Small Town, Big Hell

Election time in Sweetwater is just another pretext for this rancorous city to go nuts

The Bango-Diaz feud began in 1991 when the council appointed Diaz, a first-time officeholder, to fill a vacancy. The year before Bango had lost the election for a council seat by a slim margin. She challenged Diaz's appointment before a judge, insisting it was she who should be granted the seat by virtue of her near victory. A judge ruled in favor of Bango and Diaz was removed from office.

"I got appointed and two days after I was in court," Diaz remembers. "I had my welcome to politics and my welcome to the courts at the same time."

In 1993 both Diaz and Bango were elected to the council. The next year Bango succeeded then-Mayor Matilde Aguirre, who resigned to make an unsuccessful bid for the state senate. Bango won election in 1995, but relations between the two enemies did not improve.

"[Diaz] has spent my four years as mayor doing everything that he can to make me look bad," she asserts.

The 55-year-old Bango is dressed in comfortable clothing draped over her matronly figure. A wave of graying curly hair crowns her head. Fastened to the clipboard she carries in her hand is a list of all registered voters, which now totals 4134, in the city of Sweetwater. (Less than 2000 people are expected to vote in the election.)

All the candidates use the list for home-stop campaigning only possible in a small town. Not content simply to visit those who can vote, Bango has attempted to knock on every door in the city since January. This gives her the extra benefit of reaching Sweetwater's Nicaraguan population. Although there are only about 200 Nicaraguan voters, in the next few years that could very well change, and Sweetwater along with it. Under 1997 federal legislation many Nicaraguans who have lived in the United States since 1995 are now eligible for citizenship. When Bango encounters Nicaraguans as she walks the neighborhoods, she repeatedly urges them to apply for citizenship and when obtained, to register to vote.

Often she is accompanied by her loquacious 76-year-old mother Milagros Triana, partially blind from a degenerative eye disorder. Triana wears a wide-brimmed hat and a pair of dark wraparound sunglasses. She carries a blind person's cane that she uses to great effect. "Be careful with my mother. If she doesn't like you, she'll trip you," Bango jokes. The two maintain an easy banter that is highly entertaining. "I'm looking for a husband," the elderly woman cracks to a peer at one of the houses. "Oh, Mami, what will Dad say?" Bango comments in mock horror.

Despite her condition and advanced age, it is clear Triana relishes a good fight and is in part the source of much of her daughter's strength. She calls Diaz "a gorilla." She is an invaluable campaign weapon in a city where the electorate is largely elderly and Cuban. Her husband Jorge fled during Batista's rule, returned after the revolution, and wound up in a Castro prison, accused of plotting against the government. While her husband sat in jail, Triana made the difficult decision to send her three children to the United States in 1961. Her husband gained his freedom in 1965 and the couple fled the island the following year. The memory of that experience still brings tears to her eyes.

Bango arrived in the United States at the age of seventeen, and moved to Miami in 1968. She was a long-time civic activist, and in 1991 took the plunge into politics. After four bruising years as mayor, she insists she was ready to quit. Her husband had even requested she not run, as a birthday present to him. Yet he reversed course several months later in response to some Diaz-inspired outrage.

"They are so dumb," she says of her opponents. "I wasn't going to run again but they kept after me and I can't walk away from the fight."

It is precisely comments like that that incense Diaz.
"She wants respect but she doesn't respect anyone else," he complains.
On a typical day of campaigning, Jose "Pepe" Diaz gets home from work as a mortgage and insurance broker about 5:00 p.m. He says he has been in sales all his life. Diaz spends some time with the youngest of his three daughters, then grabs his voter list, kisses his wife and children, and leaves his modest middle-class home to sell himself to the voters.

Diaz is remarkably light on his feet for a man of considerable bulk. Wearing a nondescript tie only slightly loosened despite the heat, his hair combed back in a minipompadour, he appears to be much more conscious of his personal appearance than his opponents are.

His pitch is well practiced. Sweetwater, he says, is a diamond in the rough and he is the man to polish it. Most of the voters he visits listen briefly and then embark on long recitations of their own problems. He nods and tries to respond with encouraging words. Many seem receptive to the attention.

Despite the flap over "don't call me Pepe," he can be painfully self-deprecating. "I am Pepe Diaz. To make it easier, you may call me El Gordito [little fat man]," he tells one 80-year-old Cuban widow who sits in front of a wall full of collectible plates.

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