On a map, Zacatecas looks like an amoeba in the middle of Mexico. Its lines curve in and out of territories with the logic of a modern art painting. On the ground, the state is vast and beautifully rugged. In parts, mesquite trees pock forbidding deserts of beige dust. Elsewhere, the-desolation gives way to dirt the color of cayenne pepper. But whatever its color, the land of Zacatecas never could hold people to it.
The Zacatecan upper classes owned large tracts of land, much of which they’d inherited, but were averse to investing in anything more than their houses.
“There are very few classic entrepreneurs in Zacatecas, in the strict sense of people who, with their own resources, create jobs,” said Rodolfo Garcia, a professor of immigration and development studies at the University of Zacatecas. “In Mexico, the capitalist class has mostly grown due to the support and money of the government. The capitalist class in Zacatecas, more than in any other state, has grown up on public money.”
The extraction and export of raw materials began in the late 1800s, when mining ruled Zacatecas. The minerals from Zacatecas went elsewhere to be processed into something of greater value. When the mines gave out, they were replaced by ranching and agriculture but not by a new attitude toward risk. Zacatecas, the Mexican state that produces more beans and chiles than any other, still has few companies that process those products into, say, canned beans and canned chiles. Almost everything produced in Zacatecas leaves for places where it is transformed into something of greater profit.
This includes its people. Nothing has left Zacatecas like its people. Emigration to the United States began in the late 1800s, declined in the 1930s, then picked up a momentum in the 1940s that it hasn’t lost. No Mexican state has a greater percentage of its people in the United States than craggy, red Zacatecas.
The folks who left were the state’s real risk-takers. They risked their own capital—their lives—on the promise of a better return than Zacatecas offered. For most of them, the bet paid off. In time in the United States, they opened businesses, bought houses, and sent their kids to school….
Strangely, immigrants’ daring and risk-taking indirectly stymied what the state needed most—which was a daring, risk-taking state of mind. Instead of using immigrant dollars to jump-start an industrial economy, Zacatecas simply limped along, addicted to the dollar injections. Immigrants became the state’s primary foreign investors and job creators. They hired local folks to build lavish homes in the villages they’d left as paupers.
Then came the Mexican presidential election of 1988. The ruling PRI faced real competition for the first time in its history. Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas—a PRI apostate who had left the party—formed a movement that would become the left-wing Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD). Sinaloan businessman Manuel Clouthier rejuvenated the National Action Party (PAN) by swiveling it away from right-wing social morality and toward the issues of corruption and efficient government services.
Cárdenas and Clouthier were the first Mexican presidential candidates to visit the United States and avidly court immigrants. The PRI and its candidate, Carlos Salinas de Gortari, beat back their challenge through massive vote fraud. But the 1988 election showed the PRI that immigrants up north were a dangerously uncoopted source of dissent. Salinas set up an office of Attention to Mexicans Abroad.
Zacatecas Gov. Genaro Borrego tried another idea. Every dollar immigrants put up for public works projects in their villages, he announced, the government would match. It started as “1 for 1” and quickly expanded to “2 for 1″—with money from the state and federal governments. Immigrants could stretch their dollars, and Zacatecan villages could get the schools, wells, and clinics they needed.
For decades, the PRI had used budgets to buy off union leaders, businessmen, academics, and neighborhood groups. Zacatecas’s “2 for 1” was the party’s first try at buying off immigrants in the United States, and it grew largely from the PRI’s 1988 election scare. Zacatecan immigrants were urged to form village clubs and raise money for projects back home.
But the PRI miscalculated. These immigrants were no longer the humble campesinos who went hat-in-hand to mayors across Mexico. They’d done well in the United States, and felt confident in their abilities. They blamed the PRI for having to leave their villages. They weren’t about to let the party push them around up in the United States, too.
The clubs they formed were not docile. On the contrary, as the party pushed, immigrants pushed back. They insisted on a say in how their money was spent. The PRI was adamantly secular, but when some clubs insisted that the money they put up be used to renovate village churches, the government relented.
Because of “2 for 1,” Zacatecans became the best-organized Mexican immigrants in the United States. By the time Andres Bermudez ran for mayor of Jerez, there were some 240 of these clubs in the United States. No other Mexican state had even half that number. They invested millions of dollars in public works. Their money built the necessities for their people back home that the government hadn’t provided. In time, immigrants nurtured a righteous sense of their economic importance to Zacatecas.
Yet they religiously avoided politics. Mexican politics had been the exclusive domain of lawyers, teachers, merchants. Every ranchero seemed to know some fool who’d gone into politics and lost everything, been jailed or killed, or gotten rich and turned on his friends. So while Zacatecan immigrant prosperity created a vast ranchero constituency in the United States with money, organization, and talent, it was oblivious to its own political potential. That’s how things remained until the late 1990s, when a lot began to change back home.