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

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

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