John Treviño Jr., Austin’s first Mexican-American City Council member and a longtime force in the community, died at home around noon Tuesday after a short illness. He was 78.
“He was absolutely masterful at getting ‘todo el jugo’ (all the juice) out of each one of the city’s programs and other initiatives,” former Austin Mayor Gus García said. “I will always remember Johnny as the public servant who inspired so many of us to do our best to improve the lives of the people in our great city. We will always be indebted to him.”
After recently deceased Richard Moya’s breakthrough election to the Travis County Commissioners Court in 1970, John Treviño ran for City Council in 1973 but lost. He won in 1975 and served for 13 years.
“It was such a joy when he was first elected,” his niece, Hermelinda Zamarippa, said. “It was as if we had finally arrived.”
He was selected as mayor pro tem in 1978 and served for three months as acting mayor in 1983 after Carole Keeton resigned. Followers were disappointed when he didn’t run for another term in 1988.
“You can walk out,” he said then. “You can be booted out, or you can be carried out.”
In the early 1970s, Moya, Treviño, García and future state Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos were marked by journalists as the “Young Turks” or the “Brown Machine.”
They joined a coalition that included African-Americans, labor activists and newly enfranchised youth voters. It upended the traditional Austin power structure, once reserved almost exclusively for a circle of Anglo businessmen. When former anti-war activist Jeff Friedman was elected mayor in 1975, they formed what was called the “hippie City Council,” the first time that progressives seized the levers of power in Austin.
Treviño later served on the Capital Metro board of directors from 1997 to 2009 as a part of a reform slate that responded to scandals at the agency in the mid-1990s.
“He meant so much to so many people,” said Mark Madrid, outgoing president and CEO of the Greater Austin Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. A longtime chamber board member, Treviño welcomed Madrid to town three years ago. “‘Mijo’ was what he said. He was a champion, not a man of ego, but of ‘orgullo,’ of pride. I certainly didn’t want to let him down.”
A Catholic altar boy born and raised in Austin, Treviño is related to the sprawling Limón family, which counts — through direct lineage or marriage — as many as 3,500 members traced back to a couple who arrived in Central Texas near the beginning of the past century.
“John was more than just a cousin to all of us. He was an ideal,” said businessman and civic leader Lonnie Limón. “He was someone who cared about his community and encouraged the next generation to be equally, if not more involved so that we could help others.”
Treviño grew up doing odd jobs: moving furniture, working at a laundry, making deliveries for Miller Blueprint. He later recalled that when he volunteered for the St. Vincent de Paul Society, a Catholic service group, the true extent of the poverty around him became clear.
“My family had always had a modest income,” he told a reporter. “But now I got to see others who were much worse off.”
Volunteering at age 17, Treviño trained as a paratrooper in the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division. He embarked on another stage of his career at age 27 as the first paid anti-poverty worker at the East First Neighborhood Center. He also started a bulk-trash collection program in East Austin, a model later adopted by the city.
Among his accomplishments on the City Council, Treviño helped create the forerunner of the Department of Small and Minority Business Resources; he persuaded the city to review hiring practices to give fair access to women and minorities; he led efforts to establish health clinics throughout the city; and he helped resolve vending conflicts at the Renaissance Market on Guadalupe Street.
He is the namesake of John Treviño Jr. Metropolitan Park at Morrison Ranch on FM 969 in East Austin.
“His fingerprints will be on Austin for generations,” former Mayor Lee Cooke said. “He told me that his time on the council was the best years of his life, and he honored and respected all of us he served with him from 1975 to 1988. John was the true gentleman every step of his impactful journey.”
To his family, Treviño often appeared larger than life.
“John was an inspiration to all of us,” his nephew Lupe Zamarippa said. “The mayor! My uncle! We were really proud. He was always busy, but always available for advice. He was also very spiritual. In the end, he said: ‘I’ll leave it all up to God. He can take me when he wants. But don’t hurry!’”