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The Old College Try

Before he graduates—or goes back to the graveyard shift at the gas station—a 23-year-old mayor is working to make life better in his impoverished hometown

By August 2006Comments

THE CALL ABOUT THE PRODUCE in the roadway came into El Cenizo’s city hall late on a Wednesday morning. Heads of lettuce were lying out in the street, a concerned citizen reported, posing who knew what kind of health risk. Magdalena Gonzales, who was the city secretary at the time, remained impassive in the face of the alleged menace. Back in the plain room that serves as the city council’s chambers and as an all-purpose event space, tables had been laid for the annual Día de la Madre celebration honoring the town’s mothers, and even now the first arrivals were filing down the hall, pinning artificial carnations to their blouses and taking their seats. Gonzales was in charge of the festivities; she had no time for this. The lettuces, she explained briskly, were not the city’s problem.

But if errant vegetables fall outside its purview, they are the exception. Ever since this small town on the banks of the Rio Grande incorporated seventeen years ago, its tiny government has been charged with providing the most basic services to its poor, mostly Spanish-speaking residents—of whom there are 3,500 according to the U.S. census but closer to 6,500 by the city’s own estimate. El Cenizo started out in the early eighties as a colonia, an unincorporated development where aspiring landowners would put $50 down and pay $85 a month toward the purchase of a small lot; they would build their own houses, often ramshackle affairs with outhouses in the rear. But in 1989 the developer went bankrupt, and the fledgling municipality has since labored to acquire the amenities that many of us take for granted: sanitation, paved roads, streetlights, stop signs, and police and fire service.

El Cenizo’s mayor is Raul Reyes, a 23-year-old college student who lives with his mother—former city secretary Gonzales—and four younger brothers. While previous mayors have been content to provide the city with rudimentary improvements, Reyes has made it his mission to prod it along into the current century, applying for grants, bringing computers to city hall, and planning a lobbying trip to Washington, D.C. I first met Reyes in 2001 when I was working on a story about El Cenizo for the Texas Observer and he was a high school kid, volunteering at city hall. He told me then that he intended to become the first mayor of El Cenizo with a college degree. Yeah, sure: At the time, I figured that once he started college, he would be lured away by the world beyond. In fact, he first ran for mayor the following year. “I was the best-qualified candidate, even at nineteen,” he says, though he received only 39 of the 291 votes cast in that race. In 2004 he ran again and won, and he’s running again this fall.

His approach to the job sets him apart from his predecessors. “During my administration …” he grandly begins statements about his time in the job, even though he’s a volunteer whose “administration” consists of two paid employees (one of whom was, until recently, his mom) and a handful of contract workers and volunteers. He talks, at least some of the time, like a seasoned officeholder: When I contacted him again in April, one of the first things he said to me was “I don’t consider myself a politician; I consider myself more of a public servant”—a politician’s declaration if ever there was one (which came, for some reason, in response to the question “So do you have any time for a social life?”).

“I have a vision for El Cenizo” is another thing he says. It isn’t easy to style yourself a visionary, even on a small scale, in a parched little border hamlet where the most-oft-cited problem seems to be illegal dumping of trash. But Reyes hopes to develop a city park, draw small businesses to the highway at the edge of town, and perhaps annex some of the ranchland on the other side of that road. Already during his term as mayor, the city has paved the last of the unfinished roads, built a fire station, and planted saplings in the hard, dry ground. “People think I’m crazy for seeing a bright future for El Cenizo,” says Reyes. “They say, ‘Man, where do you get all these ideas from?’ But, you know, I do have ideas for my city—and I say ‘my city’ because I love it.”

When he moved with his mother and brothers to El Cenizo from Corpus Christi, in the fifth grade, Reyes hated it: “It wasn’t something nice. It was dirt roads, and you had one house and then you wouldn’t see another for maybe a hundred yards.” Nevertheless, it wasn’t long before he entered into El Cenizo civic life, such as it was, by volunteering as an assistant to the director at the Boys and Girls Club. In that capacity the teenage Reyes started his own youth choir, which, despite considerable skepticism, went on to win first and second prizes at a regional 4-H competition for its performances of Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” and Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On.”

These days Reyes trumpets his “Keep El Cenizo Beautiful” campaign, even though another person might consider it the first order of  business to make El Cenizo beautiful, for to an outsider, it is not a beautiful town. El Cenizo lies about fifteen miles south of  Laredo; its nine hundred small lots are arranged on a trapezoidal grid between a rural road and the river. In a sense, it’s like any commuter suburb: a place where people move because it’s safer and more affordable than the big city. Only here, 70 percent of the residents fall below the poverty line. The average household income is a little more than $13,000, while the average household size is almost five people. The lingua franca is Spanish. In 1999 El Cenizo enjoyed its fifteen minutes of negative national publicity after the city council passed two ordinances, one resolving to conduct its business in Spanish—the primary language of most residents—and the other declaring that city employees and officials would not assist the Border Patrol in identifying illegal immigrants.

The city’s houses vary widely in style, from solid brick cottages with shutters and lawns to ancient trailers abutting dirt yards. Although the poverty is apparent—in the shabbier houses, in the ongoing impromptu sales of clothing strung up on people’s chain-link fences—what really makes an impression is the brunt of the heat and dust and isolation. It seems like a difficult place to get anything done.

ON THE AFTERNOON PRIOR to the Mother’s Day celebration, within the small cream-colored building that serves as city hall, things were quiet but for the rustle of an overhead fan and the periodic low-battery bleat of a smoke alarm. A Lincoln Navigator pulled up, and out stepped a tall, natty lawyer from Laredo, there to represent a ranching family who owns property adjacent to the town. Reyes was hoping the family would donate two acres to a proposed El Cenizo park project, but when a member of the family arrived, a fiftyish Anglo man with sunbaked skin and a buzz cut, he didn’t look especially disposed toward charity.

Reyes is clean shaven and often wears one of the monogrammed “City of El Cenizo” shirts he ordered for the council and staff after taking office—in five colors, one for each day of the workweek. He comes across as somewhat shy, in the way of a shy person who really likes to be around people. (Although he recently quit a part-time job to devote more hours to his mayoral duties, he daydreams about returning to a job he used to have, working the graveyard shift at the Texaco. “You see people. It was exciting to see people come in at six a.m. and already know what they were going to get,” he says. “I tell my mom, and my mom gets mad at me. She says it’s not going to look right. Not that there’s anything wrong with politicians working at the gas station, but it’s not common.”) Though he sometimes acts like a college kid—he canceled one interview for this story by having one of his younger brothers call and claim that the mayor had a sore throat—most of the time he handles himself with poise. He greeted the rancher politely and escorted the two much older and larger men into the back room.

Once the meeting started, you could hear the rancher’s voice from the front of the building, like a small motor converting exasperation and bile into sound. He was tired of people trespassing and leaving beer bottles and trash on his property. Reyes was sympathetic. On city property, too, people were dumping trash and tires. This administration is different, he assured the man. We want to work with you. By the end of the meeting, the rancher was much calmer, though noncommittal.

Reyes’ sympathy was almost certainly genuine. Illegal dumping preoccupies him as it has previous mayors, who have worked to acquire garbage trucks and exhorted the populace to pay for garbage service. When his predecessor, Oralia Reyes—no relation—ran for office, she explained her platform to the Laredo Morning Times as “a change in cleaning.” The city’s one full-time employee other than the city secretary is refuse collection clerk Juany Perez, a stunning, soft-spoken woman in her forties who processes trash-bill payments. Last year Reyes coordinated four cleanup drives and organized a group of “mayor’s teen volunteers” to pick up trash. The city also bought another garbage truck, and volunteers, including Reyes’s brother Erick, now collect trash four days a week.

El Cenizo’s annual budget amounts to less than $400,000, so progress depends on volunteers and grant money to accomplish just about anything. Reyes has worked hard to secure both. With the help of an Austin grant-writing agency, he’s wrangled more than $2 million. He’s also appointed two volunteer policemen, who patrol when they can (typically in the evenings after work); a handful of volunteer firemen; and a volunteer municipal judge, who is, conveniently, the mother of one of the policemen.

In El Cenizo, says Reyes, “the things we have we have because we’ve worked very hard to get them, whether it be a tree or a new door.” Those things have come in fits and starts, ever since what Israel Morales Reyna, a lawyer for Texas Riogrande Legal Aid (TRLA), in Laredo, refers to as El Cenizo’s “democratic revolution.” As Reyna tells it, back in the eighties the mayor and two commissioners were beholden to the colonia’s owner, D&A Realty, which maintained a significant fraction of the townspeople on its payroll. The council would meet in private to decide how to spend what little money the city collected, mostly from franchise fees. Then came D&A’s bankruptcy, as it was facing millions of dollars in prospective fines for violations of state environmental, health, and safety laws in El Cenizo and other developments. Titles to El Cenizo’s properties were transferred to a state-run nonprofit organization and eventually to residents themselves, and the city incorporated. Yet after some initial success administering the city independently, El Cenizo’s elected officials strayed from the good-government path, using public funds for whims like dry cleaning. TRLA had already helped bring more-open government to the nearby community of Rio Bravo, and so a group of El Cenizo residents came together and, calling themselves Gente Aliada Para el Mejoramiento de El Cenizo (People United for the Betterment of El Cenizo), approached Reyna to see whether it might do the same for their town.

After TRLA sued the city to disclose its financial records, candidates affiliated with Gente Aliada won office and passed a local property tax. And in the wake of Gente Aliada’s success, other groups formed with more-limited objectives, one of them the Alianza Nueva Gene-ración Para el Parque de El Cenizo, an alliance advocating for a city park. “This is where we first ran into Raul Reyes,” says Reyna, “a youth leader there who was very bright and who organized all types of activities for the youth.”

Reyes joined the alliance, but eventually the effort fell apart. Now, he’s still trying to get that park. Twelve acres along the river’s edge already constitute a park of sorts, with a soccer goal and a crude baseball diamond, but it’s weedy and often trash strewn. So Reyes has applied for a grant (and meanwhile dispatched volunteers to pick up the garbage); his park- improvement project is in line to receive several hundred thousand dollars from Texas Parks and Wildlife. Reyes expects that the improvements will happen, though when he took me out to see the land, I couldn’t help but think back to my visit to the town five years ago, when then-mayor Flora Baton was equally sanguine about the future of the park. These days, it’s looking worse than it did then, and in the end, the rancher declined to donate the two additional acres. But Reyes remains confident. After a little while, his optimism (what you might at first just take to be the sort of generic positive-thinking trait so often exhibited by elected officials as a species) begins to look different against the backdrop of El Cenizo—more dogged but also more patient.

NI DE AQUÍ NI DE ALLÁ. According to Reyes, El Cenizo residents will sometimes describe themselves as “from neither here nor there”—not from the United States, not from Mexico. “But we have as our slogan ‘Two Cultures, One Great City,’ because we are a great city,” he adds.

The day after the heads-of-lettuce call, their presence in the streets was explained to me by Ricardo Molina, the director of  El Cenizo’s community center, which sponsors programs ranging from sewing classes to health clinics. The center is also a drop-off  point for food delivered by Webb County’s food-bank program, which had without warning deposited some eight hundred heads of lettuce at the center just an hour before closing time. “People were very upset,” Molina said. “They told me they were going to send tomatoes. You can send twenty pallets of tomatoes, but lettuce? You can’t do a ton of stuff with lettuce.” So there were some sixty heads of lettuce left over at the end of the day, and apparently kids had gotten hold of some of them and used them as soccer balls.

Mystery solved, the conversation then turned to the nature of life in El Cenizo. “We’re out here by ourselves,” said Molina. “You’re going to live wherever you can afford to.” And, he said, echoing Reyes, that means living in a kind of limbo, between Mexico and the U.S. “Over there you’re a pocho because you’re not a Mexican. Over here you’re not a Texan, you’re a Mexican. But everybody’s trying to make it the best that they can.”

Given the dust and the poverty and a climate generally unfavorable to gardening, it’s impressive how many flowers and plants you see in El Cenizo: bougainvillea vaulting over a chain-link fence or small shrubs stubbornly lodged in inhospitable-looking ground. In May little clusters of tiny red flowers were growing in a small bed in a stretch of yard beside the community center. In their midst was a hand-painted sign: “Favor de no pisar las flores ni cortar” (“Please don’t step on the flowers or pick them”). As in just about any community, there are people in El Cenizo who want to cultivate something, and to keep what grows from being trampled.

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