With a city population now in excess of 860,000 people and Latinos quickly approaching nearly 40 percent of the total, it’s fair to say that we are no longer invisible in Austin.
However, Latinos under the age of 19 make up more than 70 percent of our local Latino population, and with their youth they clearly lack the historical perspective of the civil rights movement that dominated the first half of the 20th century. The story of Latinos fighting for civil rights in the United States and in Austin is largely untold — and therefore, little known. And that is a shame, because it is a story that is inspiring and engaging.
I was born in 1966, a native of East Austin. My childhood memories about civil right struggles in the community are vivid. The subject was a part of the fabric of family and neighbohood conversation: the Economy Furniture Strike, desegregation and the fight for access to quality education for Mexican-American students, grassroots organizing for equal rights and representation at the City, County and School District, and exposure to environmental racism and the infamous Town Lake Boat Races.
In 1968 more than 250 employees at the Economy Furniture, mostly Mexican-Americans, made yet another attempt to unionize after years of poor wages and working conditions. What initially began as a labor dispute quickly emerged into a movement for local Chicanos and fight for civil rights. The Economy Furniture Company strike by Local 456 of the Upholsters International Union (UIU) started six months after company officials refused to recognize the vote by the workers for union representation. At the time Economy was the largest company in the furniture making business in Texas, Arizona and New Mexico. Although the owners of the company were highly regarded by the local business community, many workers earned only $1.75 an hour, even after more than fifteen years of service.
The early 1970s was also a time of great turmoil in the Austin Independent School District. The district had been declared in violation of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The school district and the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare were parrying back and forth over integration and the debate and legal battle went on for years to come.
In April of 1972, “Concerned Parents for Equal Education” led by Mexican-American parents and community leaders mobilized by J. Pete Reyes, Bella Caballero, Gabriel Gutiérrez, Bruce Hupp, Ernest Perales, LULAC District 48 and the G.I. Forum Education Committee developed the “Green book” to improve access to quality educational opportunities for Mexican-American students and the hiring of Bilingual Education Teachers, Principals and Administrators at the Austin Independent School District.
That spring with the support of the ongoing grassroots movement, Gus Garcia became the first Latino elected to the district’s board of trustees. The list of 17 demands in the Green Book ultimately became the agenda for Garcia during the six years that followed. Garcia’s successful election to the school board followed that of Richard Moya, the first Mexican-American elected into office to the Travis County Commissioner’s Court in 1970. Gonzalo Barrientos was elected to the Texas State House of Representatives in 1974 and John Treviño elected to the Austin City Council in 1975.
Perhaps most nearly forgotten to our city’s youth is the struggle over the Austin Aqua Festival. The festival was developed by the Austin Chamber of Commerce in 1962 as a way to promote water and recreational resources and to improve summer business in Austin.
The event was held annually at Festival Beach and in Austin’s Chicano barrios. The festival grew in popularity through the years and eventually attracted more than 200,000 people. The popularity of the event violated the integrity of the Chicano barrio causing tremendous tension between event organizers, the City of Austin and local Chicano and neighborhood leaders. By the early 1970s neighborhood and community leaders began actively protesting the noise pollution and traffic generated by the event. The protests turned violent in April of 1978 and later that year City Council voted to ban the boats from Town Lake.
It’s my hope that our Latino youth will foster the work and spirit of our past and that they become inspired to activism in our community to honor the life and legacy of those involved in the fight for civil rights.
“We cannot seek achievement for ourselves and forget about progress and prosperity for our community…our ambitions must be broad enough to include the aspirations and needs of others, for their sakes and for our own.” – Cesar Chavez