Mexican Americans in Austin

Mexicanos/Chicanos/Tejanos/Latinx folks are deeply embedded in the history of the land now called Texas. The number of ways in which people have been identified or self-identify reveals a complex and diverse history and the problematic of racial-ethnic categorization.

New Spain

Spanish explorers came to this region in the sixteenth century, bringing diseases like smallpox which decimated the indigenous population. These colonizers took control of large swaths of South, Central, and North America, naming their colony, “New Spain.” The Spanish colonial period lasted from 1521 until 1821, when the Mexican War of Independence established Mexico. During the first century of Spanish colonial rule, there was very little migration to the province of “Tejas,” (which is now part of Texas), except for the establishment of several Catholic missions. Under Spain in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and then under Mexico, citizens were enticed by land grants to move into the region, but its distance from centers of government and commerce made it unpopular. At the start of the nineteenth century, there were only about 5,000 Mexican citizens living in Tejas.

Map of New Spain

Land Grants

In 1824, Mexico passed the General Colonization Law allowing foreigners to immigrate, a practice Spain had established in 1819. With a land grant that was awarded to his father, Stephen F. Austin immigrated to Tejas in exchange for bringing 300 settlers with him. It was during this period that many more enslaved Africans were brought into Texas by immigrants from the southern United States. In 1829, when Mexico made it illegal to import slaves to the region, Austin defended slavery as a necessary resource for a developing economy based on cotton farming, according to “Austin Answered: What were Stephen F. Austin’s views on slavery?Conflict over slavery was one of the factors that led to the Texas Revolution in 1836.   


With further development of Texas, more than 14,000 Mexican citizens came to live in the region by 1850. Most of these folks continued to live in settlements established before Texas Independence, including Nacogdoches, San Antonio, Goliad, and Laredo, with comparatively few making their way into the Austin area until after Texas became part of the Union. With the shifting of borders after Mexican independence and then the Texas Revolution in 1836, Mexican people in this area found themselves first citizens and then foreigners on the land. Those subsumed under the name “Mexican” included people of Spanish origin who received land grants, indigenous peoples native to the area, people with mixed parentage (Spanish and indigenous), and freed Africans who were given citizenship in Mexico.  

Texas Land Grant Map (1821-1836). From the Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection and the University of Texas Libraries.


Painting of Juan Seguín

Painting of Juan Seguín

The term Tejano, meaning a Texan of Mexican descent, began to gain prominence in the nineteenth century, especially after the Texas Revolution shifted the Texas-Mexico border further south. The Tejano Genealogical Society of Austin presents the early history of Tejanos in central and east Texas, and provides access to documents related to early Tejanos, including land grants issued by the Mexican state of Coahuila y Tejas and the baptismal certificate of Juan Seguín. Tejanos participated in the Texas Revolution and helped establish Texas as an independent entity. The Texas State Library and Archives Commission’s Tejano Voices and the Demand for Inclusion highlights Tejano efforts at participation in the Texas Republic and the subsequent marginalization of this group in the political structure of both the republic and the state of Texas upon its entrance into the United States. The Texas Historical Commission explores the history of Mexican-descended Texans in its pamphlet Hispanic Texans: Journey from Empire to Democracy.

Migration to Austin

The establishment of the Houston and Texas Central Railway had huge implications for the city of Austin, doubling the population from 1871 to 1875. The Mexican American population in Austin rose from 297 people in 1875 to 335 in 1900, but then took a leap to 9,693 by 1940. This latter increase was partially driven by people fleeing from the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920).

This blossoming population of Mexican American Austinites established a community near Shoal Creek on the remnants of a freedman community on Wood Street. That settlement is no longer standing, but is commemorated with an Undertold Marker from the Texas Historical Commission.

Tri-Racial Segregation

Mexican American Church Community in The Statesman, November 10, 1968

Prior to the implementation of the 1928 plan , Mexican Americans were able to establish community in a variety of areas in the city of Austin. However, by the 1930s most Mexican American families were pushed to the eastern and southern parts of the city. A 2015 article in the Austin American-Statesman entitled “How Austin Isolated Latinos With a Unique Form of Segregation” discusses the Austin’s particular history of racial discrimination toward its Latinx community. Austin participated in what has been termed “tri-racial” segregation, using language designating houses and businesses as “white or Caucasian only” to ensure that both African American and Mexican American residents of the city were excluded. Mexican American children were segregated into “non-English speaking” schools, but their school placement was often based more on ethnicity than actual language ability. The existence of Afro-Latinx folks also shows that these two communities were inextricably linked. A new podcast housed at the University of Texas at Austin delves into Afro-Latinx identity and history. Olga Sanchez Saltveit’s “(Afro) Latinx Theatre: Embodiment and Articulation” examines the origins of the term “Afro-Latinx.” 

Thriving Community

While institutional segregation forced Mexican American Austinites into the eastern and southern parts of the city, they established vibrant community for themselves in these areas, participating in education, activism, and public service. “Trails in a Changing East Austin Preserve Decades of Tejano History,” details the experiences of Johnny Degollado and Diana Herrera Castañeda, who both grew up in East Austin’s Tejano community. Austin’s Tejano Walking Trail, established in April 2010, features 24 sites historically associated with Austin’s Tejano community, including housing developments, businesses, and churches.

Mexican American Cultural Center (MACC)

Beginning in 1973, activists began advocating for the creation of a community cultural center for Mexican American Austinites, an effort spearheaded by Emma Serrato Barrientos. Finally, in 2007, the Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center held its grand opening.  For more on the individuals who participated in the efforts to establish this facility, visit the Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center (ESB-MACC) Oral History Project.  Notably, Emma S. Barrientos also helped to establish the Mexic-Arte museum in Austin.

Mexican American Cultural Center

Civil Rights & Chicano Movement

Image of Chicano Protest in Downtown Austin

In the middle of the twentieth century, efforts toward desegregation began in earnest. Mexican American Firsts: Trailblazers of Austin and Travis County Exhibit Collection includes interviews and other materials related to some of the activists involved in these efforts. The League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) was established in 1929, and advocated for abolishing poll taxes, supported immigrant rights, and investigated charges of discrimination against Latinx people. Historic efforts for Tejano inclusion in politics evolved to respond to segregation and legal discrimination, while the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund worked to “to organize a legal entity through which Mexican Americans would challenge discrimination in the courts, education, employment, and immigration.” Finally, the Chicano Movement (el movimiento) had a profound impact on Austin’s Mexican American community in the 1960s and 1970s as documented in, Austin Revealed: Chicano Civil Rights.


A new challenge facing the Mexican American community in Austin emerged in the later years of the twentieth century. KVUE’s Austin’s Gentrification Problem: How We Got Here details the early history of gentrification in Austin, commenting on the effects of this new problem on the city’s black and Latinx residents. As property values in the city increased, along with the influx of new residents that began arriving in Austin in the late twentieth century and early twenty-first century, housing developers looked to the historically black and Latinx neighborhoods of East and South Austin for new developments. While these new developments provide much-needed housing for Austin’s booming population, people of color living in these areas found their neighborhoods changing rapidly. For example, on Rainey Street, a historically Latinx neighborhood where the Mexican American Cultural Center was built to serve its community, two recent KUT articles show that nearly all of the former homeowners of color have left the neighborhood.

Preservation & Celebration

Community organizations and activists, noting the impact of gentrification, have rallied to preserve the history and culture of East Austin. They recorded Tejano Voices on Gentrification for posterity and Remembering Tejano East Austin through the Tejano Trails Project. Organizations have also been established to protect and share the story of historically Latinx neighborhoods. The East Cesar Chavez Neighborhood Contact Team is dedicated to land and building preservation, the establishment of historical markers, and the creation of historic districts. The Austin Tejano Music Coalition “supports and expands the presence of a Native Texas genre of music known as Tejano and its artistic contribution throughout the community of Austin and Central Texas.” Finally, an Instagram account named ATX Barrio Archive has used social media to share images of black and Latinx Austinites and celebrate the cultural heritage of their historic neighborhoods. While gentrification remains an issue for Austin’s communities of color specifically and in the larger city of Austin generally, individuals and groups have continued the long tradition of activism and organization to advocate for their communities.

Manuel “Cowboy” Donley, known as the “Godfather” of Tejano music

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Wood Street Settlement
at Shoal Creek

The text from the marker:

The northern half of Wood Street, near the west bank of Shoal Creek and extending to Henderson Street, was once home to a distinct enclave of African American and later Mexican American residents. As the frontier city's natural western boundary, Shoal Creek became a settling point for formerly enslaved people following the Civil War. The community along Shoal Creek was part of the African American settlements of West Austin which developed in the years after Reconstruction. As domestic servants, cooks, drivers, carpenters and laborers, residents influenced the lives and culture of Austin. Despite being surrounded by the homes of wealthier Anglos in the era of increasing racial prejudice, the African American community on Wood Street thrived into the 1920s. Two houses from the freedmen era endured several devastating floods and existed for over 100 years on the site before being demolished in 2014. As the 1928 city master plan pushed African American residents into a "Negro district" east of East Avenue, Hispanics (Mexican and Mexican American) began to occupy the houses along Shoal Creek, likely connected to the significant cultural enclave located just east of Shoal Creek dubbed "Mexico" at the time. While racial segregation concentrated most Tejanos in East Austin by the 1920s, the community at Shoal Creek persisted through the 1970s where it continued to contribute to the cultural and economic development of the downtown area. Although many of the physical reminders of this era in Austin's history have disappeared, residents of Wood Street at Shoal Creek were major contributors to the rich and diverse ethnic historical geography of Austin. 2016. Marker is property of the State of Texas.

Eliot Tretter’s Austin Restricted: Progressivism, Zoning, Private Racial Covenants, and the Making of a Segregated City delves into the history of racial segregation in Austin and its effects on its residents of color.

Recreational facilities, including the Pan American Recreation Center on East 3rd Street, the South Austin Recreation Center, and the Montopolis Neighborhood Center were established at the behest of community members vocalizing the need for public spaces for the Latinx community. The Austin History Center’s Mexican American Resource Guide: Sources of Information Relating to the Mexican American Community in Austin and Travis County contains archival material related to the creation of these recreation centers, along with other important sites and people in the Latinx community.

For more on the Civil Rights Movement in Texas, as well as the relationship between black and Latinx activists at this time, visit Civil Rights in the Texas Handbook and “How Latino and African American Solidarity Built a Better Austin.”
 A recent documentary entitled “Mexican American Legislative Caucus: The Texas Struggle for Equality and Opportunity” explores the history of Tejano efforts to establish equity and inclusion in the state.

Austin Renters and People of Color Most Likely to Be Displaced Because of Gentrification explains issues of displacement, while a recent city report Land of Broken Dreams and Land of Opportunity studies homeownership trends in the Chestnut, East Cesar Chavez, and Holly neighborhoods, finding that “in the span of 10 years, more than 1/3 of long-time homeowners no longer live in their neighborhood”