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Storyline 3: Austin's Mexico

9 months ago

Austin's original Latino community once enveloped Republic Square. This downtown "barrio", known as "West Side" or simply as "Mexico", stretched from Congress Avenue to Shoal Creek, and from West 1st Street to West 7th Street. Republic Square served as the physical and social hub for this neighborhood.

As Mexicans and Mexican-Americans (largely Tejanos) moved into the neighborhoods, they quickly adopted the square for their own uses.  By the 1880's, the park was so popular among Mexicans living nearby that newspapers and Anglos dubbed it “Mexican Park,” though most Latinos called it “Guadalupe Park.”

Republic Square in those days resembled a Mexican zocolo, with street vendors selling tamales and candies, and families taking advantage of the shade under the live oaks for Sunday gatherings. Although the park remained undeveloped, the space often hosted concerts and dances, church fundraisers, and the annual celebration of Mexico’s independence (Diez y Seis de Septiembre). 

Catholics from the Mexico neighborhood walked to St. Mary’s Cathedral to attend church. At St. Mary's, Latino parishioners were forced to sit on back rows, separate from white members of the church. In order to address this segregation, in 1907 the diocese built a "sister church" and parochial school at the corner of West 5th Street and Guadalupe. The square would thereafter be known as "Guadalupe Park" among local residents. Other "Mexico" churches included First Mexican Baptist (402 San Antonio Street), Methodist Episcopal (512 W. Fourth Street) and Mexican Methodist Church (400 block W. San Antonio at 502 W. Fourth Street).

Walker’s Austex Chile Company had its office at 310 San Antonio and its plant at 500-502 West 5th Street from the 1920's to the 1960's. The factory became one of Austin’s largest industries in the first half of the 20th century. In 1911, Walker’s possessed the only "automatic tamale-making machine in the world, forming 38,000 tamales per hour."  At its peak, Walker’s employed "15% of Austin’s Mexican population." 

The City Plan of 1928 began the process of forcing people of color (primarily African-Americans and Latinos) east of East Avenue (now I-35). Although the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Buchanan v. Warley (1917) barred cities from deliberately creating segregated neighborhoods, the City Plan of 1928 found ways around this decision by only providing city services such as schools within a "Negro District." Other restrictions soon followed such as redlining and the use of restrictive covenants.

By the Great Depression, the residents of "Mexico" had moved east, along with their stores, churches, foods, and fiestas. The effects of those segregationist policies remain with us today.  Austin’s African-American and Hispanic populations largely remain east of I-35.

The people of "Mexico", however, persevered. Churches relocated, business rebuilt, and neighborhoods were resurrected. Many from Austin's current Latino population, now residing east of I-35, can trace their lineage to Guadalupe Park and the "Mexico" neighborhood.

We would love to hear your stories about this rich Latino heritage. Please share what you or your family remembers about "Mexico" and the neighborhoods that surrounded Guadalupe Park. Remember; no story is too small for you to share. We want to hear them all!
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