How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

Old country, meet new country

Photo by Leslie Berestein Rojas/KPCC


Beneath a sea of umbrellas and cowboy hats, a crowd watches dancers at Expo Mexico downtown, August 15, 2010.


A highlight of my weekend was a visit to the crowded "Expo Mexico" fair yesterday next to Olvera Street, part of a two-day conference put together by an umbrella group of Mexican hometown associations known as the Consejo de Federaciones Mexicanas en Norteamérica, or COFEM. Not so much for the fair, though it was great, but for the surprise I encountered upon meeting the group's leader.

For those not familiar with hometown associations, they are groups of immigrant neighbors and family members who band together to raise money for their hometowns, traditionally for infrastructure and basic quality-of-life improvement projects. (Once in the late nineties, I traveled to a town in northern El Salvador to report on a hometown group that had driven a much-needed ambulance all the way there from Los Angeles, an ambitious trek that could have merited its own reality show, had those existed back then.)

Many hometown groups have been at this for decades, and the leaders that I've encountered in the past have typically been immigrants, men and women with the kind of old-country drive and leadership skills that develop from years of hard work and a desire to improve one's lot, along with that of one's family, and once here, that of the tíos and tías and abuelos left back home.

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Photo by Leslie Berestein Rojas/KPCC


At the back of the crowd at Expo Mexico.


It was this sort of immigrant leader I expected as I waited outside the VIP area to meet Arturo Carmona, the executive director of COFEM, which is comprised of 312 Mexican hometown associations. But the man I was introduced to was younger than I expected, and as we quickly moved from speaking Spanish to English, I noticed that Carmona's only accent was pure Cali.

"How old were you when you arrived here?" I asked. Carmona replied with a smile, "I was born here."

As it turns out, the leader of this massive and politically well-connected organization of immigrants is a 31-year-old second-generation kid from South Gate.

While most individual hometown groups are still led by immigrants, children of immigrants like Carmona have become part of the organizational landscape, adding new-country networking skills and political savvy to the old-country work ethic that their predecessors have long applied to tireless fundraising. "We're coming together with the first generation and creating a grass-roots organization," Carmona said.

In the five years since COFEM coalesced from the many smaller groups, the focus has shifted away from the infrastructure-improvement projects that are the mainstay of hometown associations (i.e. repaired streets, improved sewer systems, supplies for an antiquated local hospital, often done so well that local governments back home rely on hometown groups a bit too much) and toward more long-term strategies. Among other things, the organization has embraced public policy advocacy, including for immigration reform, and binational economic development. Among the goals: to eventually create economic incentives that could allow future generations of would-be immigrants to stay home.

"People don't want to come here," said Carmona, a child of immigrants from Jalisco and Hidalgo. "They come because of necessity. We're trying to do more to build sustainable economies."

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