It’s a late Sunday morning on the tourist-laden walkways of the Placita Olvera. A group of about five or six people have gathered on the brick benches facing Our Lady Queen Of Angels Catholic Church. Others begin trickling in, all sporting different combinations of red, white, green, and burgundy t-shirts and ball caps.
Within minutes, over 40 people have arrived and are buzzing with conversation. It’s April 22, the day of the first debate in the 2018 race for the Mexican presidency.
“Today we’ll see how the corrupt defend corruption!” yells José Valdez , a regular attendee of these gatherings, as he arrives with his girlfriend.
AMLO shirt spotted for sale at the Mercadito on 1st and Lorena.
Soon after this, a truck pulls over in front of everyone, prompting six of the attendees to rush over and begin unloading vinyl banners, newspaper stacks and bundles of self-printed t-shirts and hats. They rush to set up the banners along a line of concrete pillars with rope and binder clips. It’s a modest operation.
The banners display the image of leftist Mexican politician Andrés Manuel López Obrador –the frontrunner in Sunday’s presidential bid and known throughout Mexico as AMLO, his initials– alongside beloved Mexican presidents Benito Juarez and Lázaro Cárdenas, showing everyone the importance this group places on this election and Obrador’s potential presidency. Next to those banners is one that reads, in Spanish: “MORENA Committee Placita Olvera: Everyone united. Hope has no borders.”
Millions of votes at stake
Every Sunday since October of 2014, this committee has set up shop on this busy walkway in downtown Los Angeles to accomplish a very simple goal: get Mexicans living in the United States to participate in Mexico’s election.
“If every Mexican national living in the United States voted in the election, that’s over 11 million votes,” said Eastside resident Fidel Guzmán, who founded MORENA Placita Olvera along with Higinio Pedrazas. “And if every Mexican person living in the United States could get two family members or friends in Mexico to vote, that’s over 60 million votes!”
Guzmán and Pedrazas founded the group in 2014 to, as Pedrazas said, simply spread awareness of the 43 students from the Ayotzinapa teachers’ school who disappeared in the state of Guerrero. They handed out flyers, made banners, and urged people to get informed and demand answers from the Mexican government. In mid-2015 they added spreading information about López Obrador and his Movimiento Regeneración Nacional (National Regeneration Movement) –or MORENA– to their agenda.
“At that time, MORENA hadn’t become a political party yet; It was only a movement,” said Pedrazas. Guzmán added that they decided to become MORENA affiliates because they truly believe that “the best thing someone can do for Mexico is get involved with MORENA and fight for Mexico’s future.”
For a few months the only two members of the group were Guzmán and Pedrazas, but they grew slowly to include a mix of people from the Eastside, the Pico-Union neighborhood, South LA, and even some from as far as San Bernardino. Most of them are working-class folk –electricians, tailors, construction workers– and more than half of them are undocumented.
When asked if they worry about their status when rallying at the Placita, one undocumented individual said: “I’m not afraid because I am not breaking any law… to struggle for justice we have to get rid of our fears.”
These MORENA committees have popped up all over Southern California. Two of them sprouted out of the Placita Olvera Committee: the San Bernardino and East LA chapters. There are 11 committees in LA county alone and a total of 16 in Southern California.
All volunteer effort
All members are volunteers and they each carry different roles. Some help set up the banners. Others set up audio equipment. Many of them hand out old issues of the official MORENA newspaper, Regeneración, to people passing through.
Among their other duties Guzmán and Pedrazas manage the sale of MORENA merchandise. But they don’t receive this merchandise from any official channels. They pay for the hats, shirts, and handheld flags out of their own pockets and sell the items on a donation basis to MORENA supporters that pass by.
The money raised is used to fund their operation. “We don’t receive any funding, or any marching orders from MORENA officials,” said Rafael Delgado.
Delgado is an East LA resident who serves as a representative for MORENA Placita Olvera at conventions that bring together committees from all over the United States (and one in Canada). Each committee is an independent affiliate of MORENA and these conventions are planned to help the committees strategize their outreach efforts.
“MORENA Placita Olvera is the largest of all the MORENA committees in the US and Canada,” said Delgado. “In the last month alone this committee has signed up 300 people to become registered MORENA party members and have given over 1,000 people instructions on how to register to vote in the elections from abroad or how to participate if they cannot register to vote –all right here in the Placita Olvera.”
Delgado admits, however, that the process has been very difficult. “Our work is to be on the ground; talking to people and giving them the information they need,” he said.
Navigating electoral maze
Between January and March, MORENA Placita Olvera helped people walking by register to be affiliated with the party, told them they needed to apply for their voting credentials at the Mexican Consulate, and helped them activate their voting credential when they received it. Guzmán said that they would help people access websites and input voter ID numbers whenever possible. A woman approaches him and asks where she can go vote. The deadline for Mexican nationals living abroad to register to vote has already passed, but she doesn’t know that.
“There’s no information!” yells Guzman. He said Mexico’s Instituto Nacional Electoral (INE) orNational Electoral institution failed to provide enough information, time, and resources to make it simple for Mexicans living abroad to vote in the first election in which they can do so without having to travel to Mexico.
Guzman tells the woman that she can still be part of this election. “Call your friends and family in Mexico and ask them to vote for AMLO,” he said. “Ask them to vote if they are not already planning on voting.”
“Registering to vote is like navigating a maze,” argued Olga Estrada who, along with her husband Juvenal, started a MORENA chapter in San Bernardino. “Many people have complained that the INE and the consulates made things very difficult.
“It took one month to receive my credential, so when they started advertising it was too late,” Estrada added.
Her husband interjected that there were no real attempts to inform potential voters of what they had to do until there was only three weeks left before the deadline. Juvenal also mentioned that when he visited the consulate to process his paperwork he saw many people being turned away for for minor issues.
The Mexican Consulate in Los Angeles did not respond to requests for comment, but
some news outlets have reported that the difficulty of registering to vote from abroad is likely to have impacted the number of eligible voters living in the United States who will be able to vote on Sunday. A recent story by Univision cited that of the 11.7 million Mexican Nationals living in the United States, only 674,111 had sent all the necessary documents. A total of 522,000 had actually received their voting credentials, and only 141,745 had effectively registered to vote.
Despite all this, the MORENA Placita Olvera group remains optimistic and continues to encourage the public. On the last Sunday in June, one week before election day, the group was out in full force doing the same thing they have been doing for over three years –handing out newspapers, answering questions, encouraging people to vote or ask their friends and family to vote.
“All I want is for people to open their minds and think of all the options in this election; what we are really trying to do is spread the idea that there can be a change, that there could be something here,” said Guzmán. “Even if they’re not voting for AMLO, all I want is for Mexicans here in the US to participate in whatever way they can.”
Obrador has enjoyed a comfortable lead throughout the entire election season and the most recent polls point to his victory. He holds a near 20-point lead over closest rival Ricardo Anaya of the PAN-PRD coalition. Jose Antonio Meade from the ruling PRI is in third.
But the work for the MORENA Placita Olvera Committee is not over. Many members plan on traveling to Mexico to observe polling stations in Morelia, Mexico City, and Tijuana, or accompanying friends and family as they cast their vote.
“I’m going to be accompanying 40 people who are casting their vote for AMLO, we have to defend their vote,” said Guzmán. Others in the group plan on going to the Placita Olvera, just as they have been and waiting for the results to come in.
And even though the election season has seen historically high levels of violence, Guzmán, Pedrazas, and the other MORENA Placita Olvera members remain hopeful that this election will bring change peacefully.
“Smile,” Guzmán says, “and we will win.”
Community contributor Marco A. Covarrubias is a lifelong Boyle Heights and Northeast L.A. resident currently working for a community-based organization in Boyle Heights. In 2017, he graduated from California State Polytechnic University, Pomona with a bachelor’s degree in history and a minor in political science.
All photos by Marco A. Covarrubias