- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 13, 2009

CHELSEA, Mass. | Almost three decades ago, a pregnant Merlin Pena landed in Boston with her husband and two children after escaping El Salvador’s civil war.

Mrs. Pena cleaned offices, got groceries from food pantries and eventually went to night school to learn English. This month, the 51-year-old will return to El Salvador - to run for vice president.

“I’ve lived here 28 years, but I still have feelings for my country,” Mrs. Pena said. “I have a unique experience, and I think I have a lot to offer.”

Immigration experts say a growing number of migrants - who have toiled in the U.S. as laborers, janitors and car mechanics - are being recruited to run for office in their homelands. Their working-class immigrant stories resonate in Latin America, where many residents have family members in the U.S., many of whom send home financial support.

“They represent the U.S. experience, and these are people who have done well from the perspective of those back in their former countries,” said Nestor Rodriguez, a sociology professor at the University of Texas.

Recruiting candidates from the U.S. can also tap into a richer pool of political contributions from other expatriates.

Most former Hispanic leaders who lived in the U.S. were wealthy and came to the U.S. primarily for their formal education.

Salsa singer and actor Ruben Blades famously ran for president in Panama in 1994 after living in the U.S. for years. Boston-born Hector Ricardo Silva was elected mayor of San Salvador in 1997 and Jose Rafael Espada, a former Houston cardiothoracic surgeon, was elected vice president of Guatemala in 2007.

But the new crop of migrant candidates comes from working-class backgrounds and likely didn’t consider running for office until approached, Mr. Rodriguez said.

In 2004, Andres Bermudez became the first migrant living in the U.S. to win a Mexican mayorship after being recruited by an opposition party. He came to the U.S. illegally in the 1960s stuffed in the trunk of a car and became a millionaire after inventing a tomato-planting machine. He was elected to Mexico’s Congress in 2006.

Since Mr. Bermudez, at least four others have sought offices in Mexico and El Salvador, including Los Angeles resident Salvador Gomez Gochez, who is running for mayor of his hometown of Atiquizaya, El Salvador.

Mrs. Pena, who works as a resource specialist at the Massachusetts General Hospital clinic in Chelsea, said for years she was mainly concerned about taking care of her family and helping fellow Hispanic immigrants adjust to life in Massachusetts.

More recently, she has pushed for immigration reform in the U.S., worked as an election monitor in El Salvador and helped organize the massive immigration rallies three years ago. Since 1986, she visited El Salvador at least once a year but never joined a political party.

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