East Austin Stories Categories
Arts and Music
From beatboxing to ballet folklorico, from murals to ceramics to glasswork, East Austin overflows with artistic talent. Many East Austin artists are tapping into traditions that cross borders, that pay respect to the past, and that move Austin arts into the future. One such artist is Clarence Pierce, blues guitarist for the Texas Eastside Kings. He is adding to an Austin blues tradition that goes back to the 1940s, and continuing to do what the blues has always done best: tell stories, even when the songs have no words. Another East Austin artist with a song in her heart, although she works in glass, is Rejina Thomas. The proprietress of Graphic Glass has created unique glass pieces for private collectors, the Texas State Capitol, and admirers around the world. After nearly four decades of success, Thomas has plenty of advice to share with young artists in her community. Above all, she says, don't wait for the money to come before you devote yourself to what you love. And judging from the films in this section, plenty of East Austin artists, like Manuel "Cowboy" Donley, tattoo artist Arnoldo Carrillo, and the dancers of Aztlan Dance Company, have a similar take on their art and their lives.
Not everyone who lives in East Austin was born there. People have moved to Austin from all over the world. Mexico, as our closest neighbor, is the home country of many East Austinites. But new neighbors have also come from Europe, Africa, South and Central America, and Asia. The people come to Austin do so for many reasons. Arturo Escamilla came to earn some money to help his family in Mexico buy luxuries. One of the great things about East Austin is that even people whose families have been here for generations don't forget the traditions of the old country. With food, celebrations, and language, people keep their histories alive and make East Austin the dynamic place it is today. And people don't just come to East Austin, they also visit other countries from their homes here in Texas. The Bikes Across Borders project, for example, uses donated bicycles to link Austin to the factories along the Mexican border.
Celebration and Tradition
In a diverse place like East Austin, there's no shortage of festivals, holidays and traditions, each with its own special foods, colors, activities and meanings. Some of these traditions celebrate shared experiences, while others are more about personal faith. Jainie Sustaita demonstrates her family's tamale-making tradition in Nothing Like Mama's and the congregation of Our Lady of Guadalupe Church turns out to celebrate and honor the memory of loved ones on El Dia de los Muertos. A different kind of family, the dance troupe of Familia Aztlan transform dance traditions they inherited from those who came before them.
With their knowledge, their experience, and their memories, older people are naturally the best storytellers of any community. There's a lot to be learned from talking to those who remember segregation, World War II, or the old blues clubs and rockabilly joints of East Eleventh Street and other parts of Austin. Manuel "Cowboy" Donley, for example, can point out the clubs on East Sixth Street where he used to play his innovative Spanish-language rock and roll. Older people know the value of place like no one else. When Señora Lopez talks about her home and why she won't sell to developers, no one can deny that there are some things that are worth a lot more than money. Listen to some other East Austin elders.
Nothing says "home" like food. Everyone's got some special dish their dad or their grandma always knows how to cook just right, and in East Austin, there's plenty of special dishes to choose from. At Geno's Too Hot to Trot, Gene Tumbs and Sandra Black cook up the greens, yams, rice and gravy that spell soul food heaven—especially if you add in Sandra's famous smothered pork chops. Is barbecue your thing? Then the place to go is Sam's, where the cooks work hard, but the results are worth it.
And what is food without something to wash it down? At the Live Oak brewery, owner Chip McElroy draws on European beer-making traditions (and a biochemistry degree) to perfect his brews.
And Gene, Sandra, and Chip are just a few of the people making East Austin's special flavors.
They're all over East Austin—the restaurants, buildings, parks and houses that everybody seems to know. Like El Jardin Alegre, a little spot of land where neighbors can grow their own corn, tomatoes, nopales, and squash. These urban gardeners say that getting down in the dirt and coaxing their own food from the soil makes them feel connected to the land like never before.
Each house in East Austin also tells a story. One such house, La Casa de la Señora Lopez sits on a hill overlooking downtown Austin. When the developers came knocking, Señora Lopez said no. She spent her life paying for her house, raising her children in her house, and living in her house. No matter how much money they offer, she's determined to live out her life in her home.
Not all landmarks are entirely positive. Some are reminders of ongoing struggles for equality and social justice. The Holly Power Plant, which looms over Fiesta Gardens and the Lorraine "Grandma" Camacho Activity Center, has been controversial ever since it was built in the 1960s. And when an accident occurred in 2001, neighbors once again expressed their concern about its presence in East Austin. These movies tell the stories behind places you may pass by every day.
Neighbors Lending a Hand
Everybody needs some help now and then. Fortunately, a lot of people in East Austin are willing to give of their time, energy, and money to help out their neighbors. Ruth Robinson, for example, once learned what it was like to have too many bills, not enough money, and to be running low on hope. After a friend's loan kept her going, she borrowed a little extra money to open a home for people without. Now, she devotes her life to helping homeless adults and families get back on their feet.
Many people find that volunteering is not just rewarding, it's also fun. At Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, older students spend their afternoons helping younger ones with their schoolwork. The studying is serious, but so is the fun.
Whether it's basketball, bicycling, or backgammon, everybody's got some sport they love to play or hobby that gets them excited. Some people are fortunate enough to make their hobby a career, like Charlie Machado, who is known in the world of motorcycle racing as "The World's Fastest Mexican." Charlie has been racing since he was a kid (he started out on his parents' lawnmower) and has no intention of ever quitting racing—how can he give up the thrill of going 200 miles an hour on a high-performance bike? Similarly, world champion boxer Ann Wolfe found in boxing not just a hobby, a career, and a way to help kids in East Austin–she believes boxing actually saved her life. Some guys think that women can't box, but one look at Ann in the ring proves them all wrong. Here are some of the things people in East Austin do for fun.
Working for a living—everybody's got to do it. Some people find work they love, like Carol Ann Sayles and Larry Butler, who may not make much money farming Boggy Creek Farm in East Austin, but who can't imagine doing anything else. Arnoldo Carrillo makes a living as a tattoo artist, which continually challenges him to create images that make him proud.
Some of the work isn't fun or creative, but it has provided a way out of a more destructive life. Popcorn works in a restaurant dish room now, but it beats the destination his life dealing drugs was leading to. He's trying to set an example for his nephews and nieces and he is proud of that.
Youth and teens are the heart of any community. Through their questions, their struggles, and their dreams, the young people of East Austin help shape their neighborhoods and the future. They embrace old traditions, such as dancing folklorico, while inventing new ones, like beatboxing, that one day, too, will be "old." Many question their lives and the world around them, like Yolanda Solis and Alejandro Mendez. Yolanda was born in Austin, while Alejandro was born in Mexico. Both go to school in Austin, and have very different takes on what it means to be Mexican-American.
Young people explore and shape their world in many ways. At Reagan High, a digital filmmaking program gives students the tools and skills to record student life and make their own movies. They say that digital arts, whether film, music, or web sites, are the voice of their generation. One such student production is "piercing."