One Austin, muchas comunidades

Austin Statesman – by Marty Toohey

The writer and sociologist Joel Garreau once divided North America into nine regions, each with a distinctive cultural character. One, called MexAmerica, stretched from Southern California along the U.S.-Mexico border to South Texas. Its northern reach stopped just short of Austin.

Gus Garcia chuckles when he thinks about that boundary. Garreau drew it in 1981. That was before Garcia became the first Hispanic elected mayor of Austin. That was before Hispanics had moved in large numbers beyond the East Austin barrio to become a majority in wide swaths of North and South Austin. That was before a burgeoning Hispanic middle class emerged in Austin of doctors, lawyers, engineers, entrepreneurs, even police chief.  

“When (Garreau) wrote his book, MexAmerica ended at San Antonio,” Garcia, 80, said. “If he wrote the book now, it would end at Austin.”

Hispanics three decades ago made up just 18 percent of the Austin area’s population. Now one out of every three people here is Hispanic. Demographers expect Hispanics to become the area’s largest ethnic group — larger than whites — as soon as the early 2030s. Hispanics might become an outright majority by 2050. Perhaps the most important indicator of Austin’s demographic future: Hispanics are already a majority in Austin public schools.

The rapid growth of Austin’s Hispanic population, the result of both immigration and high birth rates, has far-reaching implications for Central Texas. Despite gains, Hispanics still lag behind the general population in education, job skills, income, health and political involvement, among other measures. How the region addresses those challenges will have a lot to do with Austin’s continued success as a center for innovation and job growth.

Austin’s Hispanic culture was never a geographic or social monolith. But there once was one easy-to-identify Hispanic community in Austin, with a social hierarchy, political ecosystem and geographic boundaries. Now there are several distinct communities, some of which have little in common with the glittering Austin of national repute.

But — perhaps more importantly — many Hispanics would no more identify themselves as part of a particular ethnic community than would their white neighbors. The civic activist, the lifelong educator, the politician, the mother trying to clean up her neighborhood, the poor immigrant family, the graduate student — each gives a glimpse into a population woven into virtually every aspect of Austin life.

“We’re a very diverse group,” Garcia said. “I don’t know who they all are now, because there are so many new ones starting up.

‘One barrio, one familia!’

José Velásquez has been talking about family history, gentrification and voter registration. He pauses a moment at East Sixth and Chicon streets in East Austin, gesturing to the two-story building on the northwest corner, and laments the loss of Rabbit’s Lounge.

“You used to get $2 Budweisers here,” Velásquez said. “Now it’s $12 cocktails.”

Velásquez has more right to the booze-as-gentrification metaphor than most. He has lived in East Austin all of his 30 years, and his great-uncle was Roy Velásquez, one of the first community leaders in East Austin.

How that community formed is a matter of debate. Many Mexicans and Mexican-Americans migrated to Austin during Reconstruction, seeing the Texas capital as a place where things were happening. By the early 1900s, they had established “Mexico,” a district on the southwest end of what is now downtown.

Some local historians say the city pushed Mexicans and Mexican-Americans out of downtown and West Austin. A 1928 city master plan designated the area just east of downtown, across East Avenue, as the “Negro district,” an act of racism that might also have been meant for Mexican-Americans. Others say they were lured east by the promise of city schools, services and parks. Perhaps it was because homes were more affordable, or maybe some combination of those things.

Whatever the reasons, East Austin became the city’s Hispanic hub. It was a tight-knit community where the city didn’t maintain the few sidewalks it built, and the Segovias and Morenos and Limons became old names, and small, wood frame homes were treasures to be passed to children and through them on to grandchildren.

There was also this fact of life: the city zoned much of East Austin “light industrial.” That meant a tamal factory or gasoline-storage facility could open in the middle of neighborhoods where kids play — something the white and affluent west side wouldn’t tolerate. East Avenue was eventually expanded into Interstate 35. As metaphors go, it couldn’t have been more complete if it came with train tracks.

The building that Velásquez gestures toward? Rabbit’s Lounge was the heart of East Austin’s Chicano politics in the 1970s and ’80s, where the “brown machine” hatched strategies over cold beer. Decades later, Austin’s tech boom lured to East Austin a wave of newcomers who bought fixer-uppers within walking distance of one of America’s hardest-partying downtowns.

The party moved east, bars changed owners, and rock replaced conjunto on the jukeboxes. In 2012, Rabbit’s closed and reopened with new owners as Whisler’s, a high-end bar appealing to young professionals.

The drinks are fancier now, “but they’re not for the people who’ve been living here,” Velásquez said.

He founded a small nonprofit to deal with the downside of gentrification. Hermanos de East Austin won’t halt the changes, some of which are inevitable, and some of which are good, Velásquez said. Hermanos does things like helping cash-strapped homeowners with repairs and rising property-tax bills.

And it organizes voter registration drives. As Velásquez sees it, civic engagement is the difference between East Austin evolving and disappearing. The community needs its newcomers, and the more engaged they are, the more eager they will be to help longtime residents and maintain the best aspects of the neighborhoods, he said.

The task isn’t easy, of course. In early 2012, Hermanos announced a voter registration drive intended to foster ties that could help East Austin, calling on its Facebook page for “New, Old, Used to be and Soon to be Eastsiders to come out and join us. One barrio, one familia!”

The registration drive was held at Rabbit’s — which closed seven months later.

‘They were more Chicano’

Gilbert Cantu grew up in the shotgun rental house at 2611 E. Third St., going to the bathroom in an outhouse and getting warm beside a wood stove. His father was a construction worker with no formal schooling. His mother had only a second-grade education.

At that time, in the 1940s, Zavala Elementary students who spoke Spanish at school had to sit at a table in the middle of the cafeteria as a shaming, Cantu said. He didn’t learn English until third grade. He saw little use for education and wore his obstinacy like a badge. When he got called in for a paddling from the principal at Zavala Elementary, he walked out with a strut.

“We were macho, and we thought, ‘Well, we’ll suffer then, and that will show them,’” Cantu said. He graduated near the bottom of his Austin High School class.

Decades later — after stints in the Army and Marines where he learned to like reading, after pestering a University of Texas professor to hire him so he could get into the school despite his grades, after graduating at 34, after becoming a teacher because “I knew if I could graduate, anyone can,” after serving as principal at schools around Austin, including Zavala, and then retiring and mentoring students at Zavala — Cantu has no regrets about his family’s decision to leave East Austin.

“People would say they were more Chicano, because we had moved. They would say, ‘You guys think you’re too good.’ But it was never that,” Cantu said. “We wanted to be places where education is clearly valued.”

The Cantus now live in Shady Hollow Estates in far South Austin, on a street of wide lots and two-story homes — part of a decades-long pattern of Hispanics spreading across the city and beyond.

Cantu said things are changing for the better in his childhood neighborhood and elsewhere. But he said a sense of victimization still hobbles some corners of East Austin. He said that contributes, at least in part, to the fact that 36 percent of Austin Hispanics don’t hold a high school diploma versus 3 percent of whites, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

The causes of the education gap and solutions are fiercely debated. When Cantu thinks about such disparities, he thinks about the attitude he had as a child — that social forces are conspiring against his kind, so why bother with education?

He then insists that if any of his thoughts are printed, it is the following: “That kind of thinking keeps people back. It keeps them in a psychological prison of their own making.”

‘I’m not leading with the Hispanic’

Celia Israel has the quip ready. It is partly a joke, partly not.

“I’m a Longhorn, I’m a lesbian, I’m a Latina, and I’m left-handed — for those of you who care,” she says.

There was a time when one of those aspects of her would probably have defined her public identity, and everything else would be subtext. It is perhaps a sign of the times – Israel believes it is – that she now represents a northern Travis County legislative district that has traditionally elected white politicians, including Mark Strama, the Austin Democrat who retired from the seat last year.

“Isn’t it cool?” Israel said. “Here I am, as a Latina, and I’m holding a seat that is not a ‘Hispanic seat.’”

Israel never lived in East Austin. She was raised by a truck driver and teacher’s aide in El Paso. After attending UT and becoming the first in her family with a college degree, she lived in Northeast Austin while working for Gov. Ann Richards in Richards’ appointments division and later building a career as a Realtor.

She serves on the board of the Greater Austin Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, whose president, Mark Madrid, says with pride, “the Hispanic population has economic influence” — emphasis on economic.

Tex-Mex food has been a central part of Austin culture for decades, with such staples as migas, breakfast tacos, fajitas and barbacoa served up by longtime Hispanic-owned restaurants. But the economic heft now goes much deeper. In 2010, 33,000 Hispanic-owned businesses were operating in Central Texas, with more than $4 billion in revenue, according to Census Bureau data. A Hispanic chamber report last year predicted that revenue would rise to more than $7 billion by 2020.

“Our voices will be heard,” Madrid said. “That’s for sure.”

Israel has made hers heard in a variety of ways. In addition to her position on the chamber board and her legislative seat, she has served on the boards of the Alliance for Public Transportation, the Sustainable Food Center, the Capital Area Food Bank and GENaustin, which focuses on building girls’ self-esteem.

Her ethnicity is just one part of a public identity that, she says, she has been able to shape on her terms.

“I’m sure some people think that’s a negative, because I’m not leading with the Hispanic” appeal, Israel said. “And there are some people who think it’s cool that I don’t. Because this is where Texas is going.”

‘Still part of the culture’

They were not much, in and of themselves, the bags of trash that Eva Cruz and other volunteers collected. Yet a few years ago that trash almost certainly would have remained strewn across the grounds of Franklin Park in Southeast Austin. It’s noticeable, residents say, that someone noticed.

“We’re not where we should be,” Cruz said. “But we’re improving.”

She was speaking of the park, and also of the community in which it sits, Dove Springs, which became predominantly Hispanic during the 1990s. It is also a place where a few well-kept enclaves are surrounded by stubborn deprivation, with many trash-strewn yards, one of the city’s highest poverty rates and least-healthy populations, according to health officials.

Dove Springs carries such a stigma that while it once encompassed most of the 78744 ZIP code, both north and south of William Cannon Drive, many of those south of the road now try to disassociate themselves from the name.

Dove Springs is the companion to the narrative of middle-class ascension.

Cruz moved to Dove Springs in 2001 from the Rio Grande Valley with her then-husband, who came to Austin for work. She worked as a security guard. She hated Dove Springs. She had similar feelings about herself – she was 210 pounds, drank heavily to forget it, smoked to relieve the stress, and ate not only bacon but also the bacon grease mixed with flour. She said those habits formed as she rebelled against a Christian upbringing so strict she figured she was destined for hell anyway, so why not?

Ofelia Zapata, vice chair of the Dove Springs Contact Team and the Southeast Austin community’s principle organizer, meets with city staff Oct. 20 to discuss flood preparedness for the neighborhood after last year’s Halloween flood. Zapata has worked in recent years to combat a period of civic apathy in the area, which has a Hispanic population that nearly doubled to 80 percent between 1990 and 2000. LAURA SKELDING / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Ofelia Zapata said such a lack of empowerment is common in Dove Springs, particularly among women. Zapata is the community’s principal organizer, the one most responsible for a period of civic energy in the 1990s that largely solved the area’s gang problem, only to be followed by a relapse into civic apathy that Zapata has been trying to counter.

One recent example: A woman took English lessons intending to join the PTA, only to back out when her husband disapproved, Zapata said.

“I thought that kind of attitude was gone. But that’s still part of the culture, that the man is the voice of the family, and the woman stays at home in the background,” Zapata said. “We’re trying to find ways to help our women have more of a voice.”

Cruz said she found hers a few years ago, after having an epiphany: She was digging herself an early grave.

The realization came all at once, but the turnaround took a while. It took an exercise routine built one day at a time. Whole milk became 2 percent. Cruz lost nearly 100 pounds. She found her way back to faith not just as a social convention, but as a bedrock. And as she did, she found she had the energy to join the PTA of Rodriguez Elementary and then Mendez Middle School, which both of her daughters will attend this year.

The volunteer work led her to connect with a revitalization effort called G.A.V.A. — Go! Austin! Vamos! Austin! — a coalition of residents and nonprofits backed by UT’s Michael and Susan Dell Center for Healthy Living. Through that effort, Cruz spent last year working as the health and wellness coordinator at Mendez.

The problems in Dove Springs are deeply rooted. Years will probably pass before the results of the revitalization efforts are clear. But Cruz insists little changes — changes as simple as picking up the trash in Franklin Park — are a harbinger of bigger things.

“Change your habits,” Cruz said, “change your life.”

‘If you don’t have money there, you die’

The dirt-and-gravel driveway leads from a rural road on the outskirts of Elgin to the front porch of a double-wide mobile home. A pair of goats look up from behind the fence that keeps them off the rest of the two-acre property. Ten-year-old Jeffrey Ortega is kicking around a soccer ball in the evening sunlight. His 11-year-old sister, Carina, is skipping rope.

Inside, their mother, Rosa Aguilar, beckons visitors to sit on the gray couch in the corner, the only furniture in the living room aside from the tube TV and its stand.

Aguilar grew up on a ranch in rural Guanajuato in Central Mexico. Her father made her quit attending the ranch’s small classes in fourth grade, she said, to keep her from mingling with the boys.

“I wish I had learned more,” she said in Spanish. She and her husband crossed into the United States illegally in their mid-20s, had their children here and continue living in the United States without authorization.

Life is often hard, Aguilar said. Her husband, a construction worker, earned about $22,000 last year. She doesn’t work, mostly, she said, because she doesn’t speak English. They moved out of Austin five years ago because it was too expensive.

About 60 percent of Austin Hispanics are immigrants and nearly three-quarters of those immigrants aren’t U.S. citizens. About 94 percent of Austin’s noncitizen immigrant population speaks a language other than English, and two-thirds of them speak English less than “very well.” Among noncitizen immigrant families in Austin, 35 percent live below the federal poverty line, compared with 9 percent of native-born families, according to recent Census Bureau estimates.

Carina and Jeffrey stand to do better than their parents. Second-generation Americans “are substantially better off than immigrants themselves on key measures of socioeconomic attainment,” according to a 2013 Pew Research Center analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data.

Around Christmas, Jeffrey and Carina ask their parents for new shoes or an Xbox or iPad, things Aguilar knows they cannot afford. But when the children promise to do well in school, she sometimes cannot help but strike the bargain, she said, only to feel bad at struggling to keep it.

It would be a different kind of heartache where they had lived in Guanajuato, Aguilar said. There is no public school there, she said. The Zetas, violent enforcers of drug cartels, would be a threat. Her husband recently developed Type 2 diabetes and, through his employer, can get a month’s supply of medicine for a $25 deductible. In Guanajuato, he wouldn’t have the medicine, she said.

“People die there all the time,” Aguilar said. “If you don’t have money there, you die.”

Her husband emerges from the back, freshly scrubbed after a day on the construction site and wearing a polo shirt and burnt-orange hat. As the parents talk, Carina picks up a Goosebumps book she checked out from the Elgin Public Library. She failed a math class but is taking a summer class to make it up and is an avid reader, her mother says.

Jeffrey, she said, plays soccer at a field by the middle school. The team nicknamed themselves Barcelona, because their red jerseys look like the Spanish soccer club’s.

When asked in Spanish about his favorite soccer player, he shrugs and says, in English: “Maybe Messi, maybe Neymar, maybe Cristiano Ronaldo. It’s between them.”

‘There isn’t one cumbia’

Juan Camilo Agudelo, a UT graduate student, has spent the last five years going to shows in Austin’s small but thriving cumbia scene and asking a simple question: just what is he watching?

Cumbia is thought to have originated along Colombia’s Caribbean coast, a melding of traditional African and Spanish rhythms. By the 1950s it had evolved into a regional sound. Cumbia spread across South America, through Central America and into Mexico, developing a distinct flavor in each place, with folkloric versions and pop versions and a Peruvian version that seems to channel the psychedelic energy of The Doors.

Agudelo is writing his Ph.D. dissertation on cumbia. In it, he sees parallels to the larger question of Hispanic-ness. He was born in Bogotá, Colombia, and lived there until he was 8, when his parents moved to the Boston area, amid an influx of Dominicans that had followed an influx of Puerto Ricans.

He was unaware, until his family arrived in the United States, that as a Colombian he was supposed to have anything in common with other Hispanic groups.

Eighty-five percent of Austin’s Hispanics trace their lineage to Mexico and think of themselves as Mexican or Mexican-American — not Hispanic.

“I hate that word, ‘Hispanic,’” said Garcia, the former Austin mayor, who is Mexican-American. “I didn’t grow up in Spain.”

Agudelo neither loves nor hates the term, nor its cousin, “Latino.” But as a sociologist, he does see their usefulness. Hispanics, as a cohort, lag in income, educational achievement and political involvement and have higher rates of childhood obesity – a set of commonalities that Agudelo said should counter the notion that “Hispanics have made it. We’re part of the mainstream now.”

Commonalities can easily stretch into stereotypes, though. Agudelo sometimes wonders what his own story has to do with the Hispanic archetypes: the construction worker living in the country illegally, the maid, the vato with the tattoos that many people don’t realize are religious, the child who is either a Honduran refugee or illegal immigrant, depending on whom you ask.

“How do all these people fit into the same box? They don’t,” Agudelo said. When trying to reconcile what that means, he comes around to cumbia.

“There isn’t one cumbia. There are many cumbias,” he said. “Nobody can say definitively what cumbia is. I think the same thing is true of a singular Latino community.”

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2 thoughts on “One Austin, muchas comunidades

  1. Austin is not too bad, yet. Round Rock is worse with the Gestapo cops. Although the Hispanic population has been growing at an alarming rate, especially on the East side. I lived near the East side for awhile. The Hispanics were definitely moving in and moving on up. I’m sure in a couple years, it will be no safer than San Antonio and the border states unless we do something about it. Unfortunately, with the way things are going in this country, we’re having more difficulty lifting the assholes off of their chairs and away from their idiotboxes.

    God help us all!

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