San Diego The Tijuana neighborhood of Adolfo Ruiz Cortines sits north of the river about five miles east of the San Ysidro crossing.
The east-west thoroughfare Avenida Defensores de Baja California bisects the lower-middle-class neighborhood. Campaign signs hang from every light pole, fence, and building along the busy street. The pudgy face of National Action Party (PAN) candidate Enrique Méndez, for instance, smirks on at least five posters on one short block between calles José Cerda and Antonio Salvatierra.
One face you won't see on the campaign posters is that of the Democratic Revolution Party (PRD) candidate Abelardo Alcaraz Santillán. But on a hot, dusty mid-July day, motorists speeding by could catch a glimpse of the 31-year-old candidate busy painting a bright yellow crosswalk across Avenida Defensores de Baja California.
The crosswalk painting is part of a novel approach to campaigning that Alcaraz came up with after he was invited to run for the 12th District of the Baja California state legislature. "The idea came from the reality of campaign money that we have," Alcaraz says, as one of ten or so yellow-shirted volunteers takes over the painting. Soap-opera-star handsome, with black hair combed back in a Bob's Big Boy swoosh, the young candidate continues, "We don't have the resources that the PAN or the PRI have. One of the great social inequalities that we have in our country is that campaign money is given [by the government] to the different parties, and how much money a party gets is based on what percentage of votes your party got in the last election."
Alcaraz, who teaches chemistry at the Autonomous University of Baja California in the Mesa de Otay section of Tijuana, was invited by the PRD to run for this office after he worked on the campaign of the nearly elected national presidential candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador. When Alcaraz accepted the invitation, he was handed 75,000 pesos (about $7000) to run the campaign. By comparison, he says, the PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party) and PAN have "millions of pesos" to work with. He realized that buying one campaign poster to every 20 of his opponents' wouldn't be an effective way to spend the money. Besides, he says, "I hate all of these posters. I call them election trash. Look at them," he jerks his thumb up toward a telephone pole behind him. It's got half a dozen posters hanging on it. "They spend a lot of money on these things; then they make the neighborhood ugly by hanging four, five, six of them on every block, sometimes one right on top of another. They're supposed to take them down after the election. But once the election's over, they don't care. I didn't want to spend what little money we have on more election trash. I want to use the money to give to the community. And I wanted to send the message that I'm here to work for my community."
So Alcaraz decided to use his money to do small public works in the 12th District. He bought yellow T-shirts emblazoned with a large number 12, his first name above the number, his last name below it. He bought a few road cones and a diamond-shaped yellow caution sign bearing the letters PRD in its center. He bought high-grade street paint and rollers. And with the help of volunteers, he started painting crosswalks around the 12th District, in which he was born and has lived his whole life. "From the beginning I wanted to set myself apart from my opponents in terms of the type of campaign it was going to be. They definitely have bigger budgets and party structures. But we're going to overpass them with creativity and work. And this [he points to volunteers rolling a bright yellow crosswalk line onto the street] is the result of that creativity. This is what we're doing, and it's given us a lot of results with the citizens of this community."
What kind of results?
"The first thing," he says, "is the vecinos -- the people of the neighborhood -- came out to congratulate me. They approach us and give us food and water, and some volunteer to help us out. Many have told me, if all the candidates would set themselves up to work, we'd be better off."
Another result of the novel campaign strategy, Alcaraz says, was that the city government, currently run by the PRI, tried to shut down the operation. "From the first day that we started working, the city's public works visited us with the typical party-in-power-style attempt to harass the opponent, as small as he might be. It's characteristic of the Mexican PRI government mentality. Five times every day they came out and harassed us with their inspectors. The last time, they had police with them, and they said they had orders to pick us all up. But in the end, the people doing this work are just simple workers. They didn't follow through on their threat. They were going to write them up for a fine, but I told them that the media was coming and to go ahead and give me the ticket so the media could see it. That's when they backed off. They left me an appointment to present myself. From there, our activities started generating media coverage. When the story came out, they stopped harassing us. That's what it took to get them to stop harassing us."
In addition to painting crosswalks, Alcaraz and his band of volunteers have cleaned up parks and cleared the dirt and debris from a basketball court that a small landslide covered years ago. Asked if his works could be construed as media stunts, Alcaraz answers with an anecdote. "I had a first debate, and my opponent from the PRI, Jorge Escobar, after he congratulated me, accused me of pulling a stunt to get media coverage. And he said my party had never done anything for the people. My answer was, 'If we haven't done anything, it's because we've never been in power in this state. The PRI governed for 70 years, and you haven't done anything either. If the media is giving us coverage, it's because of the creativity of my campaign and the fact that we're doing something to help the community. I'll say it openly, I'm running for public election, and I'm interested in media exposure. The difference between you and me is I don't pay to be in the media and you do.' "
Alcaraz has turned into something of a media darling in Tijuana. He's been featured in multiple television and print news stories. The public reaction to the stories, and to the sight of the young candidate working in the streets, has been so favorable that Enrique Méndez, the PAN candidate, has started his own work parties. "And that's welcome," Alcaraz says. "If the other parties are copying me, then I've made a difference. Because changing the way we think is the idea. If they copy me or imitate me, then it doesn't matter if I win or lose. My main objective is to change the face of Mexican politics."
Note: Alcaraz placed third in the August 4 election.