Racial Equality: Building a Better Austin for Latinos

Latino and Hispanic citizens make up just under 40% of the total population in Texas and, compared to their White peers, they face more barriers to success.

KVUE News – A vibrant culture that's essential to the makeup of Texas – Latinos make up the largest minority group in a state that's growing.

Millions of people with their own stories and identities, they face more barriers to success than their white peers. We're taking a deep dive into how we can all help remove those barriers to make our communities better.

This is a KVUE News special production – "Racial Equality: Building a Better Austin."

Latino and Hispanic citizens make up just under 40% of the total population in Texas. And compared to their White peers, they face more barriers to success, when it comes to employment, housing, equal access to health care and more.

AAA's Tasha Mora with A&A Wrecker and Recovery speaks about running two small businesses (at min 22:30).

COVID-19 and the Latino Population

A History of Austin's Latino Population

Racial Profiling within the APD      

Local Business Owner,
Tasha Mora with A&A Wrecker and Recovery


COVID-19 and the Latino Population

As COVID-19 numbers continue to rise across Texas, we know this pandemic has had a disproportionate effect on the Latino population nationwide. So, health experts in Austin are trying to combat that. 

"Tu dolor es nuestro dolor" means "your pain is our pain." This mural was painted in honor of the dozens of Latinos who've died because of COVID-19.

The Austin Latino Coalition says it's not a coincidence Latinos are impacted the most in Austin.

"But it's because there's many without the basic necessities to fight off the virus," said Paul Saldana with the coalition. "We can almost anticipate our sense that our neighbor or a family member, they need some help."

But caring for one another in the Austin Latino community has become a full-time job for Saldana and others in the Austin Latino Coalition this year.

"Why is it that we're having to go and raise money or put money in our own pockets to buy and supply the basic fundamentals that our community needs," he asked.

It's one of the many questions Saldana has for the City of Austin. His group has tracked the number of Latinos that have died since the start of the pandemic.

In the U.S., they report more than 33,000 deaths. In Texas, more than 10,000. In Austin, more than 200.

“If anything, it's served as a motivation for us. And that's why we continue to do what we do, is we turn that negative energy into something positive to support our community,” said Saldana.

Saldana said he holds the City responsible and explained that local leaders and health officials weren't spreading COVID-19 information for Spanish speakers to read.

"There wasn't any information in Spanish," he said. "And then when we got to that point ... where there was information, it was only available on the website, which turned out to be a PDF document that was 70-plus pages, which English-speaking folks were not going to read."

Saldana said other barriers included the struggle to get tested and then undocumented immigrant communities not trusting government testing sites. So they brought their concerns to Austin Mayor Steve Adler.

"When we asked him for, you know, to create a Latino task force to do a mitigation plan, his response was no. And so that did not go well with folks of our coalition," said Saldana.

Saldana said they picked up the slack. They gathered supplies, held PPE distribution supply events at least twice a month, provided tests at Austin churches and partnered with places like the Latino HealthCare Forum.

"We distribute PPE and information about COVID health insurance, any kind of information that we feel that families may want," said Jill Ramirez Coronado, who runs the nonprofit. "I think our community still needs help because we're still, as I said, that high rate of uninsured, high rate of chronic diseases, you know, not able to pay the rent, not able to access healthy food."

The City of Austin created their Hispanic and Latinx task force in July, hoping to fight those racial disparities, which Connie Gonzalez says are nothing new to those communities.

"We started with one testing site and you could only get there by car. Now, we have them all over neighborhoods that have been highly-affected and we don't ask for paperwork, ID or immigration status," she said.

Gonzalez said she's the one that does Spanish interviews to relay the message to non-Spanish speakers – and it's a process. The translations go through multiple channels of interpreters, which is why the City says translations took a while to build up.

As a Latina working for this task force, Gonzalez said she's doing everything in her power to try and take care of people in her community.

"When I'm out there and I'm providing them with resources, I wish I could take them all in my home if I, you know, if I could to assist them, but I know that's not possible," she said. "But I think the next best thing that I could do is make sure that they are getting the resources they need to take care of their families."

According to census data, in Texas, Latinos make up just under 40% of the general population. The state health department reports they make up 39.4% of all COVID-19 cases and 54.6% of deaths.

In the Austin-Travis County area, the effects of COVID-19 are more disproportionate. Latinos make up 33.6% of the general population locally but 48% of cases and 48% of deaths.

And the president of the Texas Medical Association told KVUE there are a lot of reasons, as to why communities of color struggle more during this pandemic.

"That may be a combination of perhaps people living closer together, not able to socially distance as much. the Hispanic community may have larger families overall. There may be less decisions or information about the social distancing and wearing mask," said Dr. Diana Fite. "Sometimes some communities aren't as easily able to get medical care. They may have diabetes and hypertension that aren't being treated. There you go with chronic illnesses, put them at higher risk, more diabetes, more obesity overall in adults in the Hispanic community, puts them at more risk. So there's a lot of variables to consider."



A History of Austin's Latino Population

Texas has one of the highest populations of Hispanics and Latinos in the U.S. – and that population is growing fast.

But, for a long time, the City of Austin has struggled to accommodate Latinos.

The history of Latinos in Central Texas was carved in the soil of the farmlands outside Austin. At the beginning of the 20th century, most worked as farmhands, many taking the place of black slaves who had been freed decades before.

Life was hard, and even though the ties between Texas and Mexico had existed for centuries, Latinos in Texas were looked down upon and often subjected to violence at the hands of Whites. 

According to historians William Carrigan and Clive Webb, from 1910 to 1920, 5,000 Mexican Americans were murdered in a wave of terror, many by the Texas Rangers, which began as a militia, funded and supported by ranchers who wanted more land and hated their Spanish-speaking neighbors.

Deliberate lynchings of Latino men and women took place on hanging trees, like the one that still grows outside of the Goliad County courthouse, 130 miles from Austin.

And just as Black Americans fled rural violence in Texas, Latinos too were drawn to the relative safety of the capital city in 1900. Of the 23,000 people who lived here then, only about 500 were of Mexican heritage.

In Central Texas, they helped build the railroads, tended to the crops of White farm owners, and worked as cowboys on the big ranches to the south and west of the city.

In Austin, they worked as maids, restaurant helpers and laundry workers.

But it was the Mexican revolution of 1910 that saw Austin's Latino population swell. Millions of Mexican refugees fled the violence and crossed into Texas, spreading out across the U.S.

By 1930, Austin's Latino population had risen to 5,000 and yet, despite their numbers, discrimination didn't end. Schools for Latino children were poorly-funded, the doors to political representation were locked, and finding a safe place to live was difficult.

Newspaper advertisements for new neighborhoods, like Hyde Park, were filled with language that made it clear there was no place for Latinos or Blacks.

In an article in the March 1913 bulletin of the University of Texas, William B. Hamilton wrote: "Between Congress Avenue on the east and Rio Grande Street on the west, Fourth Street on the north and the river on the south, is a section which may be called the Mexican district. Bordering this section on the south is the main city dumping ground. The Latinos have all the filthy habits described already, but you must add to them the worse filth of the dump."

The second world war would signal a turning point. Many thousands of Latinos from Austin and from across Texas would volunteer to fight. Some would become decorated heroes only to return home and find themselves treated with disdain and disrespect. They had served their country just as White soldiers had and came home from the war determined to gain access to all this country had to offer.

Organizations like the League of Latin American Citizens (LULAC) had been working to end discrimination since its founding in 1929 and took on new importance in the post-war years. And the GI Forum played an active role in assuring better educational opportunities and increased voting rights for Latinos.

By the 1950s, the doors slowly began opening to political representation.

In 1956, Henry B. Gonzalez came to Austin to serve in the Texas Senate – the first Latino to do so. But colleagues referred to him as "that Mexican" and, according to his biography, Gonzalez found himself fighting regular attempts by the legislature to circumvent national civil rights legislation.

And Austin remained a city divided. The construction of Interstate 35, which had the effect of cutting off predominantly Latino and Black neighborhoods on the east side from the prosperous central business district, was both a symbolic and actual barrier. 

Many Latino children attended Palm School with a park and swimming pool near the new interstate, but Latino children weren't allowed to swim with Whites and had their own special times set aside to use the pool.

But change was in the air during the social upheavals of the 1960s. And for Latinos, new opportunities arose.

Austin Latina activist Martha Cotera played a major role, often speaking about how President Lyndon B. Johnson's "Great Society" initiatives helped Latinos.

By the 1970s, activism in Austin reached a peak. The Chicano Movement, the Brown Berets, the Raza Unida political party, solidarity with striking farmworkers led by Cesar Chavez – who fought to improve the working conditions of Latinos who worked the fields – a reawakening, and for some, a social revolution was in the air. 

In Austin in the late 1970s, a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood in East Austin led by Brown Beret leader Paul Hernandez fought back against drag boat races in nearby Town Lake – now known as Lady Bird Lake.

The noise and crowds disrupted their homes every summer during a citywide event known as Aqua Fest. It was a popular celebration for many, but it was the boat races that divided the community.

Throughout the 70s, neighbors pleaded with the city council to ban the races, but when it came time for the council to decide, by a vote of 4 to 3, the races were allowed to continue. And when the boat races returned to Festival Beach in 1978, fights broke out. Eventually, the races would be moved to a location away from East Austin.

The 70s would also see political progress:

  • Richard Moya became the first Hispanic Travis County commissioner when he was elected in 1970. At the time, no Latino had ever been elected to public office in Austin government.
  • Gus Garcia was elected to the Austin school board that same year. He would later become Austin's first Latino mayor in 2001.
  • In 1975, more political victories – Gonzalo Barrientos was elected to the Texas legislature and John Trevino to the Austin City Council.

From the Austin of 1900 to the Austin of today, there's a rich and vibrant history of Latinos in our city and a story of the vital contributions they have made to everyone's lives – stories to be remembered and stories yet to be told.



Racial Profiling within the APD

Racial profiling has been a problem the Austin Police Department has been trying to study and tackle for years.

The City released a new report showing that officers disproportionately pulled over people of color last year.

For example, Hispanics make up about 30.62% of the population over 18 in Austin, but they made up about 32.8% of traffic stops last year.

And another key takeaway from the report: If Hispanic or Black people are pulled over by Austin police, they're more likely to get a ticket or be arrested, whereas White drivers may get away with a warning.

The director of the Office of Police Oversight said it's hard to know exactly why these problems exist but that the APD needs to address them. 

"The data shows and confirms what the community has been saying. So now we have to figure out how we fix it together,” said Farah Muscadin. 

The APD sent KVUE a statement about the racial profiling report reading, in part, "we are pleased that, according to the data, there has been some progress made ... we recognize there is work that still remains."

 In June, Austin's city council approved a resolution that gave the APD a goal of achieving "zero racial disparity" in traffic stops by the year 2030.



A Story of a Locally-Owned Latino Business, A&A Wrecker and Recovery

Now we bring you to South Congress Avenue, an iconic, vibrant part of Austin known for its eclectic shops and restaurants. Like so many parts of Central Texas, it's changing quickly.

The beauty of the City of Austin is that we are made up of a lot of small businesses. Many of them are run by Latinos.

Trying to grow a business is challenging, especially during a pandemic, but it is possible with the right resources.

For one local family, it all started with a truck and a dream.

"We're high school sweethearts, and even back then we knew that we wanted to open a repair facility," said Tasha Mora.

Tasha and Angel Mora were eager to start a business after months of pinching pennies.

"He would work all day at the dealership and, in the evenings, run our tow company," said Tasha Mora.

They finally saved enough to buy their first tow truck.

"I would dispatch and answer phones with a house full of kids as well," said Tasha Mora.

 Her new baby, A&A Wrecker and Recovery, opened in 2002. Not long after came Automotive Services of Austin, just down the street on Martin Luther King Boulevard.

As Tasha Mora raised her four kids and helped grow two businesses, they took on more family members – their employees.

"We are incredibly close to our staff, we support each other," said Tasha Mora. "We had 23 team members at the beginning of the pandemic, currently we are at about 13."

Sadly, the Moras' story is similar to that of many other local, family-owned businesses. She struggled but she didn't ask for help.

"And, quite frankly, that's just kind of been the story of our lives," she said. "Culturally, I feel like that is how we were raised. As far as you persevere, you work hard, you don't ask for help. You just work with what you have and make the most out of it."

The City of Austin and its Small Business Program want people like Tasha to speak up and reach out. 

"We are available to everybody and we want to make sure that our community knows that," said Chief Economic Recovery Officer Veronica Briseno. 

Briseno said the goal of the program is to empower entrepreneurs and connect small businesses with the resources they need to be successful. They offer one-on-one virtual coaching. 

"We also partner with what we call our community champions," said Briseno. "There are several organizations, such as People Fund, in the community that do help small businesses by providing loans and financial resources."

One example of a local success story is the Austin-based company mmmpanadas. The food truck went to the small business association for help, and now their products are being sold in the frozen food section at H-E-B.

Briseno said it's important for all of us to understand that when small businesses thrive, so do communities. 

And that's the driving force for Tasha Mora, who also offers up some advice to fellow business owners.

"Tread carefully, spend cautiously when you need to. Take care of those who have been loyal and we are going to get through it," Tasha Mora said. "And not be afraid to ask for help, absolutely. ... We want to be able to look back and this 10 years from now and say, 'That was a tough one year, that was a tough year and we made it, we made it through. It was not easy but we did it, and it made us stronger.'"



Final Thoughts

Whether they were born here, or they came to the U.S. later in life, Latinos in Texas may be confronted with outward racism with being told to "go back to their countries," or they face a quieter kind of discrimination, as they're pressured into giving up long-standing traditions.

But, in the face of adversity, so many local Latinos say they choose not to run from their roots but to instead embrace them. 

"In the midst of rising anti-Latinx sentiment, discrimination and racism, that you actually see a cultural resurgence that people are embracing their heritage and showing their pride and saying, 'We are Americans, too but we're also proud of our heritage,'" said Dr. Monica Martinez, a University of Texas professor.

"I'm a Mexican American now, and I love being an American because this country has given me nothing but wonderful opportunities and a beautiful life," added Paty Sesma, a Mexican-American entrepreneur living in Austin. "But my heart is always the color of my native flag."