Deep in the heart of Texas
By Valerie Menard
Imagine owning a business one day, and the next day, reporting to work, only to find the entire building and its contents, store inventory, cash registers, and other property, in a pile of rubble. That’s what Sergio and Monica Lejarazu, owners of the Jumpolin piñata store, encountered a month before Austin’s trendy SXSW festival.
“I was driving by like any other day, taking my daughter to school,” Sergio told CultureMap at the time. “That’s when I saw it: my life’s work under the bulldozer.”
What was most chilling was the absolute lack of care or concern for the rights of a small business and its owners who were given no warning about the demolition. Building co-owner Jordan French was even quoted comparing the Jumpolin to a house infested with roaches. The Lejarazus eventually relocated and settled a lawsuit against French and co-owner Darius Fisher, who ran Status Labs, described as “an Austin image management company.” But what happened to the Jumpolin signaled to Latinos in East Austin, that gentrification would permanently change their neighborhoods, and not in a good way.
“What drew people to East Austin was its diversity, culture, and affordability. That has evaporated,” says Regina Avila, manager of her family’s business, Joe’s Bakery on East Sixth Street. “Now there’s a lot of development and people trying to reincarnate the culture or image of east Austin but it’s lost its authenticity. It has no backbone, no roots. The new residents have little connection to the history, they’re, not deeply rooted like those who grew up in East Austin, whose parents and grandparents grew up here, whose kids went to school here. You can’t replicate that.”
Efforts to manipulate where people of color live aren’t new. But in 1928, a city plan described a goal of moving Latino and African American residents out of central and downtown Austin to East Austin. The mechanism used to do this was to move neighborhood churches east, namely Guadalupe Catholic Church and Ebenezer Baptist Church, assuming that the parishioners would follow, which they did. When interstate highway I-35 was constructed in 1962, it cemented that boundary line.
“I lived most of my childhood growing up on East Tenth St. with Guadalupe Church in our back yard,” remembers East Austin native Susana Almanza. “The roads were not paved, there were no rain gutters, no sidewalks, infrastructure didn’t come until the mid-sixties. If you lived in segregated east Austin, there was no paving, no lighting, all the things you would expect for a neighborhood.”
But as Austin grew, available real estate became more limited, especially west of I-35, and city planners began to look east. What was called urban renewal is now called “smart growth” and like the urban renewal ruse that promised progress but instead destroyed neighborhoods, smart growth claims that by building commercial service mixed use (CS-MU) high-density development, e.g. apartments or condos with retail and restaurants at street level, over single-family homes, the housing needs facing Austin will be met and affordability will be achieved by setting aside a percentage of new units for low-income residents.
What the city needed was a neighborhood plan that would offer to change the zoning. They found collaborators among members of the East Cesar Chavez Neighborhood Planning Team. The plan was submitted and eventually approved by the city council on May 13, 1999, including one Latino council member, Raul Alvarez. Once the zoning changed, gentrification took off. After leaving office, Alvarez co-founded the East Austin Conservancy to help long-term residents hold on to their homes.
One by one, residences and businesses were bought off and replaced by mixed use condos and apartments, creating “condo canyons.” One developer bought up area cantinas and converted then to hipster bars and one restaurateur had the gall to appropriate the Virgen of Guadalupe’s image for its own logo. Ironically, the one remaining cantina, La Perla, has become a hotspot for hipsters because of its “authenticity.”
“When I think about how Austin has changed, it started with growth, driven by tech companies relocating from California with that high concentration of money being invested into real estate that went into underprivileged neighborhoods, causing displacement and gentrification,” says Austin native Monica Maldonado. “The interesting thing is that it affected everyone, but people of color are the most at a disadvantage.”
Some family businesses did manage to survive, like Joe’s Bakery, now in its sixth decade in business and recently noticed with a James Beard award. Nearly a century in business, the Avila family established La Oriental Grocery & Bakery in 1935. In 1962, Joe Avila purchased the business from his parents and renamed it Joe’s Bakery. Today, his daughters Carolina and Rose Ann, and granddaughter Regina (Rose Ann’s daughter), manage the iconic restaurant.
One key to their success, admits Regina, was Joe and wife Pauline’s decision to purchase the restaurant building and the land it sits on.“No business with a long history hasn’t been without struggles, but eventually we became a more viable business,” Avila admits. “Yes, owning the land and building has been a saving grace but we’re still feeling the aftershocks of the pandemic. The world stopped but that doesn’t mean the bills stopped. We had a foundation, roots to lean on.”
While condos and hipster bars took over commercial streets, in the neighborhoods, towering two–three story homes, referred to by locals as “tree houses,” were constructed next to tiny two-bedroom homes, raising property taxes. Some were purchased as residential properties but many others became rentals, from Airbnbs to party houses, further disrupting the neighborhood.
While the Latino population grew, the percentage of the population that Latinos make-up in Austin shrank for the first time, from 35 percent in 2010 to 32 percent in 2020, according to the U.S. Census. Fewer and fewer can afford to purchase homes, especially in East Austin where homes sell for a median price of $581,000, according to 2023 Redfin home data.
Compounding the problem was the city’s formula for determining who qualified to rent the few bits of affordable housing available. Using the equation adopted by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the city qualified those at 60 percent below median family income (MFI).
In a town like Austin with a booming hi-tech hub, the median family income in 2022 ranges between $77,200–$110,300 for a one to four-member household, according to the City of Austin Housing and Planning Department. Sixty percent below MFI is $46,380 for a one-person household and $66,180 for a four-person household.
“This is where the city continues to get it wrong,” says Almanza, who is also executive director of PODER, an environmental justice group. “The folks eligible for affordable housing are not the working poor. The city insists on using the HUD formula but affordable housing should go to families 50–30 percent below MFI for it to be effective.”
Not only has gentrification moved Latino families out of their homes, signs that East Austin was a Latino neighborhood have also been erased. The same year that Jumpolin was demolished, so was a revered local mural, La Lotería, which had been a fixture on East Cesar Chavez since 1989. Under the auspices of SXSW, planners thought it would be nifty if temporary murals were painted during the festival but they didn’t bother to choose blank walls over those already inhabited by a mural.
The community responded with outrage, forcing an apology from the Austin Chronicle that sponsored SXSW at the time, and a promise to repaint the mural. "It was a disrespect to our neighborhood," Bertha Delgado, president of the East Town Lake Citizens Neighborhood Associ-ation told the Austin Chronicle. "They didn't have the courtesy to make an announcement or even notify the neighborhood association."
Determined to preserve more murals in the neighborhood, Delgado partnered with graffiti artist Taner Martinez and they formed Arte Texas and received $13,000 from the Austin Chronicle to repaint La Lotería. The group has since saved 30 murals and Delgado has become the group’s curator. On March 25, 2022, Arte Texas unveiled the latest refurbished mural that features labor leader Cesar Chavez, located fittingly on the street that bears his name.
“I didn’t know I had the eye of an art curator until I started preserving murals,” she says. “When La Lotería was painted over, I knew we were in a state of emergency. Where was the protection we needed? Where was the political support? I learned we had none. After we protested, we were forced to create an art organization, because no one would listen to graffiti artists. We had to create a structure.”
Appointed to the Austin Arts Commission in 2022, Maldonado says it’s not just murals, but other art forms, from dance to storytelling, that need to be preserved. “My observations of what has happened to Austin aligns with how natives feel,” she shares. “We’re suffering from an identity crisis brought on by cultural erasure. It’s Austin’s natives that made Austin unique and they’re no longer here. Through growth we lost our sense of identity and trying to reclaim that through minimal resources has been a challenge.”
Before joining the Arts Commission, Maldonado decided to form MAS Cultura to address the losses of the Latino artistic community and imprint in East Austin and to improve access to the necessary resources to grow and preserve them. “I started MAS Cultura based on a need that I observed among Latino creatives and a lack of accessibility of art and music in underserved neighborhoods,” she explains.
Stemming the tide of gentrification may seem futile but there are signs of hope from emerging young leaders. The Brown Berets began in the sixties during the rise of the Chicano movement. One by one, chapters grew across the country, including one Austin that still exists today. Nearly 60 years later, a new generation of Brown Berets has formed.
“I grew up in Temple, close enough that we would regularly visit East Austin,” says Diego Contreras. “My family would go to flea markets, we’d hang around with my parents. The eastside used to have a lot of culture, dances on weekends. It’s definitely not that way anymore. Corporations capitalize on our culture while pushing us out. They make us mascots of the city but treat us like crap.”
According to Contreras, he and Brown Beret president John Cervantes, whose great grandfather had been a Brown Beret, and another member, Nick Ortiz, ran into each other last year on The University of Texas at Austin (UT) campus. Cervantes and Ortiz attend Austin Community College and not UT so it was truly a chance encounter. The three started talking about issues of concern, particularly police brutality. It was the summer of the George Floyd and Jessica Guillen’s murders.
“Those murders really affected John and Nick. It inspired them to put more work in the group and make others aware of the issues so we can fix them,” remembers Cervantes.
Recruited to join the Berets, Contreras began spreading the word on campus about meetings and today, there are at least 20 members with an age range of 18–25. “I knew who the original Brown Berets were from my mother, who was conscientious about Chicano civil rights,” shares Contreras.
“I started attending events and got the word out until it had a snowball effect. What binds us together, even though we’re not all from Austin, is issues that we see, the kinds of changes we want to make.”
The Austin City Council also has new young leaders in predominantly Latino populated districts: Vanessa Fuentes in District 2 that covers south Austin, and newly-elected José Velásquez who represents East Austin in District 3.
Velásquez hails from an historic Austin family, most famously known as the owners of Roy’s Taxi, founded by his great grandfather, Roy Velásquez Sr. “As your next City Council member for District 3, I will always fight to ensure that every voice is heard as we work together towards an affordable, accountable, and equitable Austin for ALL,” promised Velásquez on the campaign trail.
Leaders like Almanza, Delgado, and Maldonado will also continue to advocate for a more affordable Austin where Latinos can thrive and to ensure that the lesson of Jumpolin will not be forgotten.
But Jumpolin closed its doors for good on January 21, 2020, writing on Facebook: "With our store closing, we are being pushed out not by the vindictive act of a landlord, but the reality of a city and system that actively denies opportunities to the working class and the businesses that serve them."