Wow. Wow. I’m shocked.” María Eugenia Guerra hopped out of her truck and said “wow” again as she surveyed a small graveyard north of Laredo, which seven months earlier had lain half-submerged in overgrowth, construction trash, and old tires.
Guerra, who five years ago co-founded the monthly paper LareDOS, has a distinctive speaking voice: gentle and a little bit scratchy, at once girlish and wise. When she talks, very slight shifts in tone seem to signify strong currents of feeling. “This was really filthy,” she said, surprised and also quietly pleased. “Somebody cleaned this up.” She then hoisted her camera and set about taking pictures.
Guerra had photographed this place once before, last April, and published one of the pictures on the cover of LareDOS (of which she is now the sole publisher and principal writer). In an accompanying article, beneath the headline “R.I.P. in the Rubble,” she described the former ranch graveyard’s small, worn crosses, some of them fallen, many decorated with plastic flowers left by recent visitors. She also catalogued, in words and photographs, the trash that had been dumped in their midst — the heaps of demolition waste, the cracked swimming pool tiles, the boxes of rancid lard, the paint cans and oil cans and mattresses and cable spools.
She had driven us here at my request, in the enormous bronze truck she uses to go back and forth between Laredo and her ranch thirty miles south near San Ygnacio. The original article had struck me as a telling illustration of what Guerra often writes about: the neglect of environment and history in a NAFTA boomtown, and the partial vision — or willingness to look the other way — of many of its citizens. The graveyard seemed a fitting emblem of what goes ignored, located as it is right behind the Laredo Country Club and a newish subdivision called The Plantation; to get here we’d driven down a dirt road along the putting green, then past a few run-down houses outside the subdivision’s hedges; finally we’d arrived at this tract of prickly pear and mesquite, where the occasional surveyor’s orange flag in a tree heralded the onward march of Progress.
But there was no longer much trash: the photographs had called attention to the graveyard, at last, and someone had anonymously cleared out most of the garbage. Laredo is not without its surprises — which maybe accounts for a different strain in Guerra’s writing, and in LareDOS as a whole: humor. Satire and gossip are staples of the paper, and the word “irony” crops up often. “I love the irony of our town, but I hate the disparities of it,” she wrote in the introduction to a commemorative “Best of LareDOS” issue last December, “the plenty and the zero of it, the natural beauty and the disregard for it … the haves and the have-nots, the nouveau NAFTA riche who owe their fortunes to geography, suerte, asphalt, and diesel exhaust; the wannabes; and the nunca-bes.” Driving back from the graveyard, Guerra echoed that statement: “This town is so full of little ironies,” she said. “You’ll get whiplash from the ironies, and by ironies I also mean the disparities.”
Editors as a group are not know for their calm, but there is something Buddha-like in Guerra’s deliberative, watchful manner. She is short and plump, lightly freckled from the weekends she spends outdoors, and partial to untucked chambray shirts and cotton pants. She readily admits she wanted to be a cowboy when she was a girl, and says she used to accompany her mother to the grocery store dressed as Davy Crockett. But she also wanted to be a journalist from an early age; her parents gave her a block printing kit one Christmas, which she used to publish her first newspaper, enlisting the help of a friend to distribute it around the neighborhood.
She is both of Laredo and not of it. Her border roots go back to 1750, when some of her ancestors settled in Guerrero Viejo; she grew up in Laredo, the second of five children. Her father owned a downtown hardware store, which she said “was at the center of our lives.” After high school Guerra left for the University of Dallas, where she promptly flunked out, and ended up in Austin, attending U.T. briefly before being “interrupted by the revolution” and devoting herself to the antiwar movement. She stayed in the Austin area for the next twenty years, eventually finishing her journalism degree at Southwest Texas State. She married, had a son, and ran a plant nursery.
By 1988 Guerra was divorced, living in the Hill Country town of Wimberley, and running out of money — so she moved back to Laredo. “I spent many years undoing the stereotype; people thought I’d become a hippie.” She worked as a reporter for the Zapata Weekly Express (one of two warring newspapers in the small town southeast of Laredo) and as director of the nonprofit Rio Grande International Study Center, before she and photographer Richard Geissler started LareDOS in 1994 (with around $20,000 that Geissler raised by selling a couple of vintage cars). “We’d been kicking it around for years, talking about everything we would put in a newspaper,” Guerra said — and “everything” truly ran the gamut from original reporting to company press releases to a fishing column.
“One thing Meg has going for her,” said her friend Jackie Jeffrey, a professor of anthropology and journalism at Laredo’s Texas A&M International University, “is that she was a debutante here, her father was president of the Chamber of Commerce here, so her roots are solidly insider, but she’s been away and come back, and has the perspective that others do not.” Naturally, that perspective has not always been welcome. At its outset, the paper looked much as it does now, like a rough-around-the-edges city alternative weekly, and like many alternative weeklies, LareDOS consistently went after abuse of public office. Yet while your typical New Times reporter might be required to dig deep for a story, and then carefully enumerate the nefarious connections between City Contractor X and County Judge Y and a supporting cast of Unscrupulous Developers, in Laredo the tree shakes a little easier.
The way Guerra describes it, public corruption in Laredo has historically acted like a freewheeling virus, migrating from one governing body to another when the old environment becomes too hostile. After a Rhode Island-born mayor — and a CBS exposé reported by Bill Moyers — shed light on the outrageous city patrón system during the late seventies (when the Street Department had fifty to seventy-five phantom employees, including a bank vice president) the human shame-o-deficiency virus emigrated from city government; it eventually found a receptive host in the Laredo Independent School District, where it was thriving at the time Guerra started her paper. LareDOS went doggedly after L.I.S.D., printing numerous stories of its irregular expenditures. It reported, for instance, that superintendent Vidal Treviño and others had been spending school district funds on costly trips ($11,800 for three officials, their wives, and an architect friend to go to San Diego and Santa Fe) and questionable decorating expenses (in excess of $100,000 for banners to be hung outside the new Vidal Treviño arts magnet school).
A lot of these stories were perhaps easier to write (who needs text when you can run a picture of a Laredo Independent School District check made out to Harrah’s Casino?) than they were to print, for they violated the city’s code of silence. Or, as Guerra put it: “This town would rather get fucked than say anything.” From a business standpoint, the paper was hardly a sure thing to begin with: Laredo’s 169,000 residents just don’t include the numbers of university types and clubgoers that help other alternative papers sell futon and music ads. If ad sales were a gamble from the outset, antagonizing the school district only made the paper’s financial health more precarious. Advertisers bowed out, Guerra said: “The first go-round they did [advertise], but then I think they heard that since we weren’t reading from the script then maybe they shouldn’t advertise with us.”
In 1996, Guerra bought out Geissler’s share, and assumed a comparable amount of debt, in a parting she describes as less than amicable. “Where we fell off as partners, was that I felt that if it didn’t pull its weight with advertisers, if it didn’t have the revenues to sustain itself, that wasn’t acceptable.” At that point, “it became my responsibility to make us survive,” she said. Guerra moved the paper to a new location, where she discouraged the sort of casual dropping-by that had made the old office something of a salon for the underemployed, and scoured the city for advertisers: “I was relentless with the phone calls and faxes.”
LareDOS also kept up its practice of business boosterism, small-town-newspaper style. Press releases are reprinted verbatim in the paper, as are photos of ribbon-cuttings and profiles of small businesses on both sides of the border. Scruples about keeping the editorial and advertising sides of a publication separate have little place at LareDOS, where Guerra writes many of the articles and sells most of the ads; instead she seems to have defined a sphere in which she is critical (of graft and of environmental abuses) and a sphere in which she is supportive (of small-business owners). Her approach is always local, in spite of the fact that Laredo — with its long lines of idling eighteen-wheelers waiting to cross the bridges, its warehouses, and the maquiladoras across the border — is increasingly shaped by global forces. When Guerra talks about idling trucks, the problem she addresses is the city’s failure to establish a place farther from the river for them to idle.
Her local, specific focus was apparent one morning a few weeks ago when a Green Party organizer from Houston came calling at the LareDOS office downtown. It was deadline day for Guerra, who’d gotten two hours of sleep the night before and hadn’t yet written her “Santa María Journal,” a column about her ranch. Nonetheless she sat down with the organizer, Nathalie Paravicini, and listened carefully to what she had to say. Paravicini criticized the impact of NAFTA, and Guerra agreed that it probably hadn’t helped the average working person in Nuevo Laredo. When Paravicini asserted that there was no longer any difference between the Republicans and the Democrats, Guerra mentioned she herself had had thought-provoking conversations with a libertarian friend. Paravicini spoke of the four core values of the Green Party, and Guerra commented on the inefficacy of the city-appointed citizen commissions. And when Paravicini declared that various green groups in Texas were beginning to align themselves “like electrons to a magnet,” Guerra asked for names of leaders and convention dates.
“Well, that lady was real intense,” Guerra commented matter-of-factly after Paravicini charged off to meet with an environmental activist. Yet in spite of the considerable challenges of third-party organizing in Laredo, Guerra was cautiously approving: “It [support for the Green Party] will be slow, and maybe not in the numbers that she wishes, but certainly it could happen in a way that exerts pressure.”
This is Guerra’s specialty, the exertion of pressure. Take the case of the city’s Community Action Agency: when Guerra heard that seven air conditioners designated for the needy were instead being delivered to “a hack who delivers votes in the colonias,” she followed the delivery driver to the house in question and started snapping pictures as the machines were being unloaded. (According to Guerra, the driver called his boss and said, “That lady from the newspaper is here,” at which point the air conditioners were re-loaded. The agency later explained that the delivery had been a mistake.) “I’ve never used my newspaper like a club because I’ve never even known that it had power, but it seems to have a way to pressure and move people to take action even if you’re just embarrassing them,” Guerra said. She went ahead and ran a story about the air conditioners; the head of the Community Action Agency retired not long afterward.
“This has been a really good year, the first year in which the newspaper could stand on its own feet,” said Guerra, “and the year that I began to believe it was making it. There’d been so much doubt. We’re taught to second-guess ourselves down here, and there’s a fear of making it. This is the year I began to relax about what I was doing and actually start enjoying it.”
The current LareDOS office occupies the bottom floor of a two-story brick house, just north of downtown in the Saint Peter historical district, on a shady street of stately old homes (many of which were bought by the paper’s old target, Laredo I.S.D., to house its administrative offices and the aforementioned arts magnet school. “We moved right into their territory,” said Guerra). It is a quiet office — even the phones ring softly — with mostly-bare walls, shelves that contain more novels than periodicals, and an old rattan sofa that often contains Guerra’s dog, Chico (who is both an editorial dog and a cattle dog). The on-site staff consists of Guerra and three mild-mannered men in their twenties and early thirties: editor Tom Moore, contributor Manuel del Bosque, and designer Reiver Rodríguez. It is difficult to imagine them ever arguing. (On the afternoon I first visited, the day before deadline, Guerra served everyone a plate of fruit salad.)
More elusive are the paper’s choir of columnists, who write under such names as “Guadalupe Lane” (the name of an old Laredo bus route) and “Kay Wavos” (que huevos meaning “what balls” in Spanish). The columns often weave together satire and gossip and commentary; for instance the January “Rumores” column, by Cholula Bankhead, addressed the city’s planned $38 million ice hockey arena (not a joke: if the city gets its way there will be taxpayer-supported ice hockey in Laredo). “Bankhead” wrote that certain members of Laredo’s debutante junta, the Society of Martha Washington, “have formed a new debutante faction called ‘Marthas on Ice'” and will stage a society ice spectacular. The column quotes Allegra Vanidad, president of the ice-skating debs, describing a number called “Lip Service on Ice”: “Wait till you see that one! Public works management dressed in sheaths that resemble lipstick tubes dancing in synchronization….”
Sure, satire might come a little easier if you live in a border town that builds ice arenas and stages a two-week festival each year (Laredo’s Washington’s Birthday celebration) so that debutantes can dress up as Martha Washington; nonetheless some of the comic writing in LareDOS is particularly artful. The publication ribs the Washington’s Birthday celebration by trumpeting its own “La Colonia Ball” orchestrated by the “Hijas de la Chonguda chapter of the Society de las Malinchistas,” and prints descriptions of the festivities. (“Miss Manadas Creek … appeared in a stunning barrel of unknown toxic material that oozed sticky lime-green stuff. The antimony slag of her tiara was repeated on her high black heels. She is the daughter of Peligros and Daños Químicos.”)
“We’re moderate in our criticism” of the Washington’s Birthday Celebration, said Guerra, herself a recovering debutante. “We all live here, they own businesses here, and I went to high school with them. Plus… it’s not just the debs, though that was the core at one time. It’s the parades, the fireworks, the spinoffs — they’re trying to be inclusive.”
Where Guerra has become less of a moderate is in her approach to environmental issues, river pollution in particular. A year ago she was appointed by city council to a “Citizens Environmental Advisory Committee” which according to Guerra met for six months without ever reaching a quorum, then for six months more without ever addressing an issue of substance. “It was all housekeeping issues,” she said. In December she quit the committee when she found out that she would be required to attend four hours of protocol training. (Zaffirini Communication
, run by Laredo’s State Senator Judith Zaffirini, contracts with the city to teach “protocol” to employees and advisory committee members.) “Protocol’s fine but not if there’s no substance, no agenda,” Guerra said. “The city appoints these commissions, and the citizens meet like idiots, like burros,” she said, while the council disregards them.
Her coverage of environmental problems in LareDOS has become more insistent. In the October issue she ran photographs of “monuments to the city’s disregard for the environment and its only source of drinking water, the Rio Grande.” “This is a city,” she wrote, “that measures success in asphalt, concrete, and bridges, not in a clean cityscape, not in the health of the river, not in the health of its citizens, not in air quality, and certainly not in the realm of the quality of life.”
Resigning from the citizens’ committee along with Guerra was Dr. Jim Earhart, current director of the Rio Grande International Study Center. For a lot of people in town, says Earhart, Laredo’s new chain stores are more visible than its polluted creeks: “They’re not looking at these out-of-the-way places,” he said, nor is much attention being paid to the excessive levels of mercury and arsenic found in fish taken from the Rio Grande.
Earhart, who’s lived in Laredo for twenty-seven years, said that he and other advocates are “ratcheting up the public appeal” for better environmental stewardship. “I think it’s going to work,” he said. “A lot of folks in town are saying, hey, I’m ready to do something.”
According to Guerra, this is what’s been missing in the past. “We settle for so little,” she said. “I want people to demand more. We have a right to good health care. We have a right to a clean environment…. There are real good people here but many that don’t act, don’t get involved in things.”
And so, she said, intends to keep prodding them. “I’m going to go find the most filthy thing I can and put it in the paper.”
Former Observer Associate Editor Karen Olsson will be filing more dispatches from Laredo next month.