East Austin History Tour: Strangers in Our Own Community

By: Estefania de Leon, Estephanie Gomez, Karla Pulido and Raylee Elder

https://www.thinglink.com/scene/728250483512180737

By Estephanie Gomez

An overcast November sky washes out the already fading colors of a mural in the middle of Chicano Park. Children run past it, ignoring it. The vibrant blues of the swing sets call to them more than the dull greens and browns of the painting.

It’s the painting’s deteriorating condition that draws in a group of twenty people on a chilly afternoon.

This group is a part of the East Austin History Tour, a walking tour of historic Mexican American sites led by University of Texas graduate students Rocio Villalobos and Allison Reimer. The tour is inspired by Jane’s Walk USA, a series of free neighborhood walking tours inspired by urban activist Jane Jacobs, who fought for local residents and for the preservation of their community’s history.

According to Community and Regional Planning graduate student Allison Reimer, this tour aimed to do the same during a time in the area’s gentrification. The tour covered a three-and-a-half mile walk through both well-known and hidden historical sites, starting in Comal Park and ending with the restored La Loteria mural.  

Although it is Riemer’s second year in Austin, she has already noticed significant changes in the East Austin community.

“It’s something that’s on-going, and it’s happening everywhere. It’s important to hear from people from those communities,” Riemer said.  

Each site featured a different mural artists or members of the community who have seen the area change as early at the 1970s. Each speaker touched on gentrification, including the arrival of the Launderette, the location of a treasured Virgin of Guadalupe mural and a restaurant where “you can’t find anything under $15,” according to Felipe Garza.

This is just one example where East Austin residents have been economically pushed out of their own community.

Felipe Garza, a former East Austin resident and the artist behind La Loteria, as well as mural artists Mando Martinez and Robert Herrera Jr., claimed that members of the community have been “taxed out.” The arrival of upscale hotels and restaurants in the East Austin area increased the value of properties. Their friends and neighbors were unable to afford the new rent and were forced out of the area.

For Garza and other mural artists, the paintings were one way they could culturally and creatively express themselves so that they didn’t feel like “strangers in [their] own community” as new businesses took over.  

According to Bertha Delgado, East Austin Community Organizer and the Director of Arte Texas, East Austin’s value escalated once the Holly Power Plant was shut down in September 2007.

“A lot of people neglected this area because of the plant. We didn’t have a whole lot of resources, and there were a lot of drugs, gangs and violence,” Delgado said.

Many of the community’s “troubled” youth turned to graffiti, including mural artist Robert Hernandez Jr.

Hernandez later turned to murals and projects like Arte Texas when La Loteria, a cherished community mural, was painted over earlier this year. For Hernandez, the murals reflect cultural messages of the time that deserve to be preserved to honor past generations as well as those of the future.

I have children, and if they’re not self-assured and don’t feel strong enough about their culture, how can they be of any use to the world?” Hernandez asked.

It is this sense of preservation that inspired the creation of Arte Texas.

It took a lot of community outcry. We felt like ‘how could these people do this to our businesses and our community?’ I think [La Loteria] showed the world that we were being gentrified and economically exploited and we need people to help us,” Delgado said.

The support from the community as well as the city council let Delgado know that their work was important. According to Delgado, Arte Texas is currently working on restoring other beloved murals.

We know Austin is ready to see more art, and we’re ready, “ Delgado said.

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