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Trails in a Changing East Austin Preserve Decades of Tejano History

Many Latinos in Texas can trace their history back to the 1690s. They're descendants of Spanish, Mexican and indigenous people who were here when the land was subject to the Spanish crown, then later a part of the sovereign state of Mexico, the Republic of Texas and, finally, the United States.

They don’t consider themselves either Mexican or Anglo-Texan. They’re Tejanos, and they always have been.  Now, a six-mile path through Austin aims to preserve some of that history.

With that in mind, let's go on a tour.

First, we meet Johnny Degollado, who's been playing the accordion for half a century. He meets me at his namesake: the Johnny Degollado Pavillion at Fiesta Gardens in East Austin, an area that's been a mostly Latino part of the city since the 1930s.

Degollado's now 78-years-old. He grew up near here and, in 2012, he got a lifetime achievement award from the city's Mexican American Cultural Center.

About a mile north is the house of Diana Herrera Castañeda. It was built in the 1930s and belonged to her grandmother. It’s typical of the houses of this Latino community – small, one story and made of wood.

"East Austin used to be German and Polish and all of that, but then when the city council, circa 1937, they came up with a new plan to remove all of the Mexicanos from downtown Austin," Castañeda says.

Castañeda's family has played a strong role here. Her great aunt, Consuelo Herrera Mendez, is known as the first Mexican-American teacher in Austin. There's a school in the city named after her.

"Her first school was two blocks down at Comal and Third Street, and it was called la escuelita," Castañeda says. "They had kids of every age in each of the classes, so they weren’t divided into first grade or second grade. They were all first graders even if you were seventeen. That’s because a lot of the kids had no education, they were not literate and they were all learning at the first time."

Castañeda’s home sits right across from some of the nation’s first public housing, opened in 1940. It was spearheaded by Lyndon Johnson, when he was a senator from Texas. Castañeda’s grandfather owned the land and sold it to the government.

"These are the Chalmers housing projects," she says, standing near them. "They were built by the federal government and they’re yellow brick, underneath that stucco they put on it."

Public housing was segregated at the time. Chalmers was for white people. Another project was built for African Americans and yet another for Latinos.

Today, most of the neighborhood is still Latino, for now.

"We’re trying to keep it that way," Castañeda says. "Around the alley back over there, there’s a house built by an Anglo woman. It’s a three-story house, so it kind of feels like an infringement, because if you’re in your backyard they can see what’s going on in your backyard. So she bought the house on the end so now some more Anglos moved in over there."

My next stop is Zavala Elementary School, about a five-minute walk from Castañeda’s house.  At Zavala Elementary, 81-year-old Richard Moya is waiting for me. He went here more than 75 years ago, when most principals were men.

"[In] '41 the war started. You know, almost all the men, if they were healthy or of a certain age, they were in the army or in service," Moya says. "So what happened was we had one principal for three schools. Mr. Wilburn. I’ll never forget…Lee Wilburn. He went from school to school because they didn’t have enough principals."

Zavala opened in 1936, for the Latinos in the neighborhood. Moya had to come here even though he lived closer to the Anglo school. That is, until his mother fought for him to switch, when he was 8 or 9 years old, but he says the Latino and non-Latino students didn't interact with each other.

"They didn’t like us," Moya says. "They called us all kinds of names. They’d call you Mexican and pepper belly, stuff like that. And like to me, they wouldn’t refer to me by my name. They’d call me Pancho. I guess it was because of a reference to Pancho Villa, which is a bad guy, I guess, to some people."

Experiences like that led Moya into public service. In 1970, he became the first Mexican-American commissioner in Travis County.

"I think Hispanics understand Hispanics better," he says. "And if you take somebody like me that grew up in this poor neighborhood we’re sitting at that knows a little bit about what it was like, I don’t think an Anglo candidate from West Austin, if he were to win, would have any idea. And I don’t they’d even come around here."

The neighborhood, however, is no longer the same as it was when he was growing up. This part of East Austin is becoming a bit like Brooklyn – hipster heaven.

"This area here, I think, you know, in the next 25 to 30 years it’ll be gone," Moya says. "The school will probably be here, but it won’t be full of Mexican kids – full of some other kinds of kids. So we’ll see what happens."

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