THE HISTORY OF MEXICAN AMERICANS IN AUSTIN by Dr. Cynthia e. Orozco
The history of Mexican Americans in Austin is largely an unexplored and unwritten history. No book or scholarly article about the topic has been written and if a computer search is conducted using the key words “Mexican American,” “history,” and “Austin,” not one book can be located.
This is not to say that no one has written on Mexican Americans in Austin because several dissertations, theses, student papers, essays, and newspaper articles have been written. However, without a book or a journal article, access is difficult.
This situation parallels the history of Tejanos and Tejanas in general—more is needed. This brief history outlines some patterns of Mexican life in Austin based on a quick survey of archival materials at the Austin History Center and use of the Handbook of Texas.
The history of Mexican Americans in Austin does not begin with the arrival of Stephen F. Austin to Texas in 1823. Native
Americans lived and settled in the area, the most significant group being the Tonkawas. This area was largely their domain though
Apaches and Comanches could also be found here. Spanish explorers were the second group in the area although no permanent
settlement by way of a mission, presidio, or pueblo was built here.
As early as 1691 on his way to East Texas, Domingo Teran de los Rios passed through the southeast corner of present-day
Travis County. In 1716 Domingo Ramon also bound to East Texas passed through the area and in 1720 the Marquis de Aguayo cut
across the northern part of the county on his way to the missions.
Around 1730 the missions San Francisco de los Neches, Nuestra Senora de la Purisima Concepcion de los Hasinai, and San Jose de los Nazonis were temporarily located near the Colorado near the site presently known as Barton Springs. The Spanish initially intended to
missionize and Christianize the Tonkawa but finally abandoned these efforts in 1752.
Spanish explorers made their ways through again in 1732, 1754-1755, and 1766. In 1766 the Marques de Rubi and cartographer Nicolas de Lafora recorded the existence of three “rancherias de gentiles” on the Colorado River near present-day Austin. In summary, during the Spanish colonial era up to 1821, there was no permanent settlement to provide a basis for a town.
With the creation of the republic of Mexico in 1821, the Mexican government sought to establish a more permanent foothold in its northern frontier and allowed white settlers empresario grants to settle colonies and families. Stephen F. Austin received such a grant. Some Mexicans were granted land titles in this area of Coahuila y Tejas. In 1828 Santiago del Valle received a land grant where the M o n t o p o l i s Recreation Center is now located. Mexicans, then, were present in what became the town of Austin in 1839 after the republic of Texas was created in 1836.
Racial discrimination intensified after the Texas revolt in 1836 and especially after the US/Mexico war ended in 1848. Persons of Mexican descent were largely considered “greasers”. The new Texas republic was intimately linked to the South and the United States. Slavery as an institution, economy and culture. was established in Texas.
In 1840 the city fathers wrote Austin’s first ordinance on slavery. It forbade “any white man or Mexican” from “making
associates of slaves.” The Tejano community found itself on both sides of the slavery question in the Civil War from 1861 to 1865.
Indeed, just as some Austin Tejanos helped slaves, others like Antonio Priba served as a private in Company G in the Flournoy
Regime of Texas Volunteers for the Confederacy. The post-Civil War era saw the breakup of the slave economy and the rise of
livestock raising, small tenant farming, and sharecropping in Travis County. This period also witnessed the beginnings of
industrialization of Austin in general.
In the 1870s two railroads made their way through Austin which helped to give rise to food processing and furniture and pottery factories. An 1872 newspaper article reported that Mexican men in Travis County were “mostly teamsters and farm laborers.” Mexicans in the county were still largely a rural population.
In 1875, census taker Joe Costa reported 297 Mexicans within Austin’s city limits. A barrio and an urban economy was evident. The permanent nature of this new Tejano community was evident with the establishment of Mexican churches. In 1883 Menchaca Elementary School was built to serve residents. Likewise, Mexicans formed their own schools to further their education.
In town, Mexicans worked in various occupations, In the 1870s Mexican women owned and worked in candy-making and tamale-making businesses. In the 1890s John M. Valdez worked as a blacksmith repairing horseshoes. Nevertheless, Mexicans in Travis County continued to be primarily rural throughout the 1890s.
In 1890 and 1899 La Iglesia Methodista Unida Emmanuel and La Primer Iglesia Bautista Mexicana were founded respectively. Mexican Catholics continued to attend St. Patrick’s Catholic church founded in 1852 which reportedly maintained segregated pews for some time. The first Mexican American to attend the University of Texas at Austin was Marius Garcia in 1894
By 1900 many Mexican Americans worked in chili factories. The 1905 Austin city directory listed Endoxio Chapa as its first Mexican druggist. The founding of Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe in 1907 and El Buen Pastor, a Presbyterian church, in 1913 added a stronger foundation for the community. In 1908 Ben Garza and his wife established a meat market.
In 1910, most Mexican families worked as sharecroppers in the county. In an oral history, Earl Herrera noted, “In those times
almost all the Mexican Americans lived in rural areas. The economic life was limited. For example, the Mexican usually worked as a
sharecropper. And he had to go to the American to look for the crops ripened. The American would give to the Mexican so much provision and after the crops came in the Mexican would go to the store and pay.”
The Mexican Revolution of 1910 stimulated immigration to the north so Austin, like San Antonio and Houston, saw an increase in their respective populations. Likewise, the United States witnessed the decline of family farming, more sharecropping as well as the rise of an urban populace.
Between 1913 and 1920 Valentin Arcala Herrera, a teacher in Mexico, opened schools in his home for children of El Buen Pastor teaching fifteen to twenty children. It was in1916, that the Austin school board decided to send non-English-speaking children to separate schools. Also taking place around 1916, was the rise of a small middle class. This is evidenced by the arrival of Dr. Alberto Garcia, a physician, and his wife Eva Carrillo.In 1919 Miguel Oyervide was working as the first Mexican policeman for a tiny middle class.
As the 1920s continued to unfold, Mexican students attended the Comal School, a separate four-room school for first and second
grade. In 1921 a Diez y Seis celebration on East Avenue drew 6,000 participants.
The 1920s also saw the birth of numerous Mexican organizations. In 1921, Camp Cerezo No. 252, Woodmen of the World, a mutual
aid society existed. A Spanish language newspaper El Vanguardia edited and published by Dr. Alberto Garcia and Eva Carrillo appeared.
In the 1920s Mexican-descent cemeteries like San Jose Cemetery I and II in Montopolis were still the norm. They were opened in 1919 by La Union Fraternal Mexicana. Housing and real estate development also reflected racial segregation.
In 1927 Tomas Galindo and Eustacio Cepeda founded the Sociedad Funeraria de Agricultores “Mariano Escobar” de Creedmoor y
Austin. Club Anahuac another voluntary society. And in 1927 Austin permitted the first Mexican descent person, Consuelo Mendez, to teach in the Austin Independent School District.
Researcher Earl Connell reported that “Mexican men, women, and children follow the city wagons to the dump to pick out the old rags, cans of spoiled food, partly rotten apples and other fruits, old boxes, and old cakes. That which is not eaten on the spot is carried to their houses, along with the worst kind of filth.” His report expressed racism typical of what whites considered “the Mexican problem”.
In 1928 many people of Mexican descent were now living in what is today downtown Austin. A white-dominated city council devised a master plan marginalizing the Mexican community to East Austin. The Catholic Diocese even moved Nuestra Senora Catholic Church to 9th Street.
In 1929, Mexican women participated in the Cruz Azul, a group similar to the American Red Cross but which worked closely with the Mexican Consulate. These organizations were important to a largely working-class community. Mexican women also worked as laundresses, domestics, candymakers, and tamale-makers. Because of racially-defined work and gender-defined work and thus low wages, Mexicans were forced to supplement earnings.
By 1930 Mexicans constituted 10% of the Austin population. Roy Velasquez had established his taxi company and other Mexican
Americans were also opening business. The Zavala School added permanency as did the Santa Rita Courts, public housing established in 1939. Expensive housing and racial covenants in housing also ensured that Mexicans would stay on their side of town. Dr. Carlos E.
Castaneda became a professor of history at The University of Texas at Austin in the 1930s. In 1936 the Lorenzo de Zavala school, the
first school specifically for the Mexican community was constructed and in 1937 Seton Nursing School graduated its first Mexican American nurse.
The 1940s saw the growth of a Mexican American community in South Austin. By then Austin’s population was 87,930. In 1939
San Jose church was organized to serve 126 families in that area. Some South Austin whites did not welcome Mexican American
neighbors. Signs were posted in yards: “Go home, Mexicans.” This occurred while Henry S. Terrazas fought for his country in
World War II and with Daniel Ortega who was killed in action in France while carrying a wounded soldier to safety.
The late 40s saw increased political activity by the Mexican community. Soldiers who returned home after World War II were not
content to go back to the way things were. The Longoria Affair in Three Rivers, Texas where a Mexican American soldier was
refused a decent funeral produced outrage across the county and served to spark a furry of activity among Mexican Americans.
LULAC Council #85, which was founded in 1938 sought to register voters and drew up a civil rights bill. The American G.I. Forum also organized a chapter in Austin.
Desegregation efforts were of major concern in the 1950s. By then Austin’s population was 131,964. Throughout the 50s, the newspaper El Democrata founded in 1943 and which existed until 1966 served the Mexican descent community. The bands of El Conjunto Cielito, the Mat Velasquez Orchestra, the Nash Hernandez Orchestra, and the Manuel “Cowboy” Donley Orchestra were in full swing.
In 1951, a young attorney by the name of Patricio Mendez ran for a place on the Austin City Council. He received 2,844 votes (19.54%) and lost but he was the first of many Mexican Americans who had come home from the war and began to “test” the waters.
By the 1960s, Mexican Americans numbered between 15,000 and 20,000 in Austin or about 20%. Mexicans represented 20% of the workforce around 1960 mostly in unskilled or semiskilled occupations in small employer units in non-manufacturing activity. At the time, Austin was a non-industrial city dominated by institutional and white-collar employment. The development of Interstate 35 further solidified what is known as “East Austin.”
Researcher Sam Parigi noted, “To the casual visitor, Austin appears to be a prosperous town, but an examination of the income
of Latins in Austin (and the rest of Texas) discloses “poverty in the midst of plenty.” The 1960 median income for Austin families was
$5,058 but for Austin Mexican Americans it was under $3,000.
The 1960s witnessed at least three successful unionization efforts. In one of these firms, Mexicans earned $1.00 an hour while
Anglos received $1.25. Jose Garcia, Benny Martinez, and Reverend Frank Briganti of Cristo Rey Roman Catholic church proved key in unionization efforts at a concrete products firm and at a plastic pleasure boats firm. Perhaps even more important was the Economy Furniture strike, which began in 1967 when 252 workers went on strike, 40% of who were women.
The Chicano movement also arose in the late 60s giving salience to more activism and cultural florescence. The Brown Berets were active as was the Raza Unida Party, a third political party and a challenge to Democrats and Republicans. The 1970s saw the rise of political representation. In 1970, Richard Moya was elected the first Mexican American to a countywide office, the Travis County com-missioner’s court. Gus Garcia was elected in 1972 as the first Mexican American to the school board. Gonzalo Barrientos became a state representative, winning only by 84 votes in 1974. John Trevino Jr. was the first Mexican American to be elected to the Austin City Council in 1975.
In 1974 the East Town Lake Citizens Association was organized after families were displaced by the expansion of Fiesta Gardens and in 1978 confrontations with the police occurred over boat races.
Mexican American women organized politically in conjunction and independently from men. Throughout the 70s, Martha P. Cotera represented the feminist inclinations of a sector of Austin women. In 1974 women formed the Mexican American Business and Professional Women’s Association reflecting the development of a female middle class as well as the development of Chicana
In 1980 Margaret Gomez became the first elected Mexican American woman in Travis County as a county commissioner and Lena Guerrero was elected as state representative. In 1983 and 1986 new schools were named after Emma H. Galindo and Consuelo Mendez. In 1987 the local chapter of the Hispanic Women’s Network was formed. Austin gays and lesbians founded ALLGO, the Austin Latina/o Lesbian and Gay Organization in 1985.
Newspapers have served the community since the 1920s. A publication called “Para la Gente” emerged in the 1970s Culture and art institutions include League of United Chicano Artists (LUCHA) (1977), La Pena (1982) and Mexic-Arte (1984).
In the decade of the 1980s, a total 126 Mexican Americans would run for elective office in Travis County. Richard Moya on the
right, would become the first Mexican American to win elective office in Travis County.
The tradition of community organizations would continue over the years with over 150 in existence 2005. With regard to public school enrollment, Latino children would come to make up the majority of the Austin Independent School District population by 2015.
The history of Mexican Americans in Austin is a rich history. The history of people, organizations, institutions, churches, businesses, workers, women, men, children, musicians, artists, and writers, it is a history waiting to be collected, written, seen, and heard. We invite your participation.
Copyright 2023 by Dr. Cynthia E.Orozco. A slightly different version of this article appeared in La Voz Newspaper – January, 2023 Pages 12-15. All photos used in this article are in the public domain.