What happened to Juarez-Lincoln University in downtown Austin?
This story was originally performed live at the Paramount Theatre in February. Our next ATXplained Live show is Oct. 11. Find more info here.
At the corner of Cesar Chavez Street and I-35, there once was a revolution: a building that housed Juarez-Lincoln University. But Juarez-Lincoln was a lot more than a university.
In the 1960s, education was made by white people for white students. Immigrants had to adapt like square pegs into round holes. Juarez-Lincoln University was founded by the immigrant and Latino community to fix an education system in Texas that left many migrant children behind.
Now, it’s an IHOP.
The first time Pedro Berlanga heard about Juarez-Lincoln University was at an exhibit at the Carver Museum in East Austin.
“It was mind blowing to kind of come across that story and not be aware of it at all,” he said.
He asked KUT's ATXplained project what happened to the school.
Outside of a few paragraphs here and there, the internet doesn’t reveal a whole lot.
“It really speaks to the undertold histories," said Jaime Puente, who researched the university in grad school, "like the multiple undertold histories I started to uncover as I learned more about Juarez-Lincoln."
An uprising in Crystal City
To understand the origin of Juarez-Lincoln, we have to take a trip back in time to Crystal City, west of San Antonio. In the '60s, the Chicanos in the town outnumbered white folks. But every person on the school board was white.
This led to a lot of discrimination. Students were permitted to only speak English. Teachers were not allowed to teach Latin-American history. Chicano contributions were absent from history books. The cheerleading team was only allowed one non-white student on the team.
One day in 1969, the students had enough.
They organized a walkout, forcing the school board to take up their demands or shut down for the semester. When the school board elections came around, the newly formed Raza Unida Party won most of the seats.
“When the Chicanos took over the Crystal City school board, the white teachers led by the Texas Classroom Teachers Association at the time called for a boycott,” Puente said. They urged teachers not to teach in Crystal City until the board stopped implementing changes meant to bring equity to a school district that had historically neglected the needs of most of their students.
In response, members of the Raza Unida Party and others decided they were ready to do something bigger to fix education for Chicanos in Texas.
A group of Chicano activists, including members of Raza Unida, first established Colegio Jacinto-Treviño in 1969 to teach educators so they could work in places like Crystal City.
The school used a model called “colegio sin paredes” or school without walls. Students would work with advisers to get credit for their jobs and volunteer experience. Think of a college program where all your classes are internships.
This allowed many students to earn degrees at their own pace, making a college education a lot more accessible for Chicanos. Graduates from the Colegio were expected to join the workforce and give back in the form of educating the next generation of Chicanos.
Some faculty saw the school as just a school. Others felt the school should be a training center for young activists to learn how to protest and bring attention to the plight of Chicanos as a whole.
The disagreement over the school's purpose led Andre Guerrero and Leonard Mestas to start Juarez-Lincoln University in 1971. They brought along a handful of faculty and students from the Colegio.
At its height, the university had about 1,200 students enrolled. Leonard Nimoy, known for his role as Spock in the original Star Trek series, is one of Juarez-Lincoln's most famous graduates. The university started off on the St. Edwards campus, but as enrollment grew, it was only logical that it would need its own space.
A home in West Austin
In 1976, the university moved to a repurposed church on the corner of I-35 and First Street (now Cesar Chavez). It looks a lot different today, but in the early '70s, Rainey Street was a working-class Mexican-American neighborhood.
The building was unique for a place that served the Latino population: It was west of I-35. The 1928 master plan that systemically segregated the city’s Black residents to East Austin also segregated the city’s Chicanos.
At that time, there was a meat and poultry plant on the shores of Lady Bird Lake on the western side of the freeway. The lake was used as a place to toss gross stuff that didn’t make it into a sausage.
“That produced a pretty decent smell if you could imagine,” Puente said. “Mexican Americans were able to buy, and they were allowed to buy in this area because nobody else wanted to purchase it.”
That same year, local muralist Raul Valdez painted what became an iconic mural on the outside of the building.
“I decided to paint a universal theme, which is Earth, wind, fire and water — the elements — but represent them in a Mexican fashion," he said. “All these symbols were native symbols, you know, that we're born here and right here in the Americas.”
The mural hung over the neighborhood like a billboard, demonstrating the pride the residents had in their heritage and in their little West Austin community.
University's success wouldn’t last, however. Juarez-Lincoln relied on federal grants to stay afloat, like many activist organizations at the time.
"Tuition often rarely pays for the bills at a university or institution, especially at Juarez-Lincoln where the students necessarily did not have money to pay tuition, per se,” Puente said.
In 1979, almost a decade after it was founded, the school was out of money and had to close. But the building that housed the university lived on in the community.
Long live Juarez-Lincoln
The community embraced the building and the mural in the years after the university shut down. They used it as a multipurpose community space that housed everything from activist organizations to a community flea market.
In the '70s, developers had begun encroaching on Rainey. They saw a lakefront neighborhood right off the freeway in downtown Austin as the perfect place for development. That made the people living there a hurdle in the way of profits.
Eventually, with no money to maintain the campus, Mestas sold the building in 1981. Many in the neighborhood were not happy.
In 1983, wrecking crews arrived to tear the Juarez-Lincoln building down.
The way they aimed at the face on the mural looks personal. Juarez-Lincoln University was gone. But the movement that led to its creation lives on in the fight to keep books accessible, prevent the rewriting of history, and allow students the freedom to learn about who they really are.