LAST FALL, SHORTLY BEFORE GRADUATE STUDENT Mó NICA GARCíA VELáSQUEZ was elected mayor Of Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, a rumor began to make the rounds. “ Ai, that woman,” people whispered over nachos at the El Dorado bar. “I hear she’s just the mistress of the governor of Tamaulipas.” There was even a joke to go with the rumor: What did Mónica do when the governor told her she was going to be mayor? She fell out of bed.
Border towns tend to thrive on gossip, especially of the sexy variety, but this particu-lar bit of chisme proved especially tenacious. The notion of the mayor as the gover-nor’s lover meshed all too well with the common perception of corruption in Mexican politics and particularly in García Velásquez’s party, the Partido Revolucionario Institucional ( PRI), which has ruled the country for more than half a century. After two years of instability—rebel warfare, political assassinations, the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement, the collapse of the peso, the scandals surrounding ex-president Carlos Salinas de Gortari—everyone in Mexico is wondering whether the PRI, the party of los dinosauros, can save itself by becoming a true agent of reform. The rumors about García Velásquez strike at the heart of the matter: Is she for real, a rising star, or just a political favor in a party dress?
At the end of her first year in office, 27-year-old Mónica García Velásquez still has her share of enemies, but she has made it clear that—whatever her relationship with Tamaulipas governor Manuel Cavazos Lerma—she is no bimbo. Already she has made an appreciable difference in this shanty-riddled NAFTA boomtown of nearly 350,000 people, bringing water and sewer services to 95 percent of the city (up from 75 percent a year ago), hiring more than two hundred new police officers, and facilitating discussions between the feuding neighboring states of Tamaulipas and Nuevo León about the construction of a road from Nuevo Laredo to the famous “Bridge to Nowhere.” Observers on both sides of the border have been impressed. “She seems to have quickly understood that the life of this city depends on international trade, and so we must balance the competing forces of free enterprise and the U.S. and Mexican governments,” says Manuel Ceballos, a professor of history at Nuevo Laredo’s Colegio de la Frontera Norte. “She’s very intel-ligent, creative, a great listener,” says Laredo National Bank president Gary Jacobs. “She’s just the kind of person you’d want to be mayor of any Texas city.”
When I first saw García Velásquez, at a cocktail party in Laredo shortly after her election, she did appear, as one socialite put it, “awfully young.” She spoke briefly and nervously in Spanish—she understands only some En-glish and speaks even less—and left early. At her office across the border in Nuevo Laredo’s Palacio Municipal, though, she was more assured, confidently chatting with journalists after her weekly press conference. Among her Generación Equis peers in the press she didn’t seem nearly so green, for Mexico today is a land of juventud: The average age is under 25, and more than a third of the population is younger than 15.
Not that I was expecting Cicciolina, the porn star who became a member of Italy’s parliament, but I was surprised at the mayor’s poise and professionalism when we met in private. She didn’t exactly look like a policy wonk—her long hair was pinned back with two combs to reveal high cheekbones, slashing dark eyebrows, and gold hoop earrings, and she wore a lacy blue camisole under her suit and black patent leather high-heeled shoes—but with a translator at her side, she quickly rattled off her take on issues ranging from the need for public safety (she defended her decision to bring in a strong-arm interim police chief from Guerrero to fight border crime) to trade (she wants maximum cooperation between her country and the U.S. but also wants to preserve Mexican culture). She brushed aside the rumors about her love life as part of a “dirty war” waged by political opponents. “We don’t have to respond to such vulgarities,” she said. “We have an impermeable coat that won’t allow such wickedness to come in.” And she bristled more at the suggestion that there was any irony in her nomination by the PRI, that a young reformer would come from within the power structure instead of from one of the opposition parties. “Just ask which party took the risk of nominating a woman, and a young woman at that, to be mayor of this city,” she said, a note of anger in her voice for the first time. “It doesn’t make me feel vain or think I’m so great. What interests me is the act of change by the PRI, whether it is I or another person they choose.”
The more one learns about García Velásquez, the more her election seems an emblem of destiny, not whimsy or corruption. Born at the now-defunct Santa Isabel hospital (currently the site of a Church’s Chicken), she’s the first local to serve as Nuevo Laredo’s mayor since 1983, when the PRI began dispatching its henchmen from Monterrey and Mexico City; she still lives with her parents and half a dozen dogs in a nice-looking one-story stucco-and-brick house near the Palacio. And if Nuevo Laredoans had to wait for a local mayor, they were especially overdue for a woman: García Velásquez is the first female mayor in her city’s 148-year his-tory. “Always before in politics here, it was older men,” says Ana Laura Sepulveda, an assistant to the director of Nuevo Laredo’s cultural affairs department. “If you were under fifty, they told you, ‘Come back later.’ If you were a woman, it was, ‘Don’t come back.’ But now with Mónica, the door is open a crack, and it’s exciting.”
Even as a teenager, García Velásquez was getting noticed. Ten years ago, Federico Schaffler was an aide to then-mayor Ricardo de Hoyos, who was visited by a