A quiet revolution in Pharr You know, sometimes something good can come out of a riot or a civil disturbance. Sometimes it takes a riot to make people wake up to just how bad the situation is. Quentin Newcombe, city commissioner By Linda Swartz Pharr On Feb. 6, 1971, Alfonso Loredo Flores, his hands in his pockets, was shot dead as he emerged from Stanley Ramos’ barber shop to see what all the commotion was about. A group of local chicanos had been picketing the police station all day in an old-fashioned non-violent protest against police brutality. The police finally ordered the demonstrators to disperse. Nobody did, and so the authorities hooked up a high pressure fire hose and let the crowd have it. A demonstrator threw a rock. Then came bricks and bottles. The cops pulled their rifles and Poncho Flores, a 20-year-old laborer, wound up dead \(Obs., acquitted a Pharr deputy sheriff in the shooting. UP UNTIL that time, the political machine in Pharr, which calls itself the “Hub City” of the Lower Rio Grande Valley, had not spent much time thinking about the police department’s relationship with city residents. It had been more concerned with attracting conventioneers to revel in the sun-baked orange groves tended at such low costs by the colorful local Mexican-American inhabitants. The mayor, white-haired, seedily benevolent-looking R. S. Bowe, liked to talk about the days when he used to hand out free ice cream cones to the poor little Meskin kids who came flocking to his drug store. “Don’t you remember what I used to do for you?” he would plead to the housewives picketing in front of his town office. “I always loved the Meskin people. Why don’t you all just go on home now?” After Poncho Flores’ death, nobody was about to go on home. The women Maria Magallan, Virginia Ramirez, Raquel Orendain and the rest did not give up until some changes had been made, until a new city administration took office and cleaned up the police department as well as the streets. Pharr now represents a contrast both to the towns in South Texas that are still Linda Swartz lived in the Valley during 1970-71, while doing field work for a PhD in cultural anthropology at the University of Texas at Austin. Her dissertation is a study of what she describes as the “police riot” in Pharr. She currently is on the faculty of the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine. controlled by gringo political machines and to Crystal City \(see Obs., the tables have been turned and the chicanos now run the whole show. Instead, Pharr is currently governed by a working coalition of Mexican-Americans and anglos that is quietly redressing the grievances of those who suffered in the past. The administration which came to office in June, 1972, is headed by A. C. “Beto” Jaime, a CPA whose office is in McAllen but who has been a Pharr resident since 1956. City council members who ran with him on the “Unity Ticket” include Quentin Newcombe and Romeo Escobar, both druggists; Armando Gomez, a furniture store owner; and Robert Henderson, partner in a box and crate company. The Jaime administration has gone to unprecedented lengths and used an uncommon amount of common sense in the attempt to bring together the members of different ethnic groups in Pharr while creating an efficient system of management. The old regime under Mayor Bowe had maintained power for more than ten years by skillful use of force through the police department and well directed favoritism to supporters. The city “Inspector,” Joe Petita, was in charge of the allocation of city water, a commodity of great importance in the hot, flat, dry plain that hosts Pharr. The practice was not to bother to replace broken or aging water meters, for reasons of “economy.” Instead, Petita had the authority to determine who would get, and how much they would pay for, their heavily chlorinated Rio Grande River water. The possibilities for abuse are obvious. One of the first acts of the current administration was to install 800 new water meters to alleviate the problem. In 1971 Pharr was thoroughly divided along ethnic and class lines. The comfortable, mostly anglos, lived on the south side of the tracks, and the poor Mexican-Americans and a couple of black families lived on the north. Guess where the paved streets were located? And the sewer lines? And the street lights? And the stop signs? The public housing complex was a stronghold of support for the Bowe administration, because decent housing was in short supply and the administration controlled access to the relatively new structures which boasted indoor plumbing, paved streets and drainage. Mexicans and anglos had practically quit talking to one another. There was one lone Mexican-American still active in the Kiwanis Club, while the Jaycees counted no anglos. The grade schools were segregated due to the residential pattern. IN THE past two years, substantial improvements have been made in the public services offered on the north side, while, at the same time, taxes have been cut. Of course, this fiscal miracle has been facilitated by federal revenue sharing funds which permitted Jaime to pave, gutter and curb every street in town and to put more sewer lines in the barrio. Most of the funds for improvements have come out of the regular city budget, however. A 10 percent reduction in property taxes in the city was made possible by the doubling of sales tax revenues as a result of a general upturn in business and the opening of a new shopping mall on the line between McAllen and Pharr. “There’s a better atmosphere for business now people aren’t afraid to drive through town for fear of getting stopped for speeding or having a rock thrown at them,” explains Commissioner Escobar. In addition, a clean-up campaign gave the town a more respectable look, which helped to attract nearly 50 new businesses to the city. A Parks and Recreation Department was established and two new parks created, one adjacent to the cemetery in north Pharr where Alfonso Flores was buried. City government has been opened up. Whereas Bowe used to call city council meetings at one in the afternoon to discourage visitors, the new Unity council holds meetings in the evening and announcements are prominently posted. Council members even go into the barrios to backyard gatherings to discuss community problems with those who are too shy to come to them. A series of committees, including a Planning and Zoning Committee and a Board of Equalization, have been formed to include more citizens in the decision-making process; the committees are staffed by both Mexican-Americans and anglos. Bowe had claimed to be saving the city money by taking upon himself the jobs and the salaries of city secretary and treasurer, thus becoming a full time administrator. The Unity ticket members have given up the salaries they are entitled to in order to hire a city manager, one Harry Dulin of Fort Worth, to professionalize operations. “Our weakest August 9, 1974 7
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