Page 5


43014 OVI o o sonotarro s o Clean Government Taking Care of Business, and Basura, in El Cenizo BY KAREN OLSSON Among the many things posted on the bulletin board at El Cenizo City Hallwhich 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 licenseis a copy of Ordenanza de Basura Numero 1999Several 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 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 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 Petite and sturdy, Barton had on corduroy shorts and a lavender hospitalscrubs 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 Serior somethingor-other, and I was like, who is this? Don Serior 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 12 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 8/17/01 A”