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Austin's Latino community celebrates Parque Zaragoza's 90 years of history and traditions

Huge oak trees line Parque Zaragoza, a 90-year-old park in East Austin.
Gabriel C. Pérez
/
KUT
Huge oak trees line Parque Zaragoza, a 90-year-old park in East Austin.

Lee esta historia en español.

Walking through Parque Zaragoza is like taking a trip through Austin history. It was founded along Boggy Creek in 1931 as the first public park for the city’s Mexican American community. Zaragoza quickly became a cultural hub, where people gathered to watch baseball games, listen to Tejano music performed by local legends and celebrate holidays like Cinco de Mayo and Diez y Seis de Septiembre.

“There was always something going on at Parque Zaragoza because this was where everybody went, you know, the Mexican American community,” said David Capuchino, who served as the park’s site supervisor between 1986 and 2005.

But as community leaders got older and gentrification changed the makeup of the neighborhood, the annual fiestas and traditions began to fade out. Now, a new group of volunteers is trying to bring some of those traditions back — starting this weekend. The volunteers, who call themselves Amigos de Parque Zaragoza, are hosting a 90th anniversary celebration for the park on Saturday.

Raul Alvarez, a former Austin City Council member, is leading the group. He says use of the park has waned during the pandemic, and he hopes hosting more community events will help change that.

“We're trying to kind of create reasons for people to come back and use the park and use the recreation center,” he said, “but also to document … the historical significance of this facility, not just for East Austin, but for the broader community.”

The park was recently added to the National Register of Historic Places, and a new plaque signifying this recognition will be unveiled during Saturday’s festivities. The event, which is from 1 to 5 p.m., will also have live mariachi and conjunto music, a scavenger hunt and basketball and disc golf games.

Leading up to the anniversary celebration, the City of Austin released a short documentary called Parque Zaragoza: Communidad, Cultura, y Resiliencia that tells the park’s story.

The park’s origins are rooted in racist city policies. In the 1920s, the City Council passed restrictive housing measures that pushed Austin’s Black and Hispanic residents to underserved areas on the East Side. Wanting a public space for the Mexican American community to gather, local Latino leaders began urging the city to create a park for them.

Their efforts were successful. In 1931, the park opened on 9.3 acres along Boggy Creek, near East Seventh Street. It was named after Ignacio Zaragoza Seguín, a Mexican general whose army defeated invading French forces at the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862. The day is now celebrated as Cinco de Mayo.

Residents used the park to host Cinco de Mayo festivities, barbecues, dances and baseball games. One of the most popular attractions was the Tejano music. Bands would come from across Central Texas to perform at the park. This helped Austin become the music city it’s known to be today, according to Gloria Mata Pennington, a former city parks program manager featured in the documentary.

“It was Tejano music that really belonged to us,” she says in the documentary. “I want people to remember that those seeds that were planted and grew Austin into the Live Music Capital of the World happened right here in this park.”

A historic bath house next to the park's pool was Parque Zaragoza's only indoor space for more than 50 years.
Gabriel C. Pérez
/
KUT
A historic bath house next to the park's pool was Parque Zaragoza's only indoor space for more than 50 years.

Just as Parque Zaragoza's founding was spurred by community advocacy, so were its improvements over the years. For more than 50 years, a small brick bath house without air conditioning served as the park’s only indoor space. In the 1980s, the park’s advisory board, a group of volunteers who advocated for Zaragoza and organized community events, petitioned the city for a new rec center, but an economic downturn delayed progress. Finally, the community members succeeded in getting the center on a bond package in the 1990s, which was approved by voters.

During the planning process, the advisory board and residents had a say in what the rec center would look like, said Capuchino, who worked on the design team. The $2.3 million facility would have a gymnasium, a weight room, a multipurpose room and a space for arts and craft. When the new center opened in 1996, neighborhood residents came out and signed their names in freshly poured concrete on the sidewalk next to it.

“It made the community [feel] that they owned that rec center and it was theirs, not just City of Austin property,” Capuchino said. “They felt ownership.”

One of the murals at the rec center commemorates the Battle of Cinco de Mayo.
Gabriel C. Pérez
/
KUT
One of the murals at the rec center commemorates the Battle of Cinco de Mayo.

The new center’s design and “cutting-edge concepts” received praise from architectural journals, according to the documentary. It featured murals that depicted the park’s founding members and scenes in Mexican history. The Mexican Consulate donated a large bust of General Zaragoza that still sits on display near the entrance. At the new center, Capuchino helped grow the already established festivities, like Easter egg hunts and pumpkin carvings, into bigger events and expand after-school programs for children and teens.

“Everything just grew in attendance because of the rec center,” he said.

In the early 2000s, though, the advisory board started to dissolve as members got older and stopped attending meetings, he said. Capuchino eventually retired, too. The demographics of the surrounding neighborhoods began to change as property values rose. Some families were displaced by rising property taxes and costs of living. Wealthier people moved in and bought out old homes to build more expensive ones. As these changes continue to take place, Alvarez said he hopes Amigos de Parque Zaragoza can help ensure the stories and traditions of this park are not lost.

“There’s a lot of change happening around the park in terms of gentrification and displacement,” he said. “So, what we want to do is preserve the stories and preserve those memories and create reasons for people to come to the park. [We want] to make sure the current families can connect with the park just like other family members in the past have connected with the park.”

The park's new rec center in opened in 1996. It has a gymnasium, weight room, multipurpose room and more.
Gabriel C. Pérez
/
KUT
The park's new rec center in opened in 1996. It has a gymnasium, weight room, multipurpose room and more.

Alvarez said the new organization is picking up the mantle from past generations of community members who have looked out for Parque Zaragoza. Alvarez and other community members began organizing the Amigos group at the end of 2019. Last year marked the park's 90th anniversary, but the group had to postpone celebrations to 2022 because of the pandemic.

In addition to hosting events like the one Saturday, the organization holds regular cleanups at the park on the second Saturday of every month. Going forward, the group wants to work with the community to identify what physical improvements they want to see at the park, Alvarez said. One of the first things on the list is creating an outdoor classroom under the oak trees, a place where people can host poetry readings or storytelling events for kids.

“I think for me, the Amigos group is symbolic of the need to better care for the park and and to remind folks sort of why it's a special place,” he said, “and that it is a place where history can be made, not just in the past, but in the future as well.”

Marisa Charpentier is KUT's assistant digital editor. Got a tip? Email her at mcharpentier@kut.org. Follow her on Twitter @marisacharp.
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