with her at the consulate. I was there with the governors and everything. How can you say no? How can you say no to a woman?"

In 2009, after having dabbled in Mexican politics for years, Gómez went all in. When he kicked off his campaign for Zacatecas' second congressional-district seat, Vásquez was there to cheer him on. He spent two months on the campaign trail, traversing canyon after canyon to visit the district's 27 different municipalities. He slept little and lost so much weight that people started calling him Emiliano Zapata, joking that the only part of his face that hadn't atrophied was his mustache. It was a draining time, he recalls, but it had its perks.

"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." 

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