LAST FALL, SHORTLY BEFORE GRADUATE STUDENT MóNICA 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 group of top high schoolers at the Palacio Municipal. “I noticed one of the girls right off,” remembers Schaffler, who is now Nuevo Laredo’s director of cultural affairs. “She struck me as amazingly dynamic. She had all these ideas, but even more surprisingly, a sense of how to put them into action. It was Mónica, and she was only sixteen. Joven pero madura, we say: Young but mature.”

For all her precociousness, though, she found herself somewhat at loose ends in 1990—“Feeling a bit restless,” as she put it—when Cavazos Lerma arrived in Nuevo Laredo to set up the local offices of Solidarity, the federal government’s national anti-poverty program. Along with a few fellow students at the University of Tamaulipas, García Velásquez took the bold step of proposing several innovative ways of administering the program. And she struck a nerve. Cavazos Lerma, who has a master’s degree from the London School of Economics, made her the local coordinator of Women in Solidarity. In 1993, after he was elected governor, he put her in charge of Solidarity for all of Nuevo Laredo, a powerful and prestigious post, particularly for a 23-year-old. But García Velásquez quickly demonstrated her ability to get things done—she secured funds for low-cost housing and a new sewer plant, for example—in an agency that, in other hands, had been corrupt and inefficient. None of her predecessors had lasted more than seven months in the job, yet she held on for two and a half years, and throughout her term, the government rated the Nuevo Laredo program number one in the state.

Then, after her surprising nomination as the PRI candidate for mayor—“No one over here knew who the hell she was before it was announced,” remembers Laredo Morning Times managing editor Odie Arambula—word of a love connection with Cavazos Lerma began to surface. The rumor was abetted by the PRI’s notoriously murky, closed-door nominating process, but its persistence can be traced back to its chief proponent: Ninfa Deandar Martínez, the local power broker who owns and publishes Nuevo Laredo’s leading daily newspaper, El Mañana. After putting together a coalition of opposition parties, Ninfa, as she is known, decided to run for mayor pro tem,  support the mayoral bid of former mayor Carlos Cantú Rosas, and attack the PRI and its young candidate in the pages of her paper. Cantú Rosas was expected to prevail, especially given the success that opposition parties have had in other border cities, but a surprisingly resilient García Velásquez pulled in 47 percent of the vote and beat him by 15 points.

She may have simply outworked her opponents. For ninety days she toured Nuevo Laredo’s neighborhoods, logging 150 miles on foot and 3,000 by car, meeting some 40,000 people—just about the number of votes she received. “Usually in Nuevo Laredo you have some old guy who shows up at big rallies to talk for twenty minutes and you never see him again,” says Roberto García, a former news director at Laredo’s KVTV, “but Mónica wasn’t afraid to get her shoes dirty.”

As is typical in Mexico, however, the election was far from the end of the story. If anything, Ninfa’s attacks only escalated after her candidate lost. She turned up on the Spanish-language tabloid TV show Ocurrió Así, for instance, to accuse the PRI of corruption and voter fraud, and she granted interviews to Texas papers, including the Houston Chronicle, in which she described García Velásquez as better suited to be a domestic worker, “a pretty maid,” than mayor. Ninfa also published a supposedly incriminating photo of García Velásquez dancing with Cavazos Lerma. Most recently, in October, Ninfa ran a story in El Mañana accusing the mayor of drug addiction (the mayor heatedly denied the charge).

The broadest attacks on the PRI have found many a sympathetic ear, especially in Texas, which regards Mexico’s politics with even more suspicion than its own. “Making that young woman the candidate was a ploy—it was a desperate move by Cavazos Lerma whether or not she’s his girlfriend,” Richard Geissler, the editor of the alternative monthly LareDos, said at the time. “The PRI knew it was losing control of the northern cities, so it picked someone to deliver the youth vote and the female vote at once. It turned out to be a stroke of genius, but it’s still the same old PRI. Sure, Mónica seems nice and smart, but she’ll be their puppet before long.”

Despite the attacks, however, the voices of the mayor’s admirers are beginning to drown out those of her critics. Rumors about her love life persist, but they are at least more tame: The latest gossip—true, it turns out—has it that her boyfriend is a young PRI official who accompanied her on a trip to Washington, D.C., where she discussed border issues with U.S. senator Phil Gramm. “Maybe it’s partly a result of her youth,” says Laredo city councilman Alfonso Casso, “but Mónica is not hung up on the old rivalries. She understands we’re not two cities but one: los dos Laredos.” Casso noticed that even the metaphors García Velásquez used in dealing with the Bridge to Nowhere dispute tip off her modern worldview. “She explained to the people of Tamaulipas and Nuevo León that one of them has the hardware—meaning the  bridge—and the other the software—the customs brokers—so they need to work together. I liked that.”

The mayor’s growth as a public official was on display when I accompanied her on one of her weekly visits to the colonias of Nuevo Laredo, where she listens to the concerns of the people in a kind of open forum. Her destination that day was lower-middle-class Colonia Mirador. With the dignitaries gathered under a tent on a cleared lot, local officials voiced their concerns: a dangerous intersection by the entrance to the grade school, leaky water mains, potholes the size of taco stands. As they spoke, a few young girls slipped under the back of the tent to be near García Velásquez. One touched her dress while another squeezed her ankle. She smiled, bent down, and gave each of them a hug. Then, when it was her turn to talk, she responded to each of the requests without looking at her notes. She would take care of the school-crossing problem immediately, she promised; the water mains would be fixed. (The potholes? Well, Nuevo Laredo can’t be rebuilt in a day.) The crowd murmured in assent, attesting to her credibility.

But what of the future? Mexican mayors are not allowed to serve consecutive terms and often find themselves strapped for pesos and short of power in Mexico’s highly centralized political system. “You have to ask yourself who would want to be mayor of Nuevo Laredo,” says Odie Arambula. “You have most of the people living in shacks, serious infrastructure problems. Plus, you’re caught in a squeeze between what Mexico City wants, U.S. federal agencies, and Texas politics. Then you have to deal with the drug lords. Really, who would want that job?”

As Mónica García Velásquez walked the streets of Colonia Mirador—stopping for tacos de picadillo at a local stand, patting the adoring young girls who followed her around, walking so briskly at times that her entourage gasped to keep up with her—it appeared that this young woman, at least, wants it. And it appeared, finally, that Nuevo Laredo wants her. As we passed one of the many walls in the city adorned with PRI symbols and the words “Mónica García Velásquez” in green and red, we noticed, as usual, that the party’s insignia had been defaced. The mayor’s good name, however, had not been touched.

Freelance writer Michael DiLeo lives in Austin.