Asst. Professor of Sociology and American Studies and Ethnicity, USC at Los Angeles, California
POV: Tell us about your experience working with Mexican hometown associations in California, where there are many active organizations like Grupo Unión, the group we meet in "The Sixth Section."
Gaspar Rivera-Salgado: The universe of hometown associations (HTAs) in L.A. is incredible. According to the Mexican consulate, there are over 250 HTAs here, mostly from the West Central regions of Mexico in states such as Zacatecas, Jalisco, Guanajuato and Michoacan. These states have a long history, over 100 years long, of emigration to the U.S. and to Los Angeles specifically. Around 1965, in response to a change in U.S. immigration policy, the numbers of Mexican emigrants to L.A. started to increase. In the early 70s, hometown associations started cropping up from states such as Zacatecas and Jalisco.
Little by little, these hometown associations started connecting and forming into coalitions or federations of HTAs. In the area of Los Angeles, we currently have 14 of these federations, organized around home states in Mexico. The three largest are the Jaliscan federation, the Zacatecan federation, and the Oaxacan federation.
Until as recently as a year ago, these federations were working in isolation from one another. Now here, in Los Angeles, these federations have decided to form a council, a third level of organization that serves to unify the voice of all these many immigrants.
POV: And this organizing has been successful?
Rivera-Salgado: Through the federations, the HTAs have a very powerful collective representation. They can leverage their political power. The Zacatecan federation has been able to negotiate special agreements with their state government in Mexico. The federation told the government, "Hey, we're sending all this money back home, what is the government doing?" And the government, in response, started a two-for-one matching program. For every dollar the HTAs send, the government invests two dollars at the state and local level. Eventually, a few years later, the federation met with the president of Mexico and told him, "Hey, we're doing these great things at the state and local level, why don't you contribute?" And that resulted in a three-for-one matching program. Now, in addition to the state government's contribution, the federal government is contributing one dollar for every dollar the HTAs raise.
Not only are the HTAs tripling the investment into their home communities, but they are learning how to leverage their political voice and engage in negotiations at the highest level. Because these immigrants are very well organized in the United States, because they serve as the collective voice for many, because they are viewed as "successful" immigrants, governments are paying attention to them... to the extent that they can pick up the phone and make an appointment to meet with the President of Mexico.
POV: As HTAs gain momentum and begin to build more sophisticated institutions, has there been a shift in the focus of their work?
Rivera-Salgado: The majority of the leadership of the HTA federations are long-term immigrants — they've been here for over 15-20 years. Over that period of time they become binational, bicultural, in a way. So, more and more, they are debating issues that are related not only to their hometown but also to their lives here in the U.S. — their jobs, their access to housing, the movement for amnesty for undocumented immigrants. They are starting to engage on a larger level with other political groups and local institutions.
POV: So in a sense, it's natural that as the cultural identities of the first generation of immigrants change over time, as they begin to see themselves as bicultural, the focus of their organizations' work shifts?
Rivera-Salgado: With this generation of Mexican immigrants, we're witnessing an experience unlike the experience of other immigrants. At the turn of the century, immigrants came from their countries of origin — Ireland, Southern Italy, the rural communities of Poland — and they saw these journeys as a one-way ticket. They came here to establish. They still maintained some ties to home, but it was difficult to do so.
The massive wave of immigration to the U.S. from Mexico is taking place during a period of history where it is much easier to maintain your connection to home. Today, you can take an airplane and in one hour you're in Mexico — that's very new. A lot of HTA leaders take weekend trips home to supervise the projects that they're undertaking. The intensity of the connection to home is very strong.
For these immigrants, it's very hard to choose between focusing on the issues back home or making a life here in the U.S. In a sense, they're starting to say, "Why can't we focus on both sides of the border?"
POV: As the HTAs' agenda broadens and they begin to engage in larger debates about life in the U.S., how do they maintain their focus and effectiveness?
Rivera-Salgado: The federations are being very careful in privileging local projects. They know that the more effective they become in supporting local projects, the more support they will gain in return from their members, who will believe that it is worth the effort to be involved with the federation. It's a balance. There's a certain critical mass that you need to organize successfully in this way. In a place like L.A., where there are so many Mexican immigrants, it can work. These HTAs are not universal organizations — not everybody from the same hometown belongs or wants to participate. But where there's a critical mass, even if a small percentage of immigrants participate, it makes a tremendous difference.
POV: You would think that there would be a natural alliance between HTAs and national Latino groups here in the U.S. But it seems that the HTAs remain somewhat isolated from the Latino mainstream. Why do you think that is?
Rivera-Salgado: I think it has to do with the unique "politics of identity" here in the U.S. The Latino political elite has a very specific project. They want to build the Latino block to gain political representation on all levels. And they've been somewhat successful. You cannot say that in California, Latinos are not represented. However, implicit in the political agenda of these established second-generation Latino organizations is the message, "We're here to stay and we need to make it, using the political machine already established."
It would be very hard to tell Mexican immigrants from Jerez [a town in Zacatecas], "Now you're a 'Latino.' Forget about the problems in Jerez, forget about being from Zacatecas, forget about being Mexican. You're a 'Latino.'" Things don't work that way. The emergence of these HTAs is an expression of identities that immigrants bring with them. As they cross the border, they don't leave their identities behind. Latinos here say, "These immigrants don't understand the U.S., they don't understand that they have to focus on the challenges here and forget about Mexico." The message is that in order to "make it" here you have to become part of the mainstream.
They need to realize that the flow of exchange between local Mexican communities and satellite U.S. communities is very intense. And it's not getting any less intense. One indicator is that the amount of remittances [money sent by immigrants back home] is increasing, not decreasing. And not only is money flowing, but also culture, behaviors and ideas. That's an expression of globalization. So American Latinos need to understand that this connection to home is here to stay.
On the other hand, when immigrants move here, they transform. They're no longer just people from Jerez, they're different. They are put in a very interesting position — in Mexico they are accused of being too American and here they are accused of being too Mexican.
It's not easy for Latino elected officials, because if they start talking about Mexico... forget it! People are going to ask, "Are you loyal to the United States?" It's a double-edged sword. Older Latino Americans, especially Mexican Americans, are still very uneasy about stating what should be the foreign policy of the United States regarding Mexico.
POV: Do conflicts ever arise between the emigrants' vision of their home community's best interest and the vision of those who remain?
Rivera-Salgado: There is a lot of opportunity for conflict. Decisions must be made about which project to support. Sometimes immigrants come with a certain idea and the people in the community don't want to support that idea. When the relationship between the association in the U.S. and the hometown is very informal, you see a lot of potential for conflict. The most established hometown associations have a very clearly identified counterpart in Mexico. It can be local authorities or a non-governmental grassroots organization administering these projects. When you have equal relationships of power between the association in the U.S. and the hometown, you see successful projects. When you don't have that, conflicts may arise.
Of course the question of what kind of development they want is endless. There is no answer to that. It's an ongoing and shifting situation. If we knew the recipe for development, we would not have any problems at all!
Gaspar Rivera-Salgado is Assistant Professor of Sociology and American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California. He studies international migration and social movements, specifically Mexican and Central American hometown associations. He is currently working on a book manuscript entitled "Welcome to Oaxacalifornia: Transnational Political Strategies Among Mexican Migrants."