Hispanic Heritage Month: Mexican-Americans shaping Austin’s landscape

The Latinx culture can be seen on vibrant murals painted on the side of businesses in East Austin with glimpses of icons like Cesar Chavez and Selena Quintanilla-Perez. Mexican-American culture can be heard from radios blaring Tejano music from pickup trucks at stoplights. The smell and taste of the rich heritage celebrated in Mexican kitchens across the state of Texas. 

The capital’s landscape has changed rapidly over time and its Mexican-American community deeply rooted in its past.

Austin’s Mexico

Austin’s forgotten neighborhood surrounded Republic Square. According to the Austin History Center’s research, the area surrounding the park was known as Austin’s First Mexican Neighborhood. In 1875, about 300 Mexicans settled there for more than 50 years before being relocated to Austin's east side.

Susana Almanza grew up in East Austin, she described it as a booming local business community where everyone knew one another. 

"The good thing about being segregated is that we had our own small businesses," Almanza said. "There were Mexican markets. There were record stores. There were black beauty shops, there were black colleges, cleaners, everything that you could think of we had our own small business development."

Almanza said the segregation was evident, no one wanted to cross I-35 into East Austin at that time.

"On the other side of the highway the neighborhoods were paved, they had lighting, they had sewer systems but on the east side it was all rocks," Almanza said. "I did not have a paved street. I had a rock street, all rocks there was no sewage or drainage system, that you would see on the other side of town."

No Spanish in schools

Until the late 1940's, Texas campuses were segregated. Gonzalo Barrientos, a former Democratic member of the Texas Senate, was in grade school when Delgado vs. Bastrop changed the education system allowing kids of all races to attend the same schools.

It was a difficult transition, Barrientos said.

"They'd call you Mexican, you dirty Mexican, you greaser, you wetback and when you are six, seven years old, that hurts, it still hurts," Barrientos said. 

Barrientos's grandfather told him not to blame his classmates for their behavior but instead the environment in which they grew up in. The children were also not allowed to speak Spanish in school.
"Sometimes we slipped into Spanish when we were in school and I knew of one teacher who would hit you, whip you if you spoke Spanish," said Barrientos.

A decade later, not much changed. Almanza attended Palm School in Austin and although legislation allowed schools to desegregate, the institution was predominantly Latinx.

"I actually saw my friends get washed out with soap, that's how bad it was if you spoke Spanish back then," Almanza said.

Chicano Civil Rights

The Economy Furniture Company Strike in the 1960's brought Mexican-American families together in the fight for equality, fair pay and decent working conditions.

The strike garnered support from Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers Union. Almanza remembers holding her father's hand as activists marched to the Capitol.

In 1971 the workers won the fight and the movement became known as the "Austin Chicano Huelga." 

"The Chicano movement was the awareness of how it was unfair the systems were and that our parents were going through the same thing but now they were beginning to fight back and take that struggle," said Almanza.

Young activists began to follow their parents' example and rise up leading to the Brown Berets.

"The Brown Berets were just fed up with all the police brutality," Almanza said. "Always show the next generation that it's okay to stand up, it's okay to have a voice it's okay to be against something."

The "Brown Machine"

The political climate changed in Central Texas awakening leaders like Richard Moya who became a county commissioner, Gus Garcia the first Latino mayor, and Barrientos. The three were known as the "brown machine" but Barrientos will say it was their families that kept their campaign running.

"I was thinking back to my second race for the Senate where my Republican opponent said 30% of the people in Mexico are communists and Barrientos is a Mexican, I don't want them to take over that was 30-something years ago," said Barrientos as he reflected on his time in office.

In his time in both the Senate and the House, Barrientos passed about 600 bills: giving top 10 percent of Texas students acceptance into any state school, bills protecting Edwards Aquifer and the "Move Over Law."

The fight for preservation

The Emma S. Barrientos Mexican Cultural Arts Center celebrates Latinx heritage with artists, exhibits, and programs educating Austin's youth.

The Mexic-Arte Museum features artists from across the world with monthly displays. However, Hispanic leaders are fighting for a place to help preserve the community's history.

Local historian Martha Cortera believes that place can be the Palm School. The historic structure is one of Austin's first elementary schools. Cortera wants to turn the building into a museum.

"Once you have a place things will come people will come but you have to have a defined space that is your space, that you feel comfortable and that you feel protected," Cortera said.

Travis County is working with advocates to preserve the building and potentially keep it in the community's hands.

Upcoming Cultural Events

The Mexican American Cultural Center will honor fallen Latino comrades with Day of the Dead Altars on Friday, October 18. 

The 36th annual Viva La Vida Parade and Festival is the largest running Dia de Los Muertos festival in Austin held Saturday, October 26.