Mexican expats are trumpeting the ruling party’s message and getting out the vote
- Photography by Gustavo García
It was April 10, 2022, and Corona Plaza in the New York City borough of Queens was bustling with singers, mariachis and a Zumba dance troupe, all brandishing Mexican flags. Folkloric dancers dressed in bright carnival garb paraded around the plaza. Mixed in with the collage of colorful decorations and patriotic symbols were hundreds of pictures of the Mexican president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador — known was AMLO — alongside flags of his party, Morena, and a daisy-chain of posters with messages that said things like:
“It is an honor to be with Obrador!”
“Women for AMLO!”
“AMLO: best president ever!”
Hundreds of Mexicans living in the New York metropolitan area had come together to mark a historic moment — for the first time, they could vote in a referendum that would determine the country’s future. In this case, they would help decide whether President López Obrador would end his presidential term prematurely. Leading the Obradorista effort in this part of the U.S. is Morena New York Committee 1, an organization made up of fervent supporters of the president, his party and his ideals. They adhere to a political edict of social and economic progress known as the “Fourth Transformation” that imagines a future in which government employees no longer abuse their power in order to enrich themselves and protect their allies.
That Sunday in April, as Mexicans went to the polls, Morena New York Committee 1 staged three processions in New York City to show their support for the sitting president. At a rally in Union Square, an AMLO impersonator wore a larger-than-life papier-mache replica of the president’s head, shaking hands and bowing in front of the crowd. The committees encouraged those who didn’t or couldn’t register to vote to cast “a symbolic vote” during a ceremony scored with traditional music.
Since Morena’s inception in 2011 (and with the help of the president’s party), dozens of what are known as “affinity groups” have sprung up in the United States and organized ardent popular support for the Mexican president. Today, AMLO has a loyal base among Mexican immigrants living in the U.S. Most seem to perceive López Obrador as a restorative force in Mexican democracy, one who has put the most vulnerable communities first — including Mexican immigrants living abroad. For years, these groups have tried to amplify the voices of migrants through civic organizations and to exercise their voting rights in both Mexico and the United States.
“We are not fighting for ourselves, but for the next generations. [We] want to give them a better country full of opportunities so that they do not have to emigrate, like us who come here to suffer cold, hunger, political persecution and racial discrimination,” said Jose Luis Ramírez, a long-time supporter of the president at the rally in Corona, Queens.
While some individuals have followed AMLO throughout his political career of nearly four decades, many only became active after years of living in the U.S. Empowered by AMLO’s critiques of “neoliberalism” and the “corrupt nature” of the governing parties before him, Morena sympathizers living abroad say they feel like they finally have representation in their country of origin.
Guillermo Lucero, who joined the Morena New York committee in 2018, put it simply, “López Obrador has given us back our identity as Mexicans.”
But AMLO is not universally loved. Since he assumed the presidency in 2018, he has been criticized for gutting public institutions, lambasting the opposition and putting democratic institutions at risk. Most recently, critics have focused on López Obrador’s proposal to defund the National Electoral Institute that was created in an effort to clean up the electoral process in Mexico, which has seen its share of fraud.
AMLO says that he wants to avoid expenses and the duplication of functions and claims that in its first year, the proposal will save up to $271 million in government expenses. But it is also well known that in 2006, AMLO lost the presidential election by a very small margin, and has since targeted the organization, accusing it of perpetrating fraud.
Last week, this proposal — known as “Plan B” — passed by a margin of 18 votes, though it will likely face a challenge before the Mexican Supreme Court. On February 26, when hundreds of thousands of Mexicans took to the historic center of Mexico City to protest AMLO’s Plan B, members of Morena Committees staged their own counter-protests across the U.S. Waving Mexican and American flags, from Placita Olvera and Huntington Park in California to Times Square and Brooklyn in New York City, hundreds of Mexicans once again rallied to support the president.
Plan B also purports to expand voting access to Mexicans living abroad, allowing them to vote with a passport and a consular ID, in addition to their voting card. But it also will bring big cuts to the electoral watchdog’s budget and will remove 85% of its workforce. Critics worry that the elections will no longer be as supervised or safeguarded and that even basic voting services (like staffing at polling places) will be in short supply. Some view the electoral Plan B as a blow to Mexico’s fragile democracy.
“[Plan B] is not about access, it is a means of meddling with [the National Electoral Institute’s] powers and weakening it as an institution,” said Dr. Rafael Fernández de Castro, a political science professor at the University of California at San Diego. According to Fernández de Castro, the Mexican vote abroad has never determined an election and there is reason to believe that it won’t for many years. But now, some think otherwise.
Voting for Mexico, from the US
The number of Mexican individuals who are eligible to vote in the U.S. has doubled since 2005, and it’s a community that political parties in Mexico appear eager to tap into during the upcoming 2024 presidential elections.
“Establishing the right to vote for Mexicans who left Mexico for any reason was extremely important,” said Claudia Zavala, an electoral councilwoman for the National Electoral Institute. “As Mexicans, we do not lose these rights regardless of where we are.”
Between the 1980s and 2007, the number of Mexicans living in the U.S. increased from 2.7 to 11.9 million people, though that figure has since plateaued to a little over 10 million. Today, nearly 10% of the Mexican population lives in the United States. But for most of that period, Mexicans living abroad were sidelined from politics altogether and unable to vote in federal or local elections, until 2005.
Today, only 2% of the foreign population holds voter identification cards. Less than 1% participated in the elections of 2018, according to a recent study co-authored by political scientist and former National Electoral Institute staffer Andrés Besserer Rayas. As of 2015, Mexicans can claim voting IDs in Mexican consulates at no cost. But even as officials have removed barriers to casting a ballot, for example by expanding Mexicans’ ability to vote online and by mail, participation remains low.
“There is very little information about partisan identity in the Mexican diaspora in the United States,” Besserer said, and, among migrants, there is a general distrust of authority figures. Mexican political parties and their candidates are also prohibited, by law, from campaigning abroad.
This has not stopped individual parties or presidential hopefuls from traveling to the U.S. to meet with Mexican migrants or from bolstering the creation of political affinity groups abroad, especially when elections are on the horizon.
In the late 1980s, presidential candidate Cuahtemoc Cárdenas of the Democratic Revolutionary Party famously visited migrant communities in Los Angeles. Vicente Fox, candidate for the National Action Party whose victory ended the 80-year single-party rule in Mexico in 2000, praised migrants as the “heroes of Mexico” and promised them the vote.
Earlier this month, Ricardo Anaya, the presidential hopeful for the conservative National Action Party, visited Dallas, Texas to inaugurate his party’s first “Committee for Migrant Action,” along with the party’s president, Marko Cortés. They told a small crowd that they hoped to visit other states in the near future.
AMLO’s Morena party has proven increasingly popular among the diaspora living outside of Mexico. Voting registration figures for Mexicans abroad have almost quadrupled, from just over 40,000 voters in 2006 — when AMLO first ran for president, unsuccessfully — to over 180,000 in 2018 when he was elected. In 2006, he only won 34% of the foreign vote. In 2018, that number spiked to 64%.
Now, there are dozens of groups sympathetic to Morena in the United States, especially in cities like Chicago, Los Angeles and San Diego. But Morena New York Committee 1 tops them all, boasting the largest digital footprint with a quarter-million followers on Facebook. The committee maintains a formidable presence online and broadcasts live events on its Facebook page.
‘We have what it takes to be able to influence the political life of both countries’
Since AMLO’s presidential victory in 2018, members of Morena New York Committee 1 have met regularly across New York City boroughs to celebrate new reforms or stage pro-AMLO demonstrations in parallel to events held in Mexico. Morena committees are also conceived as organizations to further voters’ political literacy. In the past year, Morena created the National Institute for Political Formation, an in-person and virtual academy that says it aims to provide a civic education to Mexicans everywhere. Course offerings include a primer on geopolitics, neoliberalism and the limits of capitalism. The Institute has held town halls in cities such as San Diego, New York, Los Angeles and Chicago.
According to Alina Duarte, who leads the Institute’s efforts abroad, Mexican citizens living in the U.S. have been celebrated for their financial contributions to the country but have otherwise been politically sidelined. In 2022, Mexican migrants living in the U.S. sent back $58 million in remittances, a number that is often invoked by AMLO during his daily press briefings.
“Our migrant communities have this double responsibility. Not only do they sustain two nations economically, but they also play a fundamental role in the politics of both,” said Carlos Castillo, a former Morena representative from Mexico City who attended a meeting of the Institute in New York City last November.
To some, there is reason to believe that Mexicans living in the U.S. can set the political agenda for two countries at once. In recent years, several non-partisan groups have formed a bridge between organizers and bi-national institutions, including Fuerza Migrante, a bi-national organization based in New York.
“We have what it takes to be able to influence the political life of both countries — it is simply a matter of organizing,” said Avelino Meza, the director of Fuerza Migrante.
Many of these organizations have helped to enact legislation that pushes for greater representation of immigrant Mexican communities in the Mexican government. In 2021, Mexico’s electoral court introduced the migrant representative whose main function is to represent individuals from Mexico living abroad. Morena has three sitting representatives. Ironically, those living abroad were not able to vote for any of them.
Though new measures have been introduced to encourage migrant participation, such as setting up physical voting booths in places like Dallas for upcoming state elections, some claim these actions are insufficient. And with Plan B enacted, some processes intended to ensure the integrity of elections may falter or be eliminated altogether.
But Morena supporters are hopeful. A poll conducted in November 2022 reveals that the president’s party is favored to win in 2024. “There is a historical debt owed to Mexican migrants, which the electoral reform barely begins to address,” said Alina Duarte of the National Institute for Political Formation. “But there is reason to believe that the migrant vote in 2024 will be historic.”
With reporting assistance from Gustavo García.
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