Maria Luisa Mendoza has seen a lot of changes in the East Cesar Chavez neighborhood in the past few decades.
In 1988, she and her husband opened the health store and restaurant Mr. Natural on East Cesar Chavez Street, and while other businesses have come and gone since then, hers has remained and become a fixture of the community.
“In seeing all this evolution of the neighborhood, businesses coming and going. It’s a very rewarding experience for me, because it’s a challenge every day,” Maria says. “I believe very much in creating ways to survive, to stay, to bring people into whatever you want to show, whatever you want to promote.”
Though there have been myriad local businesses in the area for decades, it’s only been in recent years that they’ve organized a merchants’ association. That organization – which recently elected Maria’s son Jesus as its president – has now partnered with Souly Austin to release The East Cesar Chavez Field Guide, a community-curated book that includes poetry, stories and interviews about the neighborhood, its art, its businesses and its residents.
Leta Moser is one of the contributors to the field guide.
“I lived here 20 years ago and … the area has changed a lot,” she says. “And that was part of the appeal of this project, is to simultaneously honor the culture and richness … of what has been there, but also … recognize kind of the evolution of what it’s becoming and play an active part in the cultural creation of what it’s going to be.”
Jesus Mendoza says the guide is trying to tell the story of the neighborhood.
“What we tried to do is reach out to the community to tell us their stories of what the East Side means to them,” he says. “That is through any kind of writing or artwork.”
The stories in the guide focus on, among other things, the longstanding businesses in the community and the many murals found there. “We told people to kind of give us insights of how they feel [the murals] contribute to the district,” Jesus says.
Mr. Natural itself added a large mural to its walls just last year. “We had the wall empty and someone came in and they said, ‘well, we want to do a mural,’” Maria says. “I said, ‘Well, I wish to have a mural with all the vegetarians from the past – the ones that have been very important.’”
The three-story tall mural features such famous vegetarians as Mahatma Gandhi, Paul McCartney, Prince, and of course Cesar Chavez himself.
The Mendozas, Moser, and all the contributors to the field guide hope that it’ll help bring folks from other parts of the Austin area into their neighborhood to explore the art, food, and community. “I have heard people saying ‘I was hearing so much about this neighborhood, I came to see what it is and I like it,’” Maria says. “That’s a very good compliment.”