East Austin exhibit seeks to capture history of changing neighborhood

2:22 p.m Thursday, July 13, 2017 Local
Work by stone mason David Ruiz can still be found around Austin. (Contributed by Ruiz family)

The smell of fresh tortillas once wafted down East Third Street and lured East Austin neighbors to visit Barron Tortilla Factory, a family-run business that operated within the Barron family home in the late 1930s.

Music floated over another part of East Austin in the early 1950s, when a young Manuel “Cowboy” Donley, who would later become a Tejano music legend, strummed his guitar on a dirt mound overlooking Rainey Street, where he lived as a boy.

These are the kinds of memories that historian Gloria Espitia is aiming to preserve with the exhibit and symposium “Home Is Where the Heart Is: Voices from Within” at the Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center. The exhibit, which features artifacts, photographs and oral history interviews, runs through Oct. 14 in the center’s Community Gallery and tells the story of East Austin through some of the area’s past and present homes.

As the neighborhood undergoes rapid change, Espitia worries that these East Austin family stories will soon disappear. Capturing their history now, as many homes occupied by generations of families are being demolished to make way for new developments, was crucial.

“What are the future of these homes?” Espitia asked.

On Saturday, a symposium kicks off at 2 p.m. with lectures and presentations on the area’s history. The exhibit features several prominent Austin families — such as the Martinez family of Matt’s El Rancho and the Limón family , the namesakes of their own street and known for their large family reunions— as well as some lesser-known families who carved a space for themselves in the neighborhood and thrived despite financial or personal obstacles.

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Espitia set off to uncover the tales behind some of the neighborhood’s early homes after researching Austin’s past housing conditions and reading the negative portrayal of Austin’s Hispanic community in the 1913 Social Survey. That 1913 report, published by the University of Texas, examined housing and sanitary conditions in Austin’s Hispanic, African-American and Anglo neighborhoods.

One of the assessments read: “Mexican men, women and children follow the city wagons to the dump to pick out … spoiled food.” It also reported that “between San Antonio and Nueces Streets there is a shanty composed of two rooms on the alley, (facing) the back of a store, which houses two families, nine people in all, five of whom are children. It is interesting to note that these two families make their living by washing clothes for white people, and the clothes are brought to these premises to be laundered.”

While some poor housing conditions did exist at the time, Espitia said the social survey didn’t capture the complexity of East Austin family life.

The exhibit shows that “there were a lot of people who wanted to thrive and do well not only for their families but for their communities, for their neighborhoods and for Austin,” she said. “They were proud people who weren’t going to let any obstacle get in their way. Their children saw that, and it pushed them to do better.”

For Mike Ruiz, 82, keeping the legacy of his father, David Ruiz, an East Austin stone mason, alive remains important to him. The home his father built on East Third Street is among those featured in the exhibit and at 3:15 p.m. on Saturday Mike Ruiz will speak at the cultural center about his father’s life and work.

Some of David Ruiz’s stone designs can still be seen around Austin today, including at the German-Texan Heritage Society headquarters on East 10th Street. A 1939 Austin Statesman article marveled at the idea that David Ruiz built a stone exterior around his old wooden frame house.

“The more I research about the history of my father, the more I realize he was a creator,” Mike Ruiz said during an oral history interview.

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Other families in the exhibit were trailblazers in other ways, whether they were the first Mexican doctor in Austin or a widower who raised 14 children on her own and then sent most to college. “Family meant a lot to them,” Espitia said.

Although public records may list names of previous East Austin homeowners, their histories or contributions are not always known, she said. “I want people to look at it as more than just a home,” she said. “I want them to see the family who lived there together.”