Political Intelligence

LONG TIME COMING.

March 2 marked the happy close of a twenty-year struggle by El Paso residents of “Frank-Anita Estates” to gain title to their land. The Frank-Anita lots, located near the center of densely-populated San Elizario, were unlike other “estates” in that they had never been legally platted with the county, and thus were not equipped with water or sewer services. They were moreover sold via contracts for deed–a rent-to-own-type arrangement illegal in most states, in which the buyer amasses no equity in the property until the entire thing is paid off.

The lots became an estate in another sense, though, after original owner José Pilar Grijalva died, leaving heirs by both his wife and another woman, and leaving the purchasers in the dark as to how to obtain title to their property. Community groups and legal aid lawyers began trying to assist owners in 1983, before Grijalva’s death, but for almost two decades residents continued to live without access to services or clear titles. Tangled negotiations involving the county, real estate developers, lawyers, organizers, and residents went on for years. The settlement, approved this month by Judge Max Higgs, “is an example of how good government, responding to the needs of a well-organized community, can accomplish so much to solve a generation of problems,” according to Michael Wyatt of Texas Rural Legal Aid.

THE CASE OF THE MISSING MEGALITH.

Last December, somebody in the Hill Country town of Comfort hired the Alamo Crane Company to hoist the town’s infamous “monument to atheism” out of the local park. A couple of passers-by, who’d had their wedding in front of the rock, took pictures. The 32-ton limestone megalith, installed in the park two years ago as a monument to 19th century Freethinkers who settled the area, was then removed to a secret location.

It was subsequently discovered, thanks to the scrappy detective work of one of the monument’s supporters. “I went out to Highway 27 and went to a quarry there,” recalled Julie Fisher of the Freethinkers of Central Texas. “I asked this man if he’d seen it, and he really didn’t speak much English, but he figured out what I meant and took me over to this house. And there it was, back in a little pasture back behind this big house, laying on its side. I was able to see that they hadn’t destroyed it.” The pro-monument faction, with the help of the San Antonio ACLU, is now contemplating legal action to return the controversial rock to the park.

Despite the apparent solidity of the megalith, which measures about six feet square at the base and fourteen feet high, its position has been unstable since it first appeared in Comfort. A group of residents and non-residents erected the monument to recognize the Freethinker settlers, but they drew fire from certain citizens who detected, in the uncarved hunk of stone, the ungodly hand of “out-of-town atheists.” Meetings were held, and an engineering firm, Sinclair and Associates, was retained to conduct a structural investigation of the monument.

According to the report issued by Sinclair and Associates last August, public safety demanded that the rock be removed. “A large block of limestone is simply not monolithic or cohesive enough to be used as a phallic or erect type of monument,” said the suggestive report. Visual inspection revealed some darker strips in the stone–”rotten limestone”–as well as horizontal and vertical fissures. “This block of limestone standing on end would be very prone to being shattered by expansion of freezing water,” the report concludes, adding that such an event is “inevitable.”

It would be nice if we could say this would happen when no one was present, the report continues, and no one would be hurt; but the fact is that when this type of thing happens, it is nearly always a child climbing on the object that causes the final collapse and nearly always a child that is injured when it happens. Not a day goes by that some child somewhere is not injured or killed by similar events. Halfhearted corrective measures, such as applying a sealant to the rock or putting a fence around it, were not entertained: Thus we have no choice but to state that, in our opinion, this megalith is a danger to the public and should be removed from the site immediately.

There was some delay before the rock was actually removed, due to liability questions, but finally Comfort resident Gary Lindner and others put up the money to have it taken away. Monument supporters have since filed a police report with the sheriff in Boerne, and the rock, according to Fisher, remains in the pasture “with two cows.”

A STINKER.

This just in from the Bad Bills department: Notoriously anti-gay Representative Warren Chisum (R-Pampa), described by Molly Ivins as “a likeable, avuncular homophobe,” is at it again with H.B. 496, which would amend the state’s Family Code to prohibit the recognition of same-sex marriages or civil unions. Affectionately dubbed “DOMA” by its proponents (Defense of Marriage Act), the bill has 74 co-authors and a host of cheerleaders among state conservative groups, several of whom held a pro-DOMA rally at the Capitol on February 15 to drum up support for an act they say is long overdue in Texas. “The people of Texas are saying that marriage should be between one man and one woman,” reads a statement posted on the Texas Eagle Forum’s Web site. Also speaking on behalf of all Texans, the executive director of the Texas Christian Coalition writes that “the citizens of Texas support the traditional family.” DOMAnia has swept the nation (at least the flat, middle part of it) since Vermont began allowing same-sex unions: Texas is one of only 15 states still without legislation against the recognition of same-sex marriage.

Opponents of the bill point out that state law already explicitly defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman, so Chisum’s bill would not change existing law in Texas. But DOMA advocates insist the provision is needed, arguing that without H.B. 496, same-sex couples married in Vermont (rapidly becoming known as the anti-Texas) can return or move to Texas and “demand” full marriage benefits. Exactly why a gay couple happily married in Vermont would want to move to Texas has not been made clear.

BAG THIS!

Reports of the demise of the carro completo–the all-for-one and one-for-all voting system that was a hallmark of the Industrial Revolutionary Party (PRI) and Mexico’s one-party state for decades–were obviously premature. On March 2, workers at Duro de Rio Bravo, a maquiladora located in the Tamaulipas border town across from Pharr, Texas, voted 497 to 4 against an independent union that had sought to represent them. In contrast to Mexico’s presidential elections last July, the union election in Rio Bravo was anything but fair and impartial. Despite earlier commitments by Mexican government officials that union elections would respect the right to a secret ballot and be held at a neutral site, the Duro election was held at the plant, and workers were forced to announce their vote before a panel of plant and union representatives.

The Duro plant is a subsidiary of the Kentucky-based Duro Bag Manufacturing Company, which produces paper bags for Hallmark greeting cards, Neiman Marcus and others. The plant in Rio Bravo has a long history of labor grievances. Last year nearly 100 workers were fired following a wildcat strike demanding a union recognition vote. Following an international campaign that shed light on factory abuses and worker intimidation, the government of Tamaulipas recognized the independent National Workers Union as a legitimate union and set the stage for union elections. Traditionally, workers at Duro have been represented by the pro-government CTM, the Mexican Workers Federation.

At the last minute, another pro-government, sweetheart union known as the CROC or Revolutionary Confederation of Workers and Peasants, appeared on the scene to contend for the right to represent workers at Duro. Essentially the CROC and the CTM are one and the same. Both opposed the secret ballot. According to current Mexican labor law, an open shop floor count must be held if any party objects to a secret ballot.

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