In August 2011, the City of Austin created Resolution No. 20110825-067, announcing the official recognition of 5th Street between Republic Square and the Saltillo Plaza as the Mexican-American Heritage Corridor. Signs lining the corridor mark its historical significance, but many walk down 5th Street today and notice the signs without knowing what history occurred there. In honor of the City of Austin making another historic proclamation on September 15 at Republic Square to celebrate Mexican Heritage, we wanted to share the area’s history and how we got here.
Note: The Comanche and Tonkawa people inhabited this area due to proximity to the Colorado River, predating other settlements of Waterloo. Our historic retelling begins in the 1700s.
In the 1700s, Austin and the surrounding area were used for ranching. This particular ranching community consisted primarily of Mexicans who began shaping the area, creating ranching communities and building mission buildings.
By 1835, Waterloo (Austin’s original name) was named and claimed by German and Spanish pioneers who recently inhabited the area. The growing European settlement gained the attention of the President of Texas, Mirabeau Lamar, who visited three years after the land was claimed and settled. One year after the president’s visit, Edwin Waller crafted Edwin Waller’s 1839 plan for the city and set to work. That same year, Waterloo was named the Capitol of Texas, changed its name to Austin, and began auctioning off plots of land under the auction oaks at what is now known as Republic Square. This is what many consider the beginning of modern Austin.
Much of Austin’s Mexican population inhabited the area surrounding Republic Square. From 1873 to 1927, Republic Square was the place for various Mexican-American community events, from major cultural celebrations like the annual Diez y Seis celebration (Mexico’s Independence Day) to political events, dances, church fundraisers, concerts and more. In 1875, Austin’s Mexican population reached 300 and primarily resided in what is now known as the Mexican-American Heritage Corridor and District. The district was often referred to then as Austin’s Mexico.
Food played a notable role in the history of this neighborhood. Families in Austin’s Mexico made tamales and candies to sell on Congress; residents worked in canning and spinach plants while the kids played at Republic Square; and in 1900, T.B. Walker opened Walker’s Aus-Tex Chili Factory at the corner of what is currently 4th and Guadalupe. The chili factory became one of Austin’s most prominent industries in the first half of the 20th century, and Walker’s employed 15% of Austin’s Mexican and Tejano population.
Fun Fact: In 1911, Walker’s owned the world’s only automatic tamale-making machine. The machine could make 38,000 tamales in an hour.
Despite the beautiful revelries and delicious food, Austin’s Mexico had similar issues to many of the underserved populations in this country. Conditions were less than ideal; city services were nonexistent in the neighborhood, many available jobs in the area did not pay well and the housing was grossly insufficient. Some of these issues were the direct effect of deep-rooted prejudice against the Mexican and Tejano people and other issues were exacerbated because of this prejudice; regardless, Austin’s Mexico continued to grow.
In 1907, the Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe Catholic Church (Our Lady of Guadalupe) was built near current day 5th and Guadalupe to give the Mexican community a safe place to worship in Spanish in their neighborhood. This was a vast improvement from the long walk to the prejudice and segregation they faced at St. Mary’s Catholic Church. Although the church was small, it was full of artwork and was noted in a local paper as “one of the handsomest edifices of the chapel type in Texas.” The construction of this church led locals to affectionately refer to Republic Square as Guadalupe Park.
The board of education decided that non-English speaking students needed to attend separate schools to learn English in 1916. While this could be mistaken as a move to support the local community, this was in place to prevent Spanish-speaking students from attending their regular classes in their neighborhood school. The new Spanish language school was quite far from Austin’s Mexico, requiring the children to take long trolley rides to class and causing many families to boycott the schools.
Since education is important, the community once again stepped up to create services that the city would not provide them, and in 1919, 150 Mexican children could take classes at the newly opened Our Lady of Guadalupe School, located next to the church.
Meanwhile, in 1916, a fire destroyed the chili plant, and the factory had to relocate, foreshadowing what the city had in store for Austin’s Mexico. Fortunately for Walker’s, they only had to move a block to the west, and the factory reopened in 1918.
As if seeing the writing on the wall, Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church moved to East Austin two years before the 1928 City Plan went into effect. The 1928 City Plan cut off the limited resources provided to persons of color who were not yet residing in East Austin, effectively forcing them to move. This marked the end of Austin’s Mexico as they knew it, and the majority relocated.
After the 1928 City Plan
The Colorado River was dammed in 1960 to form Town Lake (now known as Lady Bird Lake), and two years later, I-35 officially opened, creating a physical barrier between East Austin and the rest of the city. In 1972, Walker’s Chili Factory closed its doors, effectively signifying the end of an era in the area once known as Austin’s Mexico.
Things began looking up again for the area in the 1980s. In 1984, Mexic-Arte was incorporated to create a space for Mexican art and culture to thrive. Four years after incorporation, they moved to the location we know and love at 5th and Congress. Mexic-Arte, if you are not familiar, is a museum and organization focused on enriching the community with education and art, and they collect, preserve and interpret Mexican, Latino and Latin American art for all. They host the largest and longest-running Dia de los Muertos celebration in Texas, facilitate the Taste of Mexico festival and more. They enrich the community through residency programs, workshops, cultural events, a rotating mural wall, a library and exhibitions, just to name a few ways they contribute to the city’s cultural offerings. They also organized a team to work toward multiple city proclamations celebrating Mexican Heritage in Austin.
Throughout the 90’s and 2000’s, things continued to look up. In 1999, Plaza Saltillo at 5th and Comal was inaugurated by a visiting delegation from Saltillo, Mexico. In 2002, Republic Square hosted Austin’s annual Dies y Seis celebration after a long hiatus. By 2011, Mexic-Arte got a City resolution to officially honor and mark the Mexican-American Heritage Corridor and District for its historical significance. And most excitingly, a team has come together to work on a new resolution at the city. This resolution recognizes and celebrates Mexico’s Independence Day and was proclaimed on September 15, 2023 at City Hall.
We at the Downtown Austin Alliance are committed to doing our part to elevate the voices in our community that keep our critical heritage and history alive. We encourage you to do your part, too, so we can continue to create intentional spaces and diverse experiences where everyone is welcome.
- Comanche and Tonkawas used the Colorado River, often crossing around where the Congress Ave bridge is today
- 1700s: Mexicans shaped the area around Austin with ranching communities and mission buildings
- 1835: Austin was considered settled, primarily by native Germans and Spanish pioneers
- 1838: Mirabeau Lamar, President of Texas, visited Waterloo
- 1839: Edwin Waller’s plan for the city
- January 1839: Austin (then known as Waterloo) was named capitol of Texas
- August 1839: Plots of land auctioned off under the auction oaks. This is often referenced as the beginning of Austin
- 1861-1865: American Civil War, People of color allegedly started moving to East Austin, including Tejanos and Mexicans shortly after
- 1869: Earliest known photograph taken of Republic Square
- 1873 until 1927 and starting again in 2002, Republic Square was and continues to be the site for Austin’s Mexican-American community’s cultural, political, and family events, the major event being the Annual Diez y Seis Celebration
- 1875: Austin’s Mexican population reached almost 300. Most lived in “Austin’s Mexico” near Republic Square
- 1880s: Republic Square became so popular it hosted dances, concerts, church fundraisers and the annual Mexico Independence Day celebrations
- 1900: T.B. Walker opened Walker’s Aus-Tex Chili Factory and it became one of Austin’s most prominent industries in the first half of the 20th century. Located in the heart of downtown Mexico, Walker’s employed 15% of Austin’s Mexican population.
- 1907: Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe Catholic Church was built, and Republic Square became known as Guadalupe Park thereafter
- 1910-1920: Area around Austin produced most of the commercial spinach in Texas
- 1911: Walker’s possessed the only automatic tamale-making machine in the world, producing 38,000 tamales per hour.
- 1916: First public Mexican School, located far from Austin’s Mexico
- 1916: A fire destroyed the chili plant
- 1918: Chili Factory rebuilt and operating
- 1919: One hundred fifty Mexican children entered the doors of the newly organized Our Lady of Guadalupe School, located next door to the church. The parochial school was established in large part because of the 1916 Austin School Board’s decision to send non-English speaking children to separate schools
- 1926: Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church moved to East Austin
- 1928: The City Plan forced any POC who had not voluntarily moved east to the east by disrupting their already limited access to city resources and utilities
- 1960: Colorado River damned to form Town Lake (aka Lady Bird Lake today)
- April 1972: Chili factory shut down
- 1984: Mexic-Arte Incorporated
- 1988: Mexic-Arte Museum moved to 5th and Congress
- 1999: Plaza Saltillo on the corner of Comal and 5th was inaugurated by a visiting delegation from our Sister City of Saltillo, Mexico
- 2002: Republic Square, once again, hosts Austin’s Mexican-American community’s Annual Diez y Seis Celebration
- 2011: Resolution for Mexican-American Heritage Corridor