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

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