Dateline Texas

Taking Care of Business and Basura in El Cenizo

Among the many things posted on the bulletin board at El Cenizo City Hall–which include a list of official holidays, a piece of lace with “El Cenizo” spelled out in the stitching, a xeroxed photograph of a local amateur baseball team, a job flyer from Labor Ready, and five notices of state actions against men alleged to have installed air conditioners without a license–is a copy of Ordenanza de Basura Numero 1999-729 (a), the town garbage ordinance. Several pages long and quite detailed, it lays out the regulations concerning trash disposal. This is no small matter in El Cenizo, a colonia on the banks of the Rio Grande, near Laredo. In fact the nerve center of El Cenizo government seems to be the Garbage Department, which occupies a third of the office space in City Hall: namely, a small room separated by a window from the waiting area, with a computer-generated banner that says “Garbage Collection” taped to the glass. When I arrived at City Hall on a recent morning, four out of the five members of El Cenizo’s all-female administration (two city commissioners, the city secretary, and the secretary-treasurer of the Garbage Department) had crowded into the office to make phone calls and prepare the 420 handwritten garbage collection bills for mailing. The whereabouts of the fifth member, Mayor Flora Barton, were unknown, but seeing as how I’d come for an interview, the other women started calling around to try to find her.

While other Texas towns of comparable size (3545 residents according to the census, twice that many according to other estimates) retain attorneys, city managers, and police officers to keep things running smoothly, El Cenizo relies on its three elected officials, who are seldom paid, along with two paid administrators and one volunteer. Recently, they have concentrated their efforts on developing a trash collection system. Much of the work has been led by Barton, who eventually showed up carrying a bakery sack full of pan dulce, and set about brewing a fresh pot of coffee. “In the past we had a lot of challenges, but we’ve learned to deal with every single one,” she said right off the bat. “We help each other a lot. If there’s a problem, we help each other. We are all obligated to be on the lookout.” She noted that this cooperation extends not just to the elected officials but also to city secretary Magda Gonzalez. “She has the authority to say something, if somebody drops their trash in the street.” (The de facto sixth member of the current city administration is Gonzalez’ 18-year-old son Raul, who has been volunteering at City Hall for three years and who hopes to one day become the first El Cenizo mayor with a college degree.)

Petite and sturdy, Barton had on corduroy shorts and a lavender hospital-scrubs shirt; her long, thick hair was confined in a knot behind her head. Had she been wearing long sleeves, they would have been rolled up: She has a direct manner and an apparent appetite for work, which is probably a good thing when you’re trying to build a democratic government more or less from scratch. El Cenizo was essentially created by a real estate company that sold rent-to-own-style contracts for the town’s dusty lots. Faced with $19 million in state fines for failing to meet a variety of regulatory standards, the developer declared bankruptcy, and El Cenizo has been struggling to transform itself into a functioning city every since.

Barton, who is thirty-six and has four children, first ran for the office of City Commissioner in 1998, at the encouragement of a friend. “At first I said no, I’m just a housewife. Two weeks before the deadline, she told me again, you can do it. So I said, ‘Well, I’ll see.’ I spoke to my pastor, I spoke to my mom, and they said ‘We’re sure you can do it.’ And I thought, nobody is going to vote for me. I wasn’t even sure when the elections were. When I won, they were looking for me, the Webb County Judge was looking for me. I wasn’t even here when they got sworn in. I didn’t know until they called me. I had to drive over to the judge’s office and get sworn in.”

An introduction to the unpleasant side of public life came the following year, after the city resolved to conduct official business in Spanish, El Cenizo’s primary language. News of the decision spread far and wide; then-presidential candidate Pat Buchanan made his disapproval known; and Don Geronimo and Mike O’Meara, a pair of disc jockeys from Virginia, called up City Hall one evening and harassed Barton, who answered the phone. “It was awful. They didn’t even say why they were calling. They said it was Don Señor something-or-other, and I was like, who is this? Don Señor who?”

Another 1999 ordinance, this one prohibiting city employees from helping the Border Patrol to identify illegal immigrants, also attracted media attention; by comparison, the passage of the garbage ordinance that same year went largely unnoticed. Yet in terms of its impact on daily life in El Cenizo, the Ordenanza de Basura has turned out to be the most significant of the three measures. Implementation was not a piece of cake: Barton clashed with the then-mayor and other commissioner over a costly proposal to contract out garbage service. “The garbage department decisions were just terrible,” she recalled. “They were talking $8000 a month! Already the other commissioner and the mayor were for it. They were fighting me, it was two against one. But I mean hijole I got so stubborn, I’m serious, I said no, no, no.” Barton managed to block the plan, convinced that the city would be better off acquiring its own garbage truck, which it soon did, buying a used one from the City of Laredo. Although El Cenizo could not afford to pay collectors at first, volunteer runners were recruited, and Barton herself drove the truck. Trash began to be picked up; residents were charged $16 a month for the service. Yet the conflict over the scuttled contract had caused a permanent rift within the city administration, and not long afterward, Barton told me, “the former mayor accused me of stealing from the garbage department.”

What could she do then but run for mayor herself? El Cenizo candidates favor a low-profile campaign style–no yard signs, no knocking on doors–“just, if people asked me, I would tell them yeah, I’m running, and if you like what I’m doing you should vote for me.” Barton won the election, in which a record number of El Cenizo voters, 122 in all, participated.

Now, said Barton, “We have a vision. One of those things is having our own public library, and we have already gotten donations of over 2000 books.” Plans for a public park are also in the works. Meanwhile, ascending to the city’s highest office has not lessened Barton’s interest in sanitation. She no longer drives the truck herself, and has ceded oversight of the finances to the secretary-treasurer of the Garbage Department, but she will still, for instance, tell a resident who tries to burn his trash to cease doing so. (The city is in the process of devising citations, and trying to hire a part-time officer to enforce them.) Or, as on the day I visited, she will accompany a group of young hourly workers to a residence in need of intensive trash service. The houses in El Cenizo range widely in style, from very basic plywood or cinderblock shelters to middle-class brick homes; this one was on the modest side of the spectrum, built out of boards painted white. “I have a lot of respect for these people,” Barton said as we stood at the door. “They may be poor, but they are very clean.” With one of the occupants, Fausta Montoya, we inspected a covered patio at the rear of the house, where many old appliances–several refrigerators and freezers, a stove, a microwave–were neatly stacked, along with a crib, a birdcage, hubcaps, and other items.

“All those televisions?” said Barton in Spanish, indicating a mound of seventies-vintage tv sets.

“No sirven,” said Montoya, shaking her head. None of them worked.

“A lot of people get this stuff cheap,” observed Barton as we left the house, “But it doesn’t last very long.”

After the workers had loaded the metal appliances onto a flatbed truck, Barton pointed to the house across the street. “Let’s ask this guy if he wants to get rid of all his junk,” she called to the others. “It’s the same situation,” she told me, before marching up to the house’s front door and inquiring about the tires and rusting appliance hulls in the yard.

The workers once again began loading items onto the truck, and Barton headed back to City Hall for lunch.

“In the beginning we had about 100 residents” signed up for trash service, she said. “Now we have more than 400. I feel so proud of myself. I’ve always been very stubborn, for the good things. If you prove to me I’m wrong I’ll admit it, but when I’m right I’ll fight to the end for that.”

Barton has also begun rounding up stray and sick animals on a regular basis; in their first sweep last month, she and her workers took 20 dogs and two cats to a Laredo shelter.

“You might not think El Cenizo looks very clean now,” she said. “But there’s a big difference from a year ago. With the trash collection, people are starting to think there’s a future here.”

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Published at 12:00 am CST