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The Nation’s Poorest City an The Poverty War’s Crucial Issue Laredo This city of 65,000 which languishes on the banks of the Rio Grande is, by federal statistics, the nation’s poorest metropolitan area. Unemployment hovers around 10%, the median annual family income is less than $3,000 and, in some neighborhoods, is below $1,500. About a fifth of the city has no sewer service and more than half of the streets are unpaved. As many as 8,000 of Laredo’s people migrate annually to do farm work. Illiteracy plagues one-sixth of the populace. Laredo is considered a key challenge for the poverty war, where the fight must be won if the nation’s effort to eliminate economic deprivation is to be considered effective. Of 115 federal programs designed to fight poverty, Laredo is eligible for 112. Several million federal dollars have been funnelled in the city and surrounding Webb County. One basic question, whose answer is vital to the poverty war’s success, is very much at play in Laredo: how much of a role shall the established order have in running the program? Laredo is about 90%. Mexican-American. It is controlled, as are many South Texas cities, by a coalition of Anglos and Latinos; the latter are often regarded as Tios Tomases \(Uncle Those who rule Laredo have watched the poverty fight here closely and with some misgivings, fearing political and economic change that could threaten their poWer. ‘ Laredo poverty war leaders are keenly sensitive to this concern on the part of the local civic and political leaders; indeed, many of the anti-poverty officials are themselves powers in the community. There has been criticism by some local leaders that the poverty program is topheavy with bureaucrats and functioning with wasteful inefficiency. Lately a new problem has arisen, exacerbating the crucial question of how independent the poverty war will be of Laredo’s power structure. EARLIER THIS month, James Cox, regional director of VISTA \( VolunAustin that two of Laredo’s 20 VISTA volunteers have been dismissed for “immaturity a n d irresponsibility.” Neither Cox nor his field representative, William Hale, would give any further explanation. Neal Birnbaum and Douglass Ruhe, both from Chicago and both 22 years old, be Bill Bryson was born and reared in Houston. He is a senior social relations major at Harvard University and has been in Laredo this month because of an interest in the problems of South Texas. 6 The Texas Observer Bill Bryson lieve they were released because of their associations with a Mexican-American activist group called VIDA, \( Voices in According to Birnbaum and Ruhe, Hale had said they could help VIDA in its efforts to organize restaurant and cafeteria workers in the Laredo area, but warned that the work “would involve certain risks.” In other words, they were given to understand that, as representatives of the poverty program, VISTA volunteers should avoid too intimate an association with a group, such as VIDA, which has militant overtones and which, therefore, is basically unfriendly to the Laredo powers-that-be. A series of events occurred this month which brought about a minor crisis in the shaky relationship between the Laredo poverty program, VIDA, and the local power structure, leaving Birnbaum and Ruhe stranded in the middle. First, the poverty program’s central neighborhood council, composed of representatives of the poor from Laredo neighborhoods, voted to support VIDA in any of its efforts, as long as VIDA’s work remained non-violent. Ted Delapass, Sr., president of the council, said that a group “so clearly intended to help Laredo’s poor” should certainly have the poverty program’s support. One of VIDA’s first moves was to organize a march on city hall to protest the lack of bus service in one of Laredo’s outlying barrios. Local people from the neighborhood were enthusiastic about the project, but apparently poverty program officials feared it might disturb their delicate relationship with City Hall. VIDA members report that, when the march was about to begin, rumors were circulated that the mayor would not receive the marchers, that some of the VIDAs were planning to make the demonstration violent, and that the neighborhood might lose a planned government housing project if the march was carried through. The rumors, many VIDA members speculated, were started by poverty program officials to appease Laredo’s leaders and maintain the status quo. The march never came off, but Mayor Joe C. Martin later promised that the neighborhood would be given bus service anyway. Then, two weeks ago, Birnbaum and Ruhe got an audience with Mayor Martin. They say they explained, frankly and openly, their feelings about the importance of the poor participating in, and even running, the war on poverty. They added that they felt the methods of fighting poverty would have to involve such active steps as the formation of labor organiza tions and direct community action demonstrations and marches. An effective war on poverty, they report telling the mayor, is simply not compatable with the “entrenched South Texas establishment.” Mayor Martin maintains that he told no one of his talk with the two VISTAs, but the next week Cox and Hale called the two young men to Austin and told them privately that they had stepped over the line, and onto too many toes. Birnbaum and Ruhe say that Hale told them, in Austin, “You guys are in big trouble. You committed the fatal mistake; you created a huge coalition against you. The mayor has called the governor of this state and the President of the United States.” THERE WAS another possible factor in the pair’s release. In accord with their supervisors’ instructions to remain in the background, the VISTAs did not help picket the downtown cafetetia that VIDA had chosen as the first objectiv in its restaurant organization project. However Birnbaum and Ruhe did solthit funds for VIDA, and in their solicitation called several persons connected with the poverty program who not only emphatically refused to donate to VIDA but openly objected to the VISTAs aiding that ‘group. The local power structure may also have made itself felt through Philip:Kazen, brother of the congressman sand mentor of the Kazen faction in Webb county’s political machine. While he was in Laredo this month, Hale called on Kazen at his downtown law offices. What they discussed in unknown, but many suspect that Kazen has long felt the whole Laredo VISTA program to be a_ potential threat to the smooth functioning of the machine, and was taking this opportunity to help get rid of two of the biggest “troublemakers.” Immediately after their dismissal, Birnbaum and Ruhe announced they were going to appeal their case to VISTA , 0310 Bill Crook in Washington, and were going to demand that they be given a full and fair hearing. Furthermore, they say they will insist that the charges against them be made more specific than “immaturity and irresponsibility.” Hale come to Laredo in order to talk with some of the poverty program officials and participants with whom the pair had worked. Most apparently had nothing but praise for the two. Central neighborhood council chairman Delapass said that they were two of the most effective VISTAs in Laredo and should not be dismissed without a hearing. “I challenge anybody in Laredo to show that the VISTAs were not working for the poor people in Laredo, and with the poor people of Laredo,” Delapass said.