- By James Barragan American-Statesman Staff
If this wall could talk, it would tell the story of East Austin.
How minorities, despite being relegated to this side of town by restrictive city policies in the early 20th century nonetheless created thriving communities.
How over the hot summer of 1989, a group of local artists — still kids themselves, in some respects — put up a mural on a wall at 1619 E. Cesar Chavez St. that became a source of pride for the neighborhood’s largely Latino community.
The city-sponsored art piece depicted the bingo-like Mexican game of lotería: playing cards with pictures of animals, mythological creatures and everyday objects splashed across the wall with two giant, brown, Latino hands ready to lay down a little bean to mark the items that were called out.
The game was familiar to the residents of East Cesar Chavez. Many of them had grown up playing it with their parents and abuelitos. So when passers-by strolled in front of what used to be a 7-Eleven and looked upon the east-facing wall of the then-Austin Tenant’s Council office, they saw a mural that was a reflection of themselves, a celebration of a community with limited resources built on pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstrap grit and ganas, desire.
This was East Austin, and “La Lotería” captured its essence perfectly.
Then it was gone.
The mural was painted over for a South by Southwest Music Festival art project this year. All the sentiment, all the connection with the community, erased from history.
But if this wall could talk, it would tell you that wasn’t the end of it.
What followed was a remarkable community effort that not only brought the mural back to life but also breathed new life into a neighborhood whose political muscle had been stymied in recent years.
Neighbors demanded the mural’s return and denounced its disappearance as another sign that the area’s traditionally Latino residents and their culture were being pushed out by gentrification.
After some pressure, the music festival apologized for its misstep and donated $12,000 toward the mural’s restoration.
Throughout July, a group of local artists, including four who worked on the original mural in the 1980s, spent six days a week in the heat putting the mural back up. Neighbors would stop in regularly to check on the mural’s progress and hang out. Newer residents learned about the mural’s significance for the first time and were invited to celebrate its unveiling Saturday.
The mural’s restoration restored a community. On Sundays, the group held potlucks to wind down the long week of work, and the artists became somewhat of a family.
“One day we’re best friends, and the next day you can’t stand each other,” said Oscar “Tez” Cortez, one of the artists. “It’s like being home.”
For some in the community, like Tony Gonzales, the project was a family affair. He joined the project because his granddaughter was in charge of painting the Apache and mermaid cards. While there, he was recruited to paint the hands.
“It’s for a great cause,” said Gonzales, a lifelong Austinite who would go out at 2 p.m. and paint under the blistering sun. “I’ll sacrifice my body for it.”
For others, the project was even more personal. Raymond Robledo painted the black cat and the flower vase, but the piece he’s most connected to is the heart, el corazón.
On the very bottom, in small words barely visible unless you’re up close, Robledo etched the name of his son, Raymond Robledo Jr., who died of cancer as a boy.
It’s fitting that Robledo, who grew up on Second Street a block away from the mural, put a small piece of his family into the art piece that in recent months has become the reinvigorated heart of Latinos in East Austin.
If this wall could talk, it would tell you that Robledo’s note is just one of the many hidden pieces of neighborhood history scribbled onto the mural. Strewn across it are small reminders of what — and who — this neighborhood was built on.
In the face of an onslaught of development and rising property values, the clandestine stories are a defiant stand that says, “Don’t forget us. We’re still here.”
And if luck plays out, the wall won’t need to talk. It’ll stand there long after Saturday’s unveiling, a moment captured in time of a community fighting to preserve its history.
“East Austin is changing. It’s not the same as it was a few years ago,” Robledo said. “The people that left and come back — this is going to mean something to them. They’re going to be able to say, ‘At least this is still here.’”