Meet the digital age trailblazers trying to preserve Austin’s Latino history
Diana Hernández is the daughter of immigrants and the executive director of a nonprofit, but right now, she’s conducting the tedious task of data entry. Perhaps this is a job for which she is overqualified; she holds a master’s degree from the University of Houston and is working on her second master’s, this one in historical preservation, at the University of Texas.
But perspective is important in this case.
In a time when Black and brown residents of East Austin are being physically displaced from the neighborhoods where generations of families shaped a city, there is a rising fear among people like Hernández that with gentrification comes an erasure of memories. Austin’s Latino population fell from 36% of the total population in 2010 to 32.5% in 2019, while neighboring cities like Cedar Park, Manor and Buda have seen a 150% boost in Latino population.
With change looming in the background, Hernández is a person who lives in the past, protecting it and reshaping it, while keeping a watchful eye on the future to make sure it doesn’t permanently delete her community’s lives and contributions.
She is the executive director of the National Collective Memory Institute and the founder and lead researcher at (Re)claiming Memories, a UT research lab that aims to “restore missing and forgotten histories and advocate for the historic preservation of communities and sacred spaces" belonging to marginalized groups, including to Black and Indigenous people and other people of color.
She is also a member of a growing community of Latinos taking history — and how it’s told — into their own hands, claiming the past and owning how it will be accessed in the future.
Finding hidden histories
In her spreadsheet, Hernández types the names of people. She’s entering the causes of their deaths, when they died and the names of those who prepared their bodies for burial at San Jose Cemetery at 745 Montopolis Drive. She scours death indexes, databases of people who have died found on ancestry.com and inside the Vital Statistics Unit at the Texas Department of State Health Services. She fields questions from curious families who see her blog posts on the (Re)claiming Memories website and think their ancestors might be buried at the cemetery. She spars with developers whose walking trails and building projects encroach on an unkept gravesite where Mexican sharecroppers and children, who perished due to tuberculosis and pneumonia, were laid to rest.
Hernández is digitizing death and resurrecting the lives of the forgotten, the ones whose names were spelled in records how they sounded versus how they are actually spelled. This happened during the “Juan Crow” era — a time mirroring Jim Crow restrictions that prevented Mexicans and Mexican Americans from attending the same schools and using the same facilities as white people.
Death certificates belonging to people who lived in Austin’s Latino neighborhoods weren’t treated with a lot of care by the primarily white, non-Spanish-speaking physicians, nurses, medical examiners or justices of the peace, who filled them out and signed them, Hernández says. That makes it hard to find an “Ignacio” — a common Mexican first name — on any death index when their name was incorrectly spelled with a “Y.”
And it takes a special skill set to overcome the disregard of a name and a life lived. When searching databases, you almost have to think like a person who didn’t speak Spanish between the 1930s and 1950s, while having a strong knowledge of Español yourself. Code-switching inside the brain that sharpens the investigative mind.
Hernández acknowledges that as a child in a first-generation household, she had to learn to navigate systems without the assistance of her parents — an ironic advantage in her work. It has played a crucial role in the beginnings of a digital graveyard she wants to build that maps out who is buried in San Jose Cemetery and where. She envisions an app and website that let users click on a person’s virtual headstone, taking them on a pictorial journey of a life informed by descendants living today.
Hernández says that experience growing up made her self-sufficient and “unafraid to look into things.”
“That has helped me find hidden histories,” she says. “It’s made me resourceful to our communities that need preservation.”
“It’s only fair to the younger generation,” Hernández says. “Our youth really need to know our true history, because it gives them the sense of belonging and identity, and that’s really important when you’re developing human beings. And if they don’t know, it affects that development.”
Despite Hernández’s tenacity, there are some mysteries that might never be solved. Take the case of 40- or 41-year-old “Juan Unknown” — listed as exactly that on his death certificate — who’s buried at the cemetery. Hernández says she’s exhausted databases for every Juan, like the deceased, who was born in 1895 and died in 1946.
“I don’t know that I’ll ever find who he was,” she says.
Her work also has ventured into the world of cold cases. She recently spoke to the family of Austin resident Tim Rosales, who is also buried in San Jose Cemetery. At least, that’s how his name was spelled on his death certificate. His real first name was Timoteo. The 29-year-old died Jan. 25, 1944, after being found in an intracoastal canal in Port Lavaca. His death was listed as an accidental drowning. Trauma found on Rosales’ head was described as being caused by a boat.
After speaking to the family, Hernández is convinced it was a homicide. Men whom Rosales knew showed up at his mother’s door days after to tell her it wasn’t a boat accident, Hernández says. She continues to investigate the case and is starting a podcast to tell the stories of the people buried on the San Jose grounds, Rosales being the first.
“I feel that we are rectifying what wasn’t done right, because of a lack of concern for our people back then and even until this day,” she says. “But we go back with the work that we do to try to, not just rectify, but reclaim the past.”
Archiving the barrio
Alan Garcia started his Instagram page called ATX Barrio Archive to share some family photos, but it evolved into something much more.
The page has gained about 11,700 followers, and while its content was initially sourced by a family photo album, it is now fueled by Austin families and business owners who want to share their own chronicles with the world. Garcia also digs through the archives of the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History and LLILAS Benson Latin American Studies and Collections on the UT campus.
On the Instagram page, you’ll find pictures of Lole Nuñez, Daniel Estrada and Chris Rangel inside Estrada’s Cleaners watching the space shuttle Challenger disaster in 1986. You’ll also find a 1981 news clipping celebrating a city-sanctioned lowrider car club cruise around the Capitol, despite concerns from some Austin City Council members and residents. Forty years later, residents of a new luxury apartment building drew national attention this spring for calling police to stop the gathering of lowrider car clubs in a neighborhood around East Cesar Chavez Street.
There’s another photo of a pizza parlor that served the community, which spurred comments about how residents of East Austin could not previously get pizza delivered to their home because of their 78702 ZIP code. This discriminatory practice happened as recently as the 1990s, Garcia says.
For the gentrified, displacement implies that the place they called home for generations wasn’t special to begin with, but, now that its natives are being pushed out and new development is resurrected, it’s worth living in. And any remnants of the lingering culture that still occupy the newly gentrified neighborhood, like a lowrider car club gathering, are threatened by newcomers.
ATX Barrio Archive serves as a digital rallying cry: The things that East Austin is suddenly celebrated for — food, entertainment, culture and art — existed and thrived for decades before it was gentrified.
“It could be a photo of a grocery store on Webberville Road in East Austin that was published in a book about urban renewal and redeveloping neighborhoods, so they're using the photo to marginalize the community — to call them out for their practices and operating a business on a dusty unpaved road,” Garcia says. “They’re highlighting health issues and health risks, but sharing it on ATX Barrio Archive, folks have personal ties to the business owners, to the community and just fill in the gaps with their memories and comments. I love the way that works and just challenges the official narrative.”
As a child growing up in South Austin, Garcia often accompanied his father to the eastern part of town when he was hired by restaurants and bars to set up the projection equipment that showed blockbuster boxing matches. And it was at the Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center, which sits right off the interstate near Rainey Street, that Garcia learned to play the accordion.
His mission is to preserve those memories and memorialize the unseen.
“You have to be a famous politician, or a famous educator, or you have to be really wealthy just to be considered as historically significant,” Garcia says. “What I focus on with the page is the exact opposite. It’s not a top-down approach. It's an approach that starts from the bottom, from the roots of the body.”
The role of augmented reality
Gus Garcia, Austin’s first and only elected Latino mayor, once said: “I don’t care about what anybody says about going to Mars. We ain’t going there. At least me; I am not going there and neither are you.” The former mayor, who died in 2018, was being interviewed by Michael Mendoza, co-founder of Austin-based augmented reality company augzoo.
Thanks to an app created by Mendoza and available for iPhone and Android, Gus Garcia hasn’t gone far. People can experience a series of such interviews simply by holding up their smartphone camera at several locations around town, like the Gustavo “Gus” L. Garcia Recreation Center, Austin City Hall and the Mexican American Cultural Center. They’ll hear an oral history of the trailblazing mayor’s life as told by him.
When looking through a cellphone screen, the physical reality of the app’s user is layered with photos of the mayor, and they hear audio of his gravelly voice switching back and forth from English to Spanish. A generation of Latino students, who make up 55% of the Austin school district population, might not know that a city that’s pushing communities of color farther out by the day once had a mayor who shared their heritage. Now, they can learn about that using the same phone they use to play games.
Using augmented reality, Mendoza and his partner, Johnny Luce, are trying to help people experience history in a whole new way.
“If you’re trying to digitize history,” Mendoza says, “if you’re trying to capture history, you need to do it right away, because people are passing away.”
Among them, affordable housing and environmental justice advocate San Juan “Johnny” Limón, who passed away in August 2020, and longtime activist Paul Hernandez, who was described by Gus Garcia as “the Gandhi, the César Chávez, the Martin Luther King” of East Austin and died in October 2020.
“History is told by those who win,” Mendoza said.
Gentrification is historically a losing battle for Black and brown communities, in terms of holding onto their history. But in the digital world, the rules that dictate who get to tell stories, how they’re told and what survives have changed. And in that world — well, the spoils don’t necessarily have to go to the victor.
“This is the democratization of the digital age,” Mendoza says. “Everyone has the right to tell their story, like it or not.”