Walking though history
The Tejano Walking Trail shines a light on East Austin's rich heritage andvibrant culture
Austin keeps growing, and with the increase in population comes downtown's eastward expansion.
The result is an East Austin full of neighborhoods fighting against gentrification and doing everything in their power to protect their roots and history. Given that bleak panorama, every small victory counts. The Tejano Walking Trail is precisely that: an almost ten-mile long triumph that ensures the safeguarding of East Austin's Tejano heritage.
The Tejano Walking Trail is split into two distinct paths. The first is known as the East Cesar Chavez Neighborhood Tejano Healthy Walking Trail and includes churches, schools, historical homes, a garden and a recreation center along an almost five-mile long stretch.
The second portion of the project, which operates through the Austin Latino Music Association (ALMA), is the Trail of Tejano Legends. Instead of buildings, this project focuses on shining a light on several local Latino musicians who were an integral part of Austin's music scene in the 1940's and 1950's.
The artists chosen include Nash Hernandez, the leading man behind Austin's longest running big band, and the Perez and Ramos families, both of whom have long musical traditions that stretch back several generations and are still very active in the Tejano music scene. Hernandez, the Perez and Ramos families and the rest of the chosen artists lived in East Austin at one and the trail aims to recognize them all as East Austin artists that have contributed greatly to Austin’s rich cultural history and music scene.
The project is the result of an almost six-year effort by neighborhood leaders who wanted to protect the neighborhood’s rich character and history. One of the main voices in the battle for the trail has been Lori Renteria, an East Austin activist who resides in a house that used to be part of the National Fish Hatchery. Renteria has been involved with the project since the beginning and recalled a few of the obstacles they've had to deal with.
"The idea was pretty much set into motion by Raul Alvarez when he was in City Council," says Renteria. "After he left, even though there were commitments to get the trail started, there were no funds set aside for its construction. It took us about six years to get the funds because the money was originally allocated for something else and we had to fill out forms to redirect the funds. Once we had the money, the rest of the work started."
The funds, which were granted to the area through its participation in the City's Neighborhood Planning Process, were finally switched when residents approved. The research that followed was done mainly by volunteer residents, but, according to Renteria, they received some wonderful help from Nadia Barrera, the Project Coordinator of the Bicycle and Pedestrian Program at the City of Austin’s Public Works Department.
"Nadia was able to get four groups of civil engineering students from UT to work with us as part of a public service project," explains Renteria. "We also received a lot of help from Molly O'Halloran. She's a wonderful mapmaker and she helped put together a map with the trails. At the end of that phase we had two Tejano legends trails and two walking trails. The four trails were distinct. I walked them all in one day and it took me fourteen hours. Also, I noticed that I kept crossing some of the same streets, so we had to fix that. The result is the trails we have now."
The Walking Trail is now waiting for June 1st, the day in which the recipients of official designation from the National Recreational Trail Program are announced.
The program was created under the National Trail System Act of 1968 (Public Law 90-543). In a nutshell, the program authorizes and supervises the creation of a national trail system. Trails fall under one of the following categories: National Recreation Trails, National Scenic Trails and National Historic Trails. While the first two types of trails can only be designated by an act of Congress, recreational trails may be designated by the Secretary of Interior or the Secretary of Agriculture. The official designation is usually given to trails to recognize that hold some local and regional significance. If the trails gets the designation, the work is allowed to continue.
"If we get the designation, we'll work on signage," Renteria says. "We're also looking into making additions to the trail. The people who never got back to us the first time around are now getting in touch. Now that the brochure is out there and in the hands of people, they know it's serious and they want to be part of it. The trail is at least two and a half hours long, so we're looking into adding restaurants, some favorite watering holes that have unique characteristics that fit with the trail. We'll also be adding more historical places, descriptions and even a few sites that are a bit off the trail."
Although there's still a lot of work to be done and some of the historical places in the neighborhood are being torn down and turned into businesses, Renteria explained that the trail has a very clear purpose and they will keep struggling to make the most of whatever they can salvage. Renteria said that Amy Thompson, a driving force behind the trail and the Local Historic District Committee Chair, always had a lucid vision of what was behind all the hard work.
"The motivation behind the trail was very clear from the beginning," says the activist. "There are just too many people moving into this neighborhood and destroying it. We thought that if we had a written guide, people would realize they're part of a historical community. Hopefully this is a way to get people to respect the character and scale of the neighborhood. The folks that are inheriting the place need to understand how important it is."
Renteria said she knows the project has been successful and mentioned that the teachers at Martin Middle School, which is part of the trail, are currently using the guide as part of their curriculum.
If you would like to join in the celebration of Tejano influence on East Austin's history, you can pick up a the 32-page trail guide at the Terrazas Branch Library, located at 1105 E. Cesar Chavez St., and the East Austin Neighborhood Center, located at 211 Comal St., during regular business hours.
You can also learn more about the Trail of Tejano Legends by visiting the ALMA website here.