War of words over Spanish rule
El Cenizo action draws fire, praise
By Dane Schiller Express-News Staff Writer -- [Emphasis added by American Patrol]
August 12, 1999
EL CENIZO - This immigrant community drew fire and praise from other points on the Texas-Mexico border Wednesday over ordinances that require city business be conducted in Spanish and permit the firing of municipal workers for helping the Border Patrol find undocumented immigrants.
"Eventually, they will have to realize English is the language and they are in the United States," Webb County Judge Mercurio Martinez said of this town of 1,500 residents about 10 miles south of Laredo.
"I would tell the mayor: 'You blew it. You pulled a major boo-boo,'" said Martinez, whose mother is from Mexico.
Martinez, whose county includes El Cenizo, praised the efforts of the Border Patrol and said no one should forget about federal funds spent in South Texas to upgrade drinking water, roads and sewage-treatment facilities.
But the controversial ordinances passed last week were seen by El Cenizo Mayor Rafael Rodriguez and city commissioners as ways to open government and protect residents in a primarily immigrant community.
"It is discrimination not to speak Spanish and explain what is going on," said Rodriguez, who doesn't speak English.
"We have a right to share our opinions and know what is happening," said Rodriguez, a former undocumented immigrant from Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, who's now a U.S. citizen.
The ordinances stipulate that local governmental transactions, such as city commission meetings, will be conducted in Spanish and that English translation will be provided with 48 hours' notice.
In compliance with state and federal laws, written ordinances will be adopted in English and translated into Spanish, according to documents filed at City Hall.
Also, the city has been declared a "safe haven" for undocumented immigrants and employees face losing their jobs if they assist Border Patrol agents.
Laredo Mayor Betty Flores praised El Cenizo's mayor for his efforts to get people involved in government. Still, she said, every effort should be made to do things in English.
"If we are going to make a conscious decision to live in a country where the predominant language is English, we should learn English for our benefit," said Flores, for whom English is a second language.
"His heart is in the right place," she said of the mayor. "We can not second guess him; he is the one who is in the field taking fire." But Tony Zavaleta, a dean at the University of Texas at Brownsville, said this community, which was incorporated in 1989, is off to a rough start.
"It is wrong; they are splintering themselves off from everything institutional in our country," said Zavaleta, who for eight years was a Brownsville city commissioner.
"They should think of themselves as George Washington, Sam Houston or Benito Juárez and get this thing going right," Zavaleta said.
He predicted El Cenizo's ordinances would one day be struck down in court, but as of Wednesday no legal action has been taken against them.
El Cenizo, which still is home to poverty and numerous unpaved streets, was originally a sprawling colonia that lacked running water and electricity.
With improvements and an increasing population, the community became a city, although it retains its strong immigrant roots.
Most people here are either from Mexico, are married to a Mexican, or are the children of immigrants.
Roberto Heredia, a professor of linguistic psychology at Texas A&M International University in Laredo, said this city's leaders may be thinking just like founding fathers.
"Historically, you can see Texas is separatist and proud," Heredia said.
"These people do not feel like they are part of this country," said Heredia, who was born in Mexico and raised in California.
"They live in bad conditions and are trying to make a statement to ensure a sense of identity," he said.
The Immigration and Naturalization Service, which oversees the Border Patrol, said there are no plans to take legal action against this city, but officials pointed to a 1996 federal law which forbids cities from limiting the contact between its employees and immigration agents.