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  World News / Americas
US: El Cenizo adopts Spanish
By Hillary Durgin in El Cenizo

Until last month, El Cenizo was just another poor and dusty community on the Texas shores of the Rio Grande, inhabited mainly by Mexican immigrants or the sons and daughters of immigrants wearied by routine Border Control checks of their proof of citizenship.

But El Cenizo has suddenly acquired a significance far beyond its size. In August the town council established Spanish as its sole official language and declared itself a safe haven for illegal immigrants.

In doing so, it touched two of the most sensitive nerves in American society today - language and immigration.

When the local council next meets to discuss the furore that has rippled across the nation in the wake of these decisions, the representatives will use Spanish only, and when official announcements are relayed to residents, the documents will all be in Spanish.

El Cenizo's language ordinance is believed to be the first of its kind in the US. Several southern communities from Florida to California are bilingual or multilingual. But El Cenizo is the first to consign English to second class status.

Critics fear the move foreshadows the balkanisation of America. "The major issue is that this country isn't really taking seriously the question of what it means to be an American," says US English, a Washington-based group that advocates the entrenchment of English as the national official language and promotes rapid assimilation of English in US schools.

"The reason the American experiment has worked is that the fire under the melting pot is English. Without it a nation of immigrants cannot communicate," it says.

Officials in El Cenizo, a district of about 7,800 people, say they have been misunderstood. Flora Barton, a feisty city commissioner who helped champion the new laws, says: "Everybody's gotten it wrong...like we're going to call Washington and say, 'Hey, Como está?'.

"If you speak Spanish, it doesn't make you any less American," she said. On the contrary, she argues, the law allows residents, many of whom feel frightened and neglected, to have a sense of belonging to their community.

Mrs Barton said the council's measure establishing El Cenizo as a "safe haven" for illegal immigrants simply made it illegal for city employees to turn in undocumented immigrants to the Border Control. The law was adopted, she said, to reassure residents that officials were not behind what townspeople say has become routine bullying by the Border Control.

Meanwhile, Texan Border Control officials yesterday commemorated the second anniversary of Operation Rio Grande, a program that has increasingly militarised the border in an attempt to combat the influx of illegal aliens and drug smugglers.

Officials in the nearby city of Laredo say the El Cenizo ordinance doesn't affect what they do. They have begun stopping El Cenizo's commuter bus that takes residents to and from Laredo for work.

The administration of mayor Rafael Rodriguez, which came to power only last November, has other reforms in the works. A rickety pickup truck that collects garbage for residents will soon be replaced by the city's first real garbage truck.

And stretched across one side of the little, one-roomed city hall is a banner that reads "Census 2000" - an early effort by city officials to encourage residents to be counted.

Like his neighbours, Mr Rodriguez speaks little English, although he recently became a US citizen.

Asked why he wanted to be mayor, he replied, in Spanish: "To help. To communicate."

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