CHELSEA, Mass. - Almost three decades ago, a pregnant Merlin Pena landed in Boston with her husband and two children after escaping El Salvador's bloody civil war.
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," 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 United States 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 United States, 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 United States can also tap into a richer pool of political contributions from other expatriates.
Most previous Latino leaders who lived in America 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 United States 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, Rodriguez said.
In 2004, Andres Bermudez became the first migrant living in the United States to win a Mexican mayorship after being recruited by an opposition party. He came to the United States illegally in the 1960s stuffed in the trunk of a car, and became a millionaire after inventing a tomato planting machine.
Nicknamed the "Tomato King," he was elected to Mexico's Congress in 2006.
Since 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.
In a YouTube campaign video, Gomez Gochez talks about leaving wartorn El Salvador and his advocacy on behalf of immigrants in Los Angeles to the tune of the Eagles' song "New Kid in Town." In another YouTube video, Gomez Gochez promises to bring U.S.-style democracy and revive the countryside with his acquired U.S. contacts.
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 Latino 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.
Her mini-celebrity status among U.S. immigrants caught the attention of Carlos Rivas Zamora, the former mayor of San Salvador, and candidate for president under the Christian Democratic Party, the fourth-largest party in El Salvador. Party officials asked her to join the ticket.
"I was surprised," said Pena, who became a U.S. citizen in 1996 but maintained her Salvadoran citizenship. "I told them my party was the Salvadoran people. That's my party."
But then she met Zamora and felt "connected" to him and his causes. He asked her personally to join him. It didn't matter that political observers considered the Christian Democratic Party a longshot at winning the presidency, she said. "I wouldn't be running if I didn't think we could win," Pena said.
The real attraction of expatriates for political parties are the money they can help raise in the United States, said Cecilia Menjivar, a sociology professor at Arizona State University.
Before Pena leaves for El Salvador to campaign for the March 2009 national elections, the Christian Democratic Party has set up a fundraiser at a night club in Lynn, Mass., where there is a large concentration of Central American immigrants.