El Cenizo community leader Lupe De Leon fought for property rights, housing, better living conditions

Lupe DeLeonOn Saturday, June 28, 2008, Lupe De Leon died at his home in El Cenizo TX.  Mr. De Leon was El Cenizo’s second mayor and a leader in laying the foundation for many of the community’s improvements.

El Cenizo is one of the better known Texas border colonias.  It is home for about 800 mostly lower income families.

As improvement in Texas’ colonias is coming about through many forces, sometimes the selfless actions of leaders such as Mr. De Leon are overlooked.  Nonetheless, Mr. De Leon’s service is deeply woven into El Cenizo’s early victories in obtaining electricity, water, sewers, fair lot purchase terms, and better housing. 

Lupe De Leon become mayor of El Cenizo in 1992, a time of great contrast in this community seventeen miles south of Laredo.  For example, El Cenizo had a large public swimming pool.  Yet, from time to time its sewer lines backed up into residents’ homes.  Mr. De Leon could quote precisely the correct formulas for chlorinating the pool.  The precise formula for correcting the numerous infrastructure problems was more elusive.

In 1992, a worker died from asphyxiation while trying to maintain the community’s sewer plant.  After his family sued the colonia developer, the developer sought refuge in bankruptcy court.  Mr. De Leon, along with his two commissioners, Juan Idrogo and Gloria Padilla, made the decision to pursue the city’s claims against the developer also through the bankruptcy.  Webb County and United Independent School District followed El Cenizo in joining the lawsuit.  At Mr. De Leon and the city commission’s request, the Austin law firm of Bickerstaff, Heath and Smiley agreed to represent the city of El Cenizo at no charge.

Although in 1993, when the bankruptcy judge asked residents of El Cenizo to vote on settlement of their claims, Mr. De Leon was no longer mayor, his commission’s lawyers had negotiated a favorable settlement.  The settlement removed illegal overcharges making many families immediate owners of their lots.  For those who still owed on their lots, the state of Texas took over their purchase agreements.

Mr. De Leon differed from stereotypes of leaders, who might be known for giving great speeches.  Instead Mr. De Leon led by tending to the city’s day-to-day problems, especially the unglamorous ones, by greeting everyone with a smile, and by generally making himself a servant of the community.

Mr. De Leon’s service to El Cenizo continued after he left the office of mayor. When problems occurred with the administration of the bankruptcy plan, Mr. De Leon and his wife Reyna lent their home for numerous community meetings.  As result of this effort, the homes of 45 El Cenizo families’ were rehabilitated, more streets were paved, and seed money was provided to help the community’s nonprofit housing organization, La Gloria Development Corporation, start this area’s first self help housing program. 

As a board member of La Gloria, once again, Mr. De Leon led through service. Rather than standing on the ground making suggestions about how a house should be built, Mr. De Leon climbed the ladder, carrying shingles in one hand and balancing himself on the ladder with the other hand.

Over the years, Mr. De Leon suffered many health problems.  Still he always greeted visitors with a ready smile and if asked, a good story.

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