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Latino Roots Run Deeper In Texas

All this week, NPR is taking a look at the demographic changes that could reshape the political landscape in Texas over the next decade. In this installment of the series, Texas 2020, we look at how the deep roots of Lone Star Latinos create a different racial calculus than in other states -- and meet three generations of one North Texas family.

On a busy streetcorner in the Uptown area of Dallas, 60-year-old Sol Villasana sees more than the pricey condo developments and trendy shops.

“I can still see the house here,” he says, pointing to the Uptown Self Storage business that now occupies the lot.

What Villasana remembers is the small, modest house where he grew up, and the neighborhood that was known as Little Mexico.

That was the first home to immigrants like Villasana’s grandfather, who arrived between 1910 and 1920 as they fled the Mexican Revolution. Their children and children’s children remained, often working in the nearby slaughterhouses and industrial plants.

For Villasana, Little Mexico was a safe zone.

“In this area I felt very much like an insider,” he says. “Almost all my friends at that time were Mexican-American kids like me.  We would go to visit my grandfather just a block away at the family grocery store.”

That store is now Mattito’s, a purple- pink-and yellow Tex-Mex restaurant with an energetic Mexican soundtrack.

Over a glass of iced tea, Villasana recalls what it was like for Spanish-speaking kids in the 1960s who ventured beyond the boundaries of Little Mexico. 

Credit Dallas Mexican American Historical League
Sol Villasana published the book, "Dallas's Little Mexico," in 2011. This photo depicts a Mexican Independence Day celebration in 1928 in Dallas' Pike Park.

“There were no Hispanic teachers or principals or anything like that," he says, "and a real resistance to us speaking Spanish in school, being punished for speaking Spanish. 

“I remember in my high school senior year when college recruiters would be coming in. The counselors were telling the recruiters there were no kids at my high school that were college material." 

Villasana’s recollections of childhood discrimination outside Little Mexico are not that different from his parents' memories. 

His mother, Rella Alvarez, 85, is Anglo and was disowned by her family when she married Sol’s Mexican-American father.

His stepdad, 79-year-old Joe Alvarez, laughs as he remembers some of the names he was called: “bean bandit, tortilla roller, taco bender.”

Then he becomes quiet and shakes his head as he talks painfully about a teacher who destroyed his high school drawing project.

“All the other ones were white.  I was Mexican.  He would look at the white guys’ drawings and he would tell them what was wrong and what was right and how to fix it and everything.”

And when the teacher reviewed young Joe's drawing? Alvarez clears his throat and makes a spitting sound.

"He spit on it and rubbed it in," he says. “I was 13 years at the time.  Nobody had taught us what to expect.”  

Clearly, the scars still haven't completely healed after a half century.  Rella and Joe Alvarez still don’t vote.  Joe says that when he was younger he couldn’t afford the $2 it cost to cast a ballot -- the poll tax -- and now he just doesn’t see the point.

“No, I’m not politically active because to me, I think some of them are rigged,” Joe says.

Nevertheless, family members agree, the increasing number of Texas Hispanics and decades of political change have created acceptance and opportunities beyond Little Mexico. The passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964; the end of the poll tax; the Chicano movement and many court battles broke down barriers to education, voting and upward mobility. 

Roberto Calderon, an associate history professor at the University of North Texas, talks with KERA's Shelley Kofler about Latino history in North Texas, the subject of his upcoming book.

Sol Villasana grew up to become a lawyer. He and his parents now live in the upscale Dallas suburb of Rockwall.

And 26-year old Alejandro Martinez, a third generation in the family, feels very much in the mainstream of society.

“I’ve been lucky enough to not have ever felt discriminated against,” he says.

But in his job as a Dallas city prosecutor, Martinez does see what it must have been like for his parents and grandparents. 

“I can tell I’m sympathetic almost to people who come in here and are from Mexico and maybe don’t have a driver’s license.  You’re not allowed to get a driver’s license if you’re not a citizen,” he explains, saying he still has to do his job.

“And that’s the main thing that affects me right now because I was raised by my dad always tying back to my roots and to remember where I came from,"

The roots of Villasana’s family run deep in Texas, more than a century; contrast that to the families of recent immigrants settling into a new Little Mexico not far from his suburban home. 

In this new barrio, a Spanish-speaking vendor jingles bells as he pushes a cart filled with Mexican popsicles, called paletas.    

In an ancient mobile home where she lives, a house cleaner named Maria talks about employers who cheated her out of money because she’s undocumented and scared to complain.

“The people who had papers would make us work more and for less money,” he says in Spanish. “We had to do it because if we didn’t do it then they would threaten us that they would call INS or deport us."

Sol Villasana believes Maria’s opportunities -- the opportunities he had -- are just over the horizon.

He says when Hispanics become the dominant ethnic group in Texas they’ll use their political clout to elect their own.

“Some of the same problems that existed for minorities when I was growing up exist now for immigrants:  substandard housing, issues with clean water and issues of education,” he says. “I think if you have Hispanics elected to office they’re going to be quick to deal with those issues and make sure those issues are corrected."

That, of course, may depend on whether the growing number of Texas Hispanics like Rella and Joe Alvarez decide it’s worth their while to vote.

Mark Jones, chair of the political science department at Rice University, says Hispanics now make up 38 percent of Texas’ population but cast just 22 percent of the ballots.

Former KERA staffer Shelley Kofler was news director, managing editor and senior reporter. She is an award-winning reporter and television producer who previously served as the Austin bureau chief and legislative reporter for North Texas ABC affiliate WFAA-TV.