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In this city hall, official business is in Spanish

By Scott BaldaufStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 25, 1999


In many ways, the collection of trailers and brightly painted brick homes of El Cenizo give it the appearance of any other working-class border town.

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The view from inside city hall, however, is unique.

Two weeks ago, city officials here voted to make Spanish the official language of business - the first city in the US to do so. Yet perhaps more explosively, they also passed an ordinance saying that any city employee who reports local residents to the Border Patrol would be fired.

At a time when the largest immigration wave in the nation's history is challenging long-held notions of what it means to be American, El Cenizo's laws are a bold new experiment.

Alternately praised as a pioneering response to a changing society or derided as ethnic partition, the measures have become a focal point in the debate over assimilation and US immigration policy.

With many border towns facing the same issues as El Cenizo, the success - or failure - of its decisions could echo throughout the Southwest.

Like many of its 7,800 residents, El Cenizo has not been around here long. Located about 10 miles southeast of Laredo and about a mile from the Rio Grande, the town started out in the early 1980s as a "colonia," an unincorporated housing development with no sanitation, no running water, and no electricity.

When it incorporated in 1989, the city began to attract mostly Spanish-speaking immigrants, who came for the cheap land and proximity to jobs in Laredo and nearby ranches.

But until recently, few citizens took part in city council meetings, which were held in English. This meant they didn't participate in recent decisions to raise taxes, begin garbage pickup, and build a new fire station.

"Not everyone can speak English and they shouldn't be locked out of government just because they're in the process of learning it," says Vibiana Andrade, attorney for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund in Los Angeles.

For Flora Barton, El Cenizo city commissioner, starting Spanish-led meetings was an easy decision to make. "Almost everyone speaks Spanish in El Cenizo," she says. "That doesn't mean that we want to be Mexican or go become a part of Mexico. We're proud to be American. Just because you speak Spanish doesn't make you a noncitizen."

According to Ms. Barton, most children in El Cenizo have adopted English as their first language in public schools, and many adults take English lessons at the community center.

The wrong signals?

Yet critics say that El Cenizo's Spanish-language rule sends the wrong signal to immigrants.

"The English language is the fire under the melting pot," says Tim Schultz, executive director of US English, a group that promotes English as an official language of the US. "We're pretty sure that with this ordinance in place, we're going to see the second generation and the third generation aren't going to be learning English either." The people of El Cenizo, he says, "may not be part of a movement, but they're comfortable not becoming American."

Even Hispanic elected officials from nearby towns are skeptical of the decision.

"Eventually, they will have to realize English is the language, and they are in the United States," said Webb County Judge Mercurio Martinez.