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Spanish Sweeps Texas Town

City Commissioner Flora Barton says her small community of El Cenizo holds its official meetings in Spanish, but it's just as American as any place in the United States.

"Only because you speak Spanish doesn't make you less American," she said. "That's the way I see it."

Walk into a city meeting and you might wonder what side of the Rio Grande you're on.

Two weeks ago, Barton and her fellow commissioners in this small community along the Mexican border passed an ordinance declaring that all city meetings and functions would be held in Spanish. They also passed a measure forbidding city employees to turn in illegal immigrants.

El Cenizo is believed to be the only U.S. city with an all-Spanish policy. English translations of meetings are available but must be requested 48 hours in advance.

"We know of no other city that is presently conducting their business in Spanish," said Mari Lopez, director of civic education for the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. "They are the trailblazers, if you will."

El Cenizo is a largely blue-collar town of 7,800 about 10 miles outside Laredo. Its main streets are paved, but dirt roads also run through the city. Well-kept, modest houses exist side by side with ramshackle homes and buildings. For years, the city had no garbage or ambulance service.

Barton estimates that more than 90 percent of El Cenizo's residents speak Spanish, though many also speak English. A few people, particularly younger ones, speak only English.

For several years, meetings have been bilingual, since residents routinely asked commissioners to explain things in Spanish, she said. But some Spanish speakers wouldn't attend city meetings because of the language barrier and were surprised by commissioners' decisions.

The most recent city council meeting, on Aug. 12, was conducted in Spanish after passage of the measure. Ordinances and resolutions still will be written in English, but the city will translate them upon request.

English First, a Virginia-based organization working to make English the official language of the country and to undo bilingual education, was troubled by the city's actions.

"El Cenizo is the canary in the mine," executive director Jim Boulet Jr. said Thursday. "I think this is a wake-up call to this country, where in a land where 328 different languages are spoken, that we either are going to speak in one language in this nation of immigrants or we are going to be speaking in many."