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Writing Austin's Lives: More than 800 residents tell their stories in Humanities Institute community project

Childhood memories, early morning walks and cultural awakenings all weave their way into stories told by Austinites—old and new—in the Writing Austin’s Lives project.

Sponsored by The University of Texas Humanities Institute in the College of Liberal Arts, the project organizers collected stories from Central Texas residents, each touching on one of six topics: “My Family’s History in Austin,” “Where I Live,” “The Best Day of my Life,” “What I Really Need,” “My Family’s Most Treasured Possession,” or “What I See When I Look at Austin.” More than 800 narratives were submitted by community members from all ages, races, neighborhoods and occupations.

Skyline of the city of Austin, view looks north on South Congress toward the State Capitol

“Writing Austin’s Lives has been about creating a portrait of Austin in 2003,” said Dr. Evan Carton, director of the Humanities Institute. “The stories are personal snapshots of the lives being lived here in Central Texas today, from every segment of our community.”

Working with university and community volunteers, the Institute offered free life-writing workshops conducted at local branch libraries, bookstores, senior centers and other venues throughout the summer.

“When we first proposed this project, some of our advisers thought that ordinary people would not write and submit their stories—that they’d think of writing as too intimidating or burdensome or doubt that the university would be interested in what they had to say,” Carton recalled. “What has been most gratifying is not so much the flood of stories themselves but the notes and phone calls telling us how meaningful an experience it was for people to write them and to feel that their voices would now be a part of Austin’s history.”

Several public events are planned to give Austinites an opportunity to share in the history and portrait of Austin contained in the stories. “Writing Austin’s Lives” will come to life on stage as noted Austin director Rick Garcia and his cast of 20 present an original theatrical performance that dramatizes material from the collected stories in a rich collage of voices and lives. The performance will run from Oct. 16-18 in the Akins High School Theater (10701 South First St.). All performances are at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $10 for the general public; $5 for students, seniors and “Writing Austin’s Lives” contributors. Seats may be reserved by calling 471-2654.

The Writing Austin’s Lives awards ceremony will be at 3 p.m., Nov. 16, in the LBJ Auditorium in the LBJ Presidential Library and Museum on the university campus. More than 40 adult and student writers (one from each participating neighborhood and school) will be recognized for contributing stories that powerfully express Austin’s “lives” and deepen our understanding of their diverse patterns and textures. Some of these prizewinning stories will be read, and all of them will be on display. This event is free and open to the public

The Humanities Institute also plans to publish a book of Writing Austin’s Lives stories to be available in area bookstores, and the entire archive of stories submitted to “Writing Austin’s Lives” will be collected at the Austin History Center.

The stories below are a sample of the stories to be included in the play and book being produced by the Institute.

Speaks With Owls

For Tim Bigham

By Aletha Irby

Read Aletha Irby's full story, detail of a large tree Aletha passes on her morning run

I live in Hyde Park and am in fact one of that most Austin of characters, a Hyde Park Poet. Well before the sun arises I wake for my morning run. My 4 to 5:30 a.m. route takes me south down Red River Street and through the University of Texas campus. Running at this time allows me to encounter members of nocturnal tribes I wouldn’t normally see—possums, raccoons, bats, yellow-crested night herons, pale pink geckos, toads, the occasional snake, and moths the size of my right hand with wings like beaded moccasins.

When my fiancé Tim asked me whether I ever see owls, I told him I’d never seen an owl in my life. He said I could start by learning to hear them. We spent portions of several nights outside Hyde Park and Huntsville, and whenever he heard an owl vocalize in the distance, he would call my attention to the sound. As a result I began to be able to hear owls during my early morning runs. They seemed to be all around me.

The first owl I saw was small and brown though she had an impressive wingspan. She alighted in a live oak tree by the fine arts building on the University of Texas campus, across the street from the Texas Memorial Museum. Inspired by Tim, who speaks to birds in their own languages and to whom birds respond in kind, I stopped under the large old tree and hooted at her. But she behaved as if the sound hurt her ears, and after shaking her head in distaste, flew away.

Read Aletha Irby’s full story

How Gulisi got her groove back in Austin’s Mexican Club Scene

By Monica “Gulisi” Beckford, MD, M.Ed.

Read Monica Beckford's full story, the front sign for Club Carnaval

I know exactly where I was standing when I heard about the planes hitting the towers. I was standing in a clinic in Austin frequented mainly by Mexicans. I felt so proud that I, a black woman born in Honduras, knew what the word for building was in Spanish. “Edificio,” I said to the woman searching for the word. What happened on September 1, 2001, frightened me to the point that I wanted to leave the United States. It scared me so much that I decided then that when they came to kill me, they would find me dancing.

Why dancing? The previous summer I had volunteered with the Austin Police Department’s Victim Services. I went to Austin clubs and distributed flyers warning about the date rape phenomenon. Club Carnaval on Riverside Drive, a Mexican club, was one of my assignments. Now mind you I am a Black woman who had come to terms with my African, African/American and Caribbean roots in the past. What I had not come to terms with were my Hispanic roots, despite living in New York for years around Puerto Ricans. So, I walk into Club Carnaval with my flyer-distributing partner. When my partner saw the crowd, she wanted to leave immediately. I on the other hand, got drawn to the music and the people. The music, a Cumbia, hit my soul as if I had been thirsting for it all my life. I stopped and stared at the people moving in unison to the rhythm. I looked at their smiling faces and watched their bodies move with energy. In that moment I decided I wanted what they had. I wanted to divertir the way Mexicans were doing it at this club. I wanted joy and to belong to this crowd in a way I had not anticipated. My soul was touched. I have not been the same since. My Hispanic roots spoke to me.

Read Monica Beckford’s full story

My experience at a Life-Writing Workshop
for the Writing Austin’s Lives project

By Sofia Harber Bowden

Read Sofia Harber Bowden's full story, bookshelf at Book Woman

I finally made it to a Life-Writing Workshop. I’d wanted to go to one since I found out about the Writing Austin’s Lives project from the Windsor Park branch library, where I volunteer a few hours a month, but other commitments kept interfering. Now, this was the last scheduled workshop. I got to Book Woman at 12th and Lamar on August 10th, a few minutes before 5:30. I was a little nervous, not only because I had not experienced a writing workshop before, but because Book Woman always makes me nervous. I feel the need to apologize to the clerk for being so plain and straight. Imagine a 31-year-old woman who drives a new Volvo and is dressed sloppily in sale items from Ann Taylor, and you’ve got a good picture. “Please, if you don’t mind, I’d like to browse your selection. Forgive me for stinking up your store with my conformity.”

I pondered this as I browsed the bookshelves and tried to hide myself until I figured out where exactly the workshop would be held. I wondered if the aging hippie or the proud lesbian knew that I admired them and was embarrassed to be so ordinary.

I noticed there was a guy from Fox 7 News there to film a little blurb about the program. I didn’t want to be filmed—I didn’t want anyone to see me there, vulnerable, trying to be creative. Who did I think I was hanging out in Book Woman? I definitely was not cool enough to be there, and besides, I had not put on any makeup and my hair was a mess. The workshop leader, Abe Louis Young, agreed to do a short interview but let the camera man know that workshop participants didn’t want to be filmed. He left without the interview or any footage.

Read Sofia Harber Bowden’s full story


By John Salazar

Read John Salazar's full story, detail of Barron's Family Grocery on East Fifth

Growing up on the East Side, the youngest in a family of seven siblings, I remember watching and learning from all the people in my family. My oldest brother and my oldest sister just starting their families. My Vietnam War hero middle brother and how the entire family was so proud. My juvenile delinquent brother and how my parents were so disappointed. My teenaged sisters and how they attracted attention from the boys. My Tios and Tias, one lived across the street and the other next door. So many cousins to play with, many weekly gatherings, the smell of food, us little ones stacking up empty beer cans into pyramids.

Sometimes Ama would send us to “la tiendita,” Barron’s grocery store, our neighborhood mom-and-pop shop, for a loaf of bread or a dozen eggs. Sometimes we would take the short cut through the Ledesmas’ yard or if we felt more adventurous we would take the long way, through the callejón (the alley) behind the cantinas and meat market. This is where my primos and I would pick up bottle tops and play a game of “Fling the Bottle Top,” “El Moanie,” “El Fishie” and “El White Bass.” We were inseparable. Playing Loteria for pennies was my favorite game. Often we would play Loteria outside where we could be as loud as we wanted and where we could listen for the “Raspa man’s” bell every afternoon. We would watch the “raspaman” make the best hand scraped snowcones “raspas” in the world. Then it just didn’t matter how hot August was.

Read John Salazar’s full story

Where I Live

By Deb Kelt

Read Deb Kelt's full story, Virgin of Guadalupe that Deb passes on her morning walks

I walk through my neighborhood every day at 6:45 a.m. I guess you could say my neighborhood is my morning meditation. I always take the same route—up South 3rd, around St. Elmo, down South 2nd and around to Englewood. The sun comes up and life in the small, ranch-style homes begins to stir. Another day in our still diverse and still blue-collar patch of Austin. Lots of pick-up trucks, dogs, chain-link fences and converted garages. Bud Light seems to be the drink of choice, judging by our recycling bins. Outdoor shade is provided by those persistent hackberry trees; indoor cool comes from AC window units.

These are the constants in my hood, but as I walk every morning, I notice that nothing is ever the same. The night always produces some magic, a little cosmic shift left behind while the sun went away for a time. And if I walk with eyes wide open, I notice these morning gifts. My neighborhood touches me with grace each day—a daily blessing from 78745.

Sometimes my blessings come from the usual suspects. The Virgin Mary has a spot in lots of front yards. I always love to pass her, noticing her eyes looking down, her arms outstretched. In my neighborhood we have painted Virgins of Guadalupe with her starry blue shroud, terra cotta Virgins that nearly match the clay dirt, concrete Virgins with tiny graceful hands. I love when the roses bloom near them—almost everyone plants roses around the Virgin. I smile and think of Juan Diego as I pass a serene Mary surrounded by almost shocking orange blooms.

Read Deb Kelt’s full story

What I See When I Look At Austin

A reminisce dedicated to my father

By Gina Schrader

Read Gina Schrader's full story, framed photo of Gina's father

I rolled down the window of the truck as we drove down a country road late at night, letting the wind hit my face to keep me awake. My Mom asked that I sit next to Dad and keep him company—her traveling vigil was over and she was retiring to the back of the camper with the rest of my brothers and sisters. I listened to the unsettling static of orphaned radio waves as Dad tried to find a radio station in the middle of nowhere. After giving up, he turned off the radio and lit up a cigarette. The truck was very quiet—too quiet. As I sat next to my Dad and he smoked his cigarette, I was uncomfortably aware in that moment that I was no longer “Daddy’s little girl.” Approaching adolescence with my thirteenth birthday in the next few months, created a type of chasm between us that I didn’t know how to bridge. It was getting more and more difficult to talk to my Dad. I identified with the orange end of his cigarette glowing in the dark, as my mind burned feverishly on what things to talk about. I kept coming up blank; after all, we didn’t share much in common anymore. Lately I passed up more and more of those rare bonding opportunities on the weekend. I decided fishing wasn’t for me, one of my Dad’s favorite past times; it required too much patience waiting for the fish to bite, plus I felt sorry for the helpless bait wriggling at the end of the hook. And although Dad tried to instill in me his passion for his other favorite past time, baseball, I determined it wasn’t for me either. There I’d sit, in a trance-like state, staring at the baseball diamond while Dad patiently tried to explain the strategies of stealing base and so forth. The Houston Astros, our team, didn’t follow Dad’s strategies so I’d get confused while Dad got agitated with the players. They’d lose and it was a dismal ride home. The only thing that Dad and I had in common it seemed was our love for playing the piano. My Dad had an extraordinary talent for playing by ear. He would pick out a familiar tune on the piano then embellish it with his own jazz version. “Mary had a Little Lamb” would start out innocently enough until Dad threw in some jazz and suddenly it morphed into “Mary had a Boogie-Woogie Little Lamb.”

Read Gina Schrader’s full story


By Danny Camacho

Read Danny Camacho's full story, framed photographs of Danny's family

I still live in the house my parents bought in 1951. I had first thought to recount my own memories of growing up on the East Side. Of my three sisters and I having to just cross the street to attend Metz Elementary. The summers passed on the playground and in the swimming pool at Metz Park. Or weekends spent fishing with my Dad. We would walk the few blocks down to the Colorado River, before it became Town Lake.

But it’s the old stories, the ‘cuento’ about the ‘abuelos,’ that I heard as a child that I want to share. My great-great-grandparents Eulogio and Pilar Luna, their seven children and extended family came to Austin in 1872. They settled in an area near the mouth of Shoal Creek called ‘Mexico.’ The men were day laborers and the women took in laundry.

It was here that my grandmother, Higinia, went to a two-room school at the corner of 2nd and Nueces, now the location of the Green Water Treatment Plant. I remember hearing the tale of how in 1882 great-grandpa Toribio got rowdy in ‘Guy Town,’ just a few blocks away. He was arrested and fined $5.00 for disturbing the peace.

Another story told was about Pilar at the time of the construction of the present state capital building. Of her being on Congress Avenue and watching the chain-gangs of convicts being led to work by armed mounted guards. Pilar dropped to her knees on the wooden sidewalk and making the sign of the cross, offered up her prayers for their wayward souls.

Read Danny Camacho’s full story

Robin Gerrow

Photos: Marsha Miller

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  Updated 2014 October 13
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