Published January 13, 2015
Standing on a busy street corner with other day-laborers waiting for work, Jose Santiago Cuellar had praise — and a warning — for Mexico's new president, Vicente Fox.
Santiago, who voted for Fox in July to help dislodge a ruling party that had controlled Mexico for 71 years, said he and his countrymen expect to see big improvements in the economy under Fox.
"We'd better," the 53-year-old San Diego resident warned, "because we've learned how to get rid of a government that doesn't work for the people."
Such sentiment echoes among Mexicans around the United States as their country enters a new political era Friday with the start of Fox's presidency.
From the desert Southwest to urban centers in California and Illinois and a small town in Iowa, Mexicans who moved north to escape poverty look homeward with wary optimism.
"His victory, I think, will lend legitimacy to the government and make it stronger," said Miguel de Paz, 28, a graduate student at Loyola University in Chicago who voted for Fox.
Norberto Reyes, 42, a restaurant owner in Dalton, Ga., said he is excited by the opposition victory, which he hopes will eventually allow him to open a business in his native country.
"Everybody wanted a change," Reyes said. "The people were tired of the existing party because, at every turn, Mexico was going more down than up."
About 7 million people with Mexican citizenship live in the United States, and many retain strong ties to their homeland. The money they send home constitutes Mexico's third-largest source of income, after oil and tourism.
Fox's stated goals of modernizing the Mexican economy and eventually opening the U.S.-Mexico border resonate with Mexicans abroad like Gustavo Arriaga, 34, who received an engineering degree at home but works as a parking attendant in Los Angeles.
"I would kind of like to see free movement for citizens between Mexico and here," said Arriaga, who is from Cancun. "It would be nice to be able to come here for seasonal work and save money and go back home to be with my family."
Alfredo Vargas, 34, a construction worker in San Diego, said reducing poverty — more than 40 million Mexicans live on $2 a day or less — is the most important issue for him. Nearly all the young adults from his village in the central state of Michoacan now live in the United States.
Among many, the hope for the future is tempered by disappointments of the past.
"We've had a lot of politicians promise us a lot of things over the years," said Valentin Martinez, 74, a retiree from the southern state of Oaxaca who now lives in Vista, north of San Diego.
Gilbert Madrid, 25, had an even darker view. "We're already rock bottom, so we can't get any worse," he said on a visit to relatives in Perry, Iowa, about 20 miles from Des Moines.
Fox, a member of the right-of-center National Action Party, made several campaign visits to the United States to court expatriates. Mexicans had to return home if they wanted to vote.
Fox has outlined an ambitious agenda for his six-year term. He has vowed to reduce poverty by 30 percent; create 1 million jobs a year; revamp the tax system; overhaul the nation's law enforcement; and crack down on corruption.
When he won in July, he defeated Francisco Labastida, the candidate of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which had dominated Mexican politics since 1929.
Ramon Villagomez, a 34-year-old construction worker in Chicago, said that outcome alone is worth celebrating.
"I'm happy because, for the first time I can remember, Americans are reading about Mexico itself, not about drugs or corruption," he said.