By MICHAEL BARNES, Austin American-Statesman
AUSTIN, Texas (AP) _ There was a time during the pre-Civil War hysteria of the mid-1850s when all Mexicans were expelled from Austin.
And for more than a century after that, social and political isolation kept Mexican-Americans and other Latinos at a cultural arm’s length from other groups in the city.
That is changing fast, like the city’s demographics.
Many believe that the achievements of Austin’s Hispanic community still are not widely understood, respected or recognized.
But how? Where is the Hispanic influence most tangible in Austin’s culture? Where is it overlooked? How will that change in a decade?
Dozens of Hispanic notables recently surveyed by the American-Statesman did not agree on the answers. Some rejected outright the notion that culture can be comprehended outside of the individual stories of Austinites.
Given that plausible doubt, however, they frequently mentioned the impact of a tremendously diversified Hispanic culture on food, language and the arts. They also dug into politics, education and material culture here.
“It has shaped the very fabric of the city in many ways,” Lilia Rosas of Red Salmon Arts told the Austin American-Statesman (http://bit.ly/1sVLRoe). “It has shaped art, music and literature; in the murals that beautify East Austin; the festivals that celebrate the indigenous sounds of the accordion, jarana, or guitar; or the spoken word and poetry that reveals our complex of language, experiences and histories.”
Hispanic cultural presence in Central Texas predates the arrival of non-Hispanic settlers and African-Americans, though not Native Americans. The Spanish planted missions along El Camino Real de los Tejas, including three, briefly, in the Austin area during the 1730s.
Tejanos deepened that early cultural influence after Mexican independence, as historian Andres Tijerina has shown, and some participated in the Texas Revolution. During the 19th century, Mexicans _ as all Latinos were often called by newcomers _ increased their impact on Austin.
In the late 19th century and early 20th century, migrants picked cotton or moved into town to open businesses and to work in factories, including the chili plant that rose at the center of the Mexican district in the southwestern quadrant of downtown. The descendants of those families still tell stories about communities of kinship and connection.
As University of Texas historian Emilio Zamora has pointed out, the early political culture of Mexican-Americans here was informed by mutual aid societies and the pull of Mexican nationalism.
“We that have been born in this country understand our responsibilities as citizens,” Zamora quotes activist and labor organizer Clemente N. Idar from a 1915 article. “But we also feel a profound love for and most exalted interest in our mother race because we are by destiny her progeny. This nationality and this deep love for the Mexican race runs like blood through our veins.”
That center of Hispanic cultural gravity moved to East Austin in the 1920s with the transfer of Our Lady of Guadalupe Church to East Ninth Street. After that, Anglos often encountered Hispanic culture first through businesses such as Matt’s El Rancho, El Matamoros, El Azteca, Cisco’s, the Spanish Village and the Tamale House.
Families such as the Limons, Estradas, Camachos and others established extensive social and cultural networks in town. The collective pull of family and community is a common theme.
“To non-Hispanics unfamiliar with Hispanic culture, this can be misinterpreted as a sign that the importance placed on family and community and being humble impedes individual achievement and advancement,” said lawyer Maria Luisa “Lulu” Flores, “which is far from true. Others must learn to distinguish that Hispanics’ cooperation, respect and humility is very different from being docile and dependent and underachieving.”
Although Latinos agitated as far back as the 1940s for equal footing, it was not until the Economy Furniture Co. strike in 1968-72 _ and later protests against speedboat races on Town Lake _ that Hispanics and their allies organized to win.
“It’s taken a while for the people on the west side to accept equal citizenship for us,” former Travis County Commissioner Richard Moya said. “Anglos liked our food, but they didn’t really like us. It took cultural change to realize that, though our color is different, we aren’t really different.”
Political pioneers _ such as Moya, John Trevino, Gus Garcia, Margaret Gomez and Gonzalo Barrientos _ rose to positions of power and communitywide leadership.
“Less well known is the political muscle that Roy Velasquez, founder of Roy’s Taxi, and Rudy Cisneros, the owner of Cisco’s, flexed before any of them were elected,” said former American-Statesman editorial page editor Arnold Garcia, who covered Austin for four decades. “Cisneros and Velasquez were tough, colorful and economically independent.”
Meanwhile, historians, folklorists and community activists _ such as Zamora, Tijerina, Martha Cotera, Carlos Castaneda, Americo Paredes, Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez, Danny Camacho and Gloria Espitia, as well as Ben and Delia Sifuentes _ collected stories, identified trends and distinguished among the strands of Hispanic cultural legacy.
More recently, Hispanics have risen to the top of the business, legal and nonprofit worlds. Relative newcomers such as Monica Peraza, who runs highly touted businesses and nonprofits, are among the current wave of fresh faces from South and Central America, the Caribbean, Europe, the rest of North America and parts of Mexico not previously major sources of migration.
Rich Garza, director of the Pachanga Latino Music Festival, believes Austin’s profusion of Hispanic culture is underestimated.
“I think the least understood part is how fragmented the culture is,” he said. “And that, in some instances, it competes with itself, especially with how things have changed in the last 15 years or so with the arrival of more immigrants from Latin America and Mexico of all classes.”
Playwright and theater producer Rupert Reyes agrees.
“The other impact on Mexican-American Austinites is that they are caught in the middle,” Reyes said. “They are being squeezed by the new immigrants, since they don’t relate directly to each other, and (by) the Anglo population that sees all brown people as Mexicans.”
One ever-present reminder of concrete impact from Latinos can be seen on any construction site.
“Latinos are literally shaping our city, building it brick by brick,” musician Gina Chavez said. “But they’re also being asked to pay the price, often with their health or even their lives.”
The impact doesn’t stop with manual laborers.
“Since the 1970s, a battery of lawyers, bankers, real estate brokers, all part of the infrastructure necessary to facilitate growth and development, have taken their places in the development of modern Austin,” Arnold Garcia said. “So Latinos not only provided the brawn, but the brains, that are necessary to a city’s growth. . This is our home, and we affect the city both positively and negatively, just like every other population group.”
Starting with the breakfast taco, Austinites of all backgrounds recognize the almost universal adoption of Hispanic foodways.
“Austin is a lifestyle town,” said writer Vicente Lozano. “A place where, over the last 30 years, quality of life and consumable lifestyle have become inextricable. Mexican food has always set the stage for that laid-back party.”
Two core Austin cuisines _ Tex-Mex and barbecue _ borrow heavily from Latino traditions. Interior Mexican and other Latin American ingredients, dishes and dining rituals have won more followers since the opening of Fonda San Miguel in the 1970s.
“There were a lot of pioneers such as Matt’s El Rancho and Spanish Village that were serving chili con queso and taquitos way before it was on trend,” said marketing executive Lonnie Limón, whose Austin-based family counts 3,500 members. “And, according to my dad, there were many earlier restaurants along Red River, which in earlier days was a main street for Mexican families in Austin.”
Charity leader and former TV anchor Olga Campos thinks Austin’s booming Hispanic population and its foodways have helped turn it into a real city.
“I can’t even imagine a wedding, birthday, anniversary or get-together with friends and family, regardless of their ethnicity, that doesn’t include some portion of Mexican food, beer, tequila, salsa music, a piñata or other colorful decorations,” Campos said. “Hispanics add dimension, distinction and diversity to the fabric of this city, and we do so in a warm and welcoming way.”
Taco trucks, once confined to poor neighborhoods or work sites, predate the explosion of food trailers that, in some ways, define contemporary Austin eating.
“Today, the taco has been absorbed by others in Austin and Anglicized,” Margaret Gomez said. “I remember in the mid-1990s buying tacos al pastor from a lady who sold them from a trailer on Riverside Drive. Before I knew it, there were trailers all over Austin selling food.”
Alone among the respondents, Rich Garza suggests that, along with food, Texas’ sartorial style evolved from Hispanic influences.
He has a point: “On the fashion side, and bear with me here, with the whole notion of Spanish vaqueros being the original cowboys: The big hats and boots that have become a staple of American West evolved out of this tradition.”
Start with the names of our rivers, streets and towns. The Spanish language, mostly variations on the Castellano dialect, is everywhere around us.
A sore point: Over time, Spanish words such as “Manchaca” and “Guadalupe” became abbreviated or mispronounced.
“Back when I was in college here in the mid-’70s, one of my journalism classmates, Roy Ortega, of El Paso, got fired from his radio reporting job because he refused to pronounce Guadalupe as `Guadaloop,”’ Rivas-Rodriguez, a UT professor said. “To mispronounce our heritage language, especially when we know better, is to celebrate ignorance. And we’re in beautiful, smart, enlightened Austin, Texas. We’re better than that!”
All one has to do is stay alert to hear and see the pervasive bilingualism of the city.
“I think the biggest cultural impact that Latinos will have in Austin’s future may be a stronger sense of the value of bilingualism and cultural competence,” legislative aide Perla Cavazos said. “I’m observing this interesting trend among my non-Latino friends, and also Latinos like me, whose families have been here for generations, who want their children to be bilingual in both English and Spanish.”
It might not always be appreciated, but fluency in more than one culture can prove to be an enduring asset.
“My mother is Mexican, and, throughout my childhood, I would travel back and forth between Mexico and the United States, seeing firsthand the cultural differences between my white community and Mexican heritage,” Cristina Tzintzun, director of the Workers Defense Project, said. “She always taught me that my greatest gift was my ability to understand and travel between these two disparate worlds. When I arrived in Austin for college, I fell in love with the way that these two worlds came together here.”
Naturally, in a creative city, Hispanic culture permeates live music, art, theater, museums, folk arts and festivals, all refinements of more mundane cultural expressions.
“Austin thrives on `keeping it weird,”’ said Roen Salinas, director of Aztlan Dance Company, “which, for me, translates into keeping it real, creative and individually expressive. As such, Austin culture challenges larger social norms/values and cultural frameworks of conformity. Historically, Hispanic _ and more specifically _ Tejano culture . has been one of cooperation, collaboration, evolution and shared mutual interests in order to develop a greater place to live.”
While such pioneers as Little Joe y La Familia, Joe King Carrasco and the Nash Hernandez Orchestra broke through cultural barriers, Hispanic musicians such as Grupo Fantasma, Los Lonely Boys, Vallejo, Leticia Rodriguez and Gina Chavez are now deeply embedded in Austin’s musical identity.
“I’m constantly surprised by the positive responses I receive from music lovers of all ages and backgrounds,” Chavez said. “They seem to love the bilingual songs, and English speakers are often most drawn to the Spanish songs, wishing they, too, could understand all the lyrics. They truly seem to connect, not only to the infectious rhythms of our Latin-tinged music, but to the lyrics and emotion of the songs themselves, and I find that extremely refreshing.”
Muralist Fidencio Duran works in a tradition that can be traced directly back to Mexico.
“I see the greatest impact by Hispanic culture being the contribution of maintaining a connection between the visual arts and the social causes and aspirations of the community,” Duran said. “It continued the narrative and representational approach used by the regionalists and Mexican muralists before World War II and the advent of abstract expressionism.”
It helps to have at the city’s fingertips the Benson Latin American Collection and the Blanton Museum of Art at the University of Texas, as well as the Austin History Center, Mexic-Arte Museum and the Emma Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center. They preserve and make available a vast and varied cultural heritage.
What will keep Austin in the global cultural game?
“Austin’s proximity to Mexico,” said Mexic-Arte Museum’s director, Sylvia Orozco. “The vibrancy of the creative community, the large Latino population position Austin as a nexus for international and local and national bicultural exchange, and collaboration.”
Nobody surveyed claimed to predict the future. And almost everyone acknowledged that how we live our everyday lives isn’t always reflected in broad cultural gestures. But several pointed to the rapidly growing number of Hispanic youth living with multiple influences as a sign of what’s to come.
“The impact sits in our classrooms every day,” said nonprofit and education consultant Marisa Limón. “Austin school district’s student body is 60 percent Latino, and many of these young people are bilingual, bicultural digital natives. Their unique perspective will highly influence a rapidly changing Austin.”
Still others feel that Hispanic Austinites could lead any future cultural developments.
“An additional future impact is that the Hispanic culture enables Austin to become a more forward-thinking global city,” musician Leticia Rodriguez said. “The Hispanic culture, while sharing a common language, is global. With attention, awareness and hard work, Hispanic contributions both present and forthcoming bring the hope of a more inclusive society for all humankind.”
Education remains a key.
“I believe we’re at a crossroads where we can look for the Class of 2026 at the Dell Medical School and see that they reflect the demographics of today’s second-graders,” said Rivas-Rodriguez. “It can be done if we have high expectations for them and if we celebrate all that they bring to the table _ including the Spanish language.”
What about assimilation? Could Hispanics lose what is already a heterogeneous legacy?
“Not my children so much, but my grandchildren and great-grandchildren are not going to remember any of this,” Moya predicted. “They are already assimilating. They aren’t going to feel the same way about our culture as I do. If an 18-year-old came in here right now and we asked her about Tejano music, she wouldn’t know what we were talking about.”
The respondents generally agreed that young Hispanics have no choice but to take leadership positions in all aspects of Austin’s culture.
Second- and third-generation Mexican-Americans are increasingly being encouraged to “cultivate a mindset that the future of Austin also includes them,” said Mike Avila, webmaster for the Texas State Library and Archives and a longtime Austinite. “There is always a certain comfort in keeping things the way you are used to and staying in the past, but the key is to keep what is good about our culture and our past, but know that you are also a vital part of Austin’s future, which means to become more connected and participatory to the city’s economy and politics.”
Former Commissioner Moya thinks the cultural curiosity is the key to everything: “If you don’t know the other people in this community, if you just stay in your part of town, you know, the way Austin used to be, we will be lost.”
Information from: Austin American-Statesman, http://www.statesman.com