By Linda Lutton

It’s hard to believe he didn’t think of it earlier. For years, Raul Ross Pineda has pored over the Mexican constitution, read Mexican electoral law backward and forward, and even contributed to its reform. He’s become an internationally known expert on the subject, writing articles for newspapers in the U.S. and Mexico and even testifying before Mexican legislative committees on the one issue that’s absorbed his life–the opportunity for Mexicans living abroad to vote in their country’s elections.

Fourteen years a Pilsen resident, Ross won’t be able to vote in Mexico’s national elections this year, either–unless he can make it to the border on election day, that is. But there’s a new twist this time: he’s running.

“I guess this just never occurred to anyone before,” says Ross, the first-ever Mexican living abroad to be nominated as a candidate for the Mexican congress. Ross went back to the books last year after Mexico’s senate–controlled by the country’s ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI–blocked legislation that would have allowed Mexicans living abroad to vote by absentee ballot in the July 2 presidential elections. “I started remembering certain things,” says Ross, “and I found that while we might not be able to vote from abroad, we can run as candidates. Legally, there is absolutely nothing that prevents any Mexican from running for congress in the place where he was born.”

So last March, Ross, who was born in the southern state of Veracruz, registered as a candidate for the lower house, the chamber of deputies. He registered with the left-of-center Party of the Democratic Revolution–or PRD–the one party willing to slate nonmembers. Later that month, 300 members of the PRD held a convention and nominated him unanimously. “Leaders of the PRD started to toss my name around as a possible candidate for congress, and I said I was interested,” says Ross, whose writing has appeared in Exito! in Chicago and in the Mexico City daily La jornada. Last year he published the book Los Mexicanos y el voto sin fronteras (“Mexicans and the Vote Without Borders”), whose cover pictures a Pilsen laundromat and mural.

“For the first time in history, Mexicans abroad are going to have a voice and a vote,” Ross promises. Should he become the only resident of Chicago who’s also a member of congress in a foreign country, he says he’ll keep the three-flat on Marshall Boulevard where he lives with his wife and two kids, and stay in Mexico City only when congress is in session. “Mexicans living abroad make up 15 percent of the total citizenry of our country. That’s a very large group to be excluded,” he says. He estimates that somewhere between 7 million and 12 million Mexicans living abroad could become eligible to vote–the number depends on whether Mexicans with American citizenship but still considered nationals by Mexico are enfranchised.

In 1994, Ross helped organize “symbolic” elections in Chicago, Texas, California, France, Spain, and Italy to coincide with Mexico’s presidential elections. Polling places were set up in supermarkets and in parks and other public areas. About 3,500 Mexican citizens “voted” in Chicago alone, and the exercise brought media attention to the issue both inside and outside Mexico. In 1996 the Mexican constitution was amended to allow Mexican citizens abroad to vote in Mexican elections. But the PRI government has refused to work out the logistics of such a vote–developing voting credentials, designating polling places, distributing ballots–on the grounds that it would all be too complicated and costly. This year symbolic elections will be held again, this time in more than ten states; some 25 polling stations have already been designated in the Chicago metropolitan area, most to be run by community organizations. Furthermore, bus caravans from Chicago and other cities will take Mexican citizens to special polling stations along the border to vote for real.

Ross is up for a seat from a “superdistrict” of seven southern Mexican states, including Veracruz. Mexico’s chamber of deputies is made up of 500 representatives, 300 of whom win their seats through direct election, with candidates from opposing parties fighting for a single seat and the candidate with the most votes winning. The other 200 are elected through proportional representation–40 from each of the five superdistricts. Voters check off a party rather than a specific candidate; each party nominates a slate of 40 candidates, and then sends candidates to congress in proportion to the amount of the total vote it receives. Fringe parties attracting few votes don’t send anyone.

Ross is running with the Alianza por Mexico–a coalition of five political parties, including the PRD. He was placed number 11 on the coalition’s slate of 40, which means that the Alianza needs to win about 20 percent of the vote in his superdistrict for him to be seated in congress. His chances are good; three years ago the PRD sent 14 candidates to congress from that district, and opposition parties stand to win this year like never before, as anti-PRI sentiment all over Mexico is at a high.

Ross might have been the first candidate living in the U.S. to run for congress in Mexico, but he wasn’t the only candidate for long. “On the deadline for candidates to register, I was the only candidate living abroad to have registered,” says Ross. “After that, everybody wanted to be a candidate.” By the end of April the PRD had added a Los Angeles activist to its slate in a different superdistrict, and the PRI–which has opposed opening up political opportunities for Mexicans living abroad, presumably for fear that Mexicans here are more likely to support opposition parties–had also slated a Los Angeles resident. “The most grotesque part of this is that after this whole fight, the first member of congress living abroad could be from the PRI,” says Ross. The PRI candidate is number 5 on his party’s slate and is almost certain to be elected; he’s said he’ll move to Mexico if he is. The PRD candidate from Los Angeles is number 31 and his chances are slim.

Ross makes a somewhat awkward candidate–he seems much more comfortable in the role of intellectual than that of politician. At a Chicago fund-raiser last month that was essentially a panel discussion by university professors from Mexico, he chain-smoked until it was his turn to talk, shuffled papers from his written speech, and nervously tried–with uneven success–to joke with the small crowd.

He came to the U.S. on New Year’s Eve 1985, “when I knew that at least half the migra [border patrol] would be on holiday,” says Ross. He crossed the Rio Grande at age 29 “with another friend who had the same problem as I did–no money for a coyote and no papers.” Ross had already been active in the Mexican labor movement, in grassroots left-wing electoral politics, and in a large squatters movement in Mexico City. He’d developed a political consciousness by the time he was 15, after watching local PRI officials use his youth soccer team to fill out the crowds at political rallies. Ross had mostly worked construction jobs in Mexico–he finished high school but never went to college–and he’d done a stint in the petroleum industry, where he got involved in union organizing. On the U.S. side his fake documents identified him as Rogelio Reyes. That’s where he got the nickname Rojo (red), which seemed a good fit considering his politics. He says he came to America for work, acquired permanent resident status through marriage, and has no interest in becoming an American citizen.

Ross contributed to Exito! from the time the Tribune launched that paper in 1994 until he registered as a candidate this year. For the last seven years he’s been Mexican affairs director of the American Friends Service Committee in Chicago. Lately he’s spent long weekends in California, Texas, and New York talking about his candidacy. He hasn’t been to the district he would represent since he registered, and he doesn’t plan on going. His name won’t appear on the ballot anyway–just the party’s–and though he’d technically be elected from the southern states of Mexico it’s clear to everyone that he’d be representing Mexicans who don’t live on Mexican soil.

“This fight for the political rights of Mexicans living abroad–in the end I’m going to be one of the fight’s principal beneficiaries, because I’m going to be a member of congress,” says Ross, who stands to make $60,000 a year during his three-year term (term limits won’t allow him to run again immediately). “People generally understand that if you’re a member of congress you’re a fairly important person. I want to tell you that in this case it’s a big problem. In Mexico, every member of congress represents about 300,000 people. But how many people am I going to represent if I’m elected? Between 12 million and 15 million people. I’m going to represent a larger group of people than any other elected representative in the world. We’re a country that has an enormous number of people living abroad, and that responsibility will be mine.”

Ross says that bringing the vote to Mexicans living outside Mexico will be his number one priority in congress, but he and other activists on this issue have already upped the ante, calling for a separate congressional district for Mexicans abroad. Essentially, that would mean a map of Mexican congressional districts that included U.S. soil, and presumably candidates for congress and president would campaign here. (To a limited extent, campaigning in the U.S. is already a reality; presidential candidate Vicente Fox was in Chicago in early May, and PRI presidential candidate Francisco Labastida’s daughter campaigned for him in Cicero in April.) Ross also wants consulates to be more responsive to the needs of Mexicans living abroad. He wants the Mexican government to seek solutions to the economic conditions that force Mexicans to migrate north, and he says he wants a more dignified relationship between Mexico and the U.S. that could mean seeking changes in everything from immigration policy to NAFTA to American drug certification policy.

“Members of congress aren’t real experts on U.S. issues,” says Ross. “There are lots of myths and prejudices about what the U.S. is and who the Mexicans are who live here. They think we’re all Chicanos, or we’re all hiding out from immigration officials–it’s a population that’s still a mystery for policy makers in Mexico.”

It’s becoming fairly clear that Mexico’s ruling party will not come away from the elections with a majority in either chamber of congress. And since it was a PRI-majority senate that blocked Mexicans living abroad from exercising their right to vote, Ross thinks the struggle for the vote is entering the home stretch. “I think we’re on the final leg of this race,” he says.

Ross says that a seat in congress would change little about him. “The only difference is that I’m going to have to wear a suit and tie and I’m going to have to vote,” he says. “All the rest will be the same. I’ll continue to be an activist. I’ll continue to publish ideas. Me being a member of congress–that’s almost accidental.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Kristina Krug.