Chapter 8 – Part 2
An Austin State of Mind
The next musician that I wish to cite is Austin music legend, Alejandro Escovedo. A prolific singer-songwriter, he is the epitome of truth to oneself and one’s art. He mostly has performed in non-Latino musical styles, but has ventured into Latino musical styles like his brothers, Pete & Coke Escovedo, but in a more subtle way. Not surprisingly, the musical project of Escovedo’s that has resonated most with me is the tribute album/performance composed to honor his family and culture, By the Hand of the Father. Three songs of his that I highlight come from this album because they are not often performed by Escovedo or recorded by other artists: “The Hard Road,” “Mexico Americano,” and “With These Hands.” The “usual suspects” from this album at live performances are “Rosalie” and “Ballad of the Sun and the Moon,” and they are most certainly worth a listen.
The other songs that I will highlight are from the album Real Animal, partly because it is an album I come back to frequently. The album chronicles important milestones and experiences of Escovedo’s life, so in a sense it is like By the Hand of the Father. A great degree of Escovedo’s work is emotionally challenging, and, as I’ve established, I am emotionally challenged. His style of song writing and my emotional coping system are not a good combination. Ironically, he was one of the artists I gravitated towards when I first moved to Austin because I lived less than a block away from Antone’s (the 29th & Guadalupe St. location) and would go to shows there almost every week. Escovedo was one of the few Latino artists billed for shows there at that time. My favorite songs from Real Animal are: “Always a Friend” (which he has performed live on stage with Bruce Springsteen), “Chelsea Hotel ’78” (about a surreal experience that occurred while he was a member of the punk band, The Nuns), “Sister Lost Soul” (which he agreed to include in a Latino Music Month CD compilation that I helped produce), “Real as an Animal” (which is about Iggy Pop and, really, about the essence of rock ‘n roll), and “The Shelling Rain” (because it is genius, a perfect composition in every way… quintessential Escovedo). Bravo!
An interesting point about Alejandro Escovedo and Raul Salinas is that they both performed at a fundraiser for my very first political campaign at the now closed Jovita’s Restaurant. I didn’t know Escovedo all that well, outside of being a fan. The fact that Raul Salinas and other community advocates, like the Perez sisters of Las Manitas Restaurant and La Peña, were supporting me probably helped convince him to support a grassroots environmentalist and neighborhood advocate like me who hadn’t yet made a name for himself. I most certainly appreciate getting support from people like Escovedo. There is a surreal feeling that comes with campaigning for public office because total strangers, including people who bring their fame and a following to the table, put their faith in you and count on you doing what you promise to do. I never forget a promise that I make, so being an elected official was a pretty serious and stressful proposition for me.
The Wolf Survived
Los Lobos also had to feature prominently in this chapter because of their great influence on my consciousness. When I was in college in the bay area, I probably went to more than a half -dozen Santana and Los Lobos concerts each, so I feel like I not only have to pay homage to Santana, but also to Los Lobos. Los Lobos were dubbed “the greatest band in the universe” in an issue of The Austin Chronicle many years ago. I actually got to meet the band backstage at a Northern California show at which Dr. Loco’s Rockin’ Jalapeno Band was the opening act. A former Resident Assistant at my dorm, Casa Zapata, and a friend who worked at Stanford’s El Centro Chicano were part of Dr. Loco’s band and so I decided to meet up with them at the show. If I could ever state I was a groupie for any band, it was Dr. Loco’s Band. I would note that “Dr. Loco,” himself was actually a professor of anthropology at Stanford University at the time. I bet you didn’t see that factoid coming!
Just like Carlos Santana has probably played every genre imaginable, Los Lobos can also stake a claim on this label. Why would artists choose to play in so many different styles? I would argue it is because they see the beauty in all music/people/cultures, and they can appreciate the power of music to heal and to inspire. We are a nation of immigrants (with the ONLY exception being the indigenous peoples of North America), and each culture represented in this great country brings something beautiful and unique to our American culture, a culture that is not tied to one religion, one race, one ethnic group, or one language. Furthermore, Latinos have a unique view of the world due to our unique historical, cultural, and economic circumstances. This uniqueness must be expressed and not suppressed in all that we do.
The songs of Los Lobos that I want to share are from their greatest hits album, Just Another Band from East L.A., which is also the name of the band’s debut album from 1978. I will highlight a few of Los Lobos’ rock ‘n roll numbers in this compilation since my book is a book about rock ‘n roll and not Latin music.
“Politician” – a cover of a song by Cream (1992- live)
“What’s Going On” – a cover of a song by Marvin Gaye (1992-live)
“Bertha” – a cover of a song by the Grateful Dead (1992-live)
“Wicked Rain/Across 110th Street” featuring Bobby Womack (2004)
“Someday” featuring Mavis Staples (2004)
“Is This All There Is” featuring Willie G” (2004)
“Carabina 30-30” – a cover of a Mexican revolution themed corrido (1992-live)
The last observation I’d like to share about Los Lobos has to do with their designation as “the greatest band in the universe” on a cover of The Austin Chronicle many years ago. I like Los Lobos (and Latin Jazz, Santana, and many of the other artists featured in this chapter) because they made a conscious effort to convey the diverse and complex nature of their reality. Instead of grabbing on to one thing they liked about themselves or about creation (as some artists do), they embraced it all and spent a lifetime trying to articulate and document the diversity and complexity which characterized their very being. The universe saw that the conscious approach of these artists to their work was good and allowed them to continue their artistic journey. It appears that many years ago on some level The Austin Chronicle recognized that Los Lobos’ self-conscious approach should be appreciated and embraced by all since it appears that the universe itself was appreciative and supportive of that approach!
I will highlight two other Austin-based groups that exemplify a commitment to a multitude of styles but a tendency toward the rock ‘n roll side of things, Patricia Vonne and Brownout. Patricia Vonne has six studio albums to her credit and has contributed songs to the soundtracks of a few films directed and produced by her carnal (brother), Robert Rodriguez. She actually appeared in the movie, Sin City, as the character, Zorro Girl. Patricia includes two or three musical numbers sung in Spanish on every album and actually compiled all of those songs on a CD entitled Viva Bandolera, with “Bandolera” being a track and a character from her very first album. Her brand of rock ‘n roll is more of a country western variety with awesome guitar work. Castanets can also be heard on each and every one of her albums. My favorite tracks from each of her first five albums are listed below. (I don’t have a favorite yet from album #6).
“Cut from the Same Cloth”
“Ravage Your Heart”
“Top of the Mountain”
Both Patricia Vonne and Brownout have a connection to my personal endeavors. Vonne’s band played for the first ever Sabor Latino music series that took place in the plaza at Austin City Hall. As a City Council Member, I worked to promote Latino music at every step and Sabor Latino was one of the vehicles that I used. This music series became the Live from the Plaza music series at city hall and it lasted for the better part of five years. AG, a good friend of mine, had been (or maybe even continues to be) a roadie for Vonne so I got to know Patricia pretty well. She is a truly awesome human being…salt of the Earth. I hate to jump back and forth so much, but the same can be said about Alejandro Escovedo, muy buena gente (good folk). Austin is blessed to have this caliber of people hanging their hat in the river city!
The Brownout connection requires a little more explanation. This story starts when I was in graduate school at UT Austin and started attending shows by a rock band called The Blimp, comprised of four guys from Laredo who could jam with the best of “rockeros.” How I wish I owned a recording of the songs they used to play back then! At some point in time, The Blimp and another band, called Blue Noise Band, joined forces to create Grupo Fantasma. They only had one album under their belt and were about to release their second album when Theresa and I contracted them to play our wedding in 2003. After a Grammy (2011) for Best Latin Rock and a one-year stint as Prince’s back-up band, it is safe to say we probably couldn’t afford Grupo Fantasma to play an anniversary party for us.
After about two albums of Latin Rock, Grupo Fantasma moved towards a style that was more danceable, having its foundation in cumbia as well as the Salsa and Funk stylings from the 1970’s. It’s an awesome sound! They even had 1970’s Salsa legend Larry Harlow record with them a number of times. With the turn to a danceable style, the experimental side of Grupo Fantasma became more difficult to express. Brownout was created as a more experimental alter-ego of Grupo Fantasma. With Grupo’s increased time on the road due to their Grammy-fame, Brownout became a band unto itself. With my intense appreciation for both Latin Jazz and Rock ‘n Roll, Brownout most certainly has kept my interest piqued. Their album, Brownout Presents Brown Sabbath, is most certainly worthy of note, for obvious reasons. It is Black Sabbath like you’ve never imagined! Brownout’s first album, Homenaje, is phenomenal. If you couldn’t tell, I really dig debut albums. There’s something to be said for what was happening at the very beginning of, well…anything!
Living to Serve
I’ve been asked the following question on many occasions: “Why do you do what you do?” At first, the question was, “Why did you choose to attend Stanford University?“ and then it became, “Why did you choose to be an Austin City Council Member or an Austin Community College Trustee?” Now, that I am no longer an elected official, I am asked why I choose to be involved in the community causes to which I dedicate a considerable amount of time. My usual response is that we all have an obligation to make a difference for others and for our community. By holding political office, you have a greater ability to make a difference. If you have a chance to serve the community in that way, why wouldn’t you? But you don’t have to be an elected official to make a difference. The responsibility to serve remains regardless of the form the service might take.
I began my community service when I became a Junior at Stanford University. I was stumbling along academically and had not committed to any service programs so that I could focus on improving my grades. Since that approach had not worked (i.e., my grades still sucked), I decided to join a tutoring/mentoring program for elementary kids from East Palo Alto called Barrio Assistance. At least I could help the elementary kids improve their grades if not my own. The students would come to campus every Saturday for a variety of activities. It was a lot of fun and very rewarding. I recall one student that I worked with who was so shy that you probably couldn’t imagine a kid being any more shy. I myself could imagine that because I was like that kid when I was a kid. Who better to help him? After a month, he broke out of his shell, and we had so much fun learning and horsing around. He didn’t come back to the program the next year, but hopefully my impact on him was as lasting as the impact he had on me.
That same year, I took an ethnic studies class focused on writing biographies. The hands on project involved writing the biography of an elder who frequently visited a senior center in East Palo Alto. My assignment was to interview Ms. Matoyer (RIP), who was an elder African-American woman past the age of 90. She was a young girl at the time of the 1906 San Francisco fire. What I recall the most from my interactions with her is how humble she was (i.e., she was not too proud to share her life story), how positive she was regarding the reflections that she shared (even of the difficult topics), and how grateful she seemed for her life even though she experienced significant personal challenges and lived through some of the most trying periods of American history.
I credit those two experiences with turning my life around. I would argue that everything, became easier for me after I had these two opportunities for meaningful connection with people who were both different from me (i.e., in age and, in one case, ethnicity) and the same (i.e., had grown up poor and a person of color). A light went off in my head. I wasn’t at Stanford for me. I was there for them and people like them, who, ostensibly, were people like me.
What became clear to me was that my life was only important to the extent that I could make a difference for other people. I’m sure there’s a name for that psychological condition, but it appears to have worked out o.k. for me so far. Thankfully, enduring the Stanford experience became more tolerable when I decided to endure it for the sake of someone else or so that someone else could benefit. It helped me to stick it out at Stanford and that led to so many other amazing life experiences that were meaningful and sometimes, trying. It could be that they were meaningful because they were trying! A character in a recent movie I watched, Assassin’s Creed, expresses it much more succinctly and directly: “Our lives mean nothing. The only thing that matters is what we leave behind.”
When I moved to Austin to enroll in the Community in Regional Planning graduate studies program in the Architecture School at the University of Texas, I knew that I was going to have to find a way to connect with community. I joined the Chicano Culture Committee and, eventually, the MEChA chapter at U.T. As I alluded to earlier, MEChA is a student advocacy organization that I was a member of at Stanford University. The MEChA experiences at both campuses helped me to understand the real power there was in organizing as I saw the efforts of both groups lead to meaningful institutional reforms. The MEChA chapter at UT was connected with environmental justice organizing efforts on Austin’s Eastside. The knowledge I was gaining about community needs and the training I was getting at the University very quickly led me to realize that the degree I had decided to pursue was really going to advance my goal of ensuring that my work/life was going to matter for other people!
The community based organization I connected with in Austin while I was a graduate student was called PODER, People Organized in Defense of Earth and her Resources. It is in working with PODER that I learned about the serious and important work of community change. Through my work with PODER, I was able to support (but most certainly NOT lead) successful campaigns to relocate fuel storage facilities, a recycling plant, and a power plant that were located adjacent to residential neighborhoods due to racist land use policies and decision-making. My job was principally to go door to door to administer community health surveys to document health problems. The information was used by community advocates to make the case for relocation of these hazardous operations. All three of those toxic facilities are now gone from the Eastside. Ironically, after the Eastside successfully organized and fought for clean and safe neighborhoods, the menace of gentrification reared its ugly head. It is as if people who have nothing to fight for are just waiting to swoop to take advantage of an opportunity, regardless of the consequences for others.
In addition to my work with PODER, I also served as the Environmental Justice (EJ) Director of the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club. For PODER, I led the Transportation and Quality of Life campaign, helping several neighborhoods develop plans for improving neighborhood transportation infrastructure (i.e., improving signage, fixing dangerous intersections, installing sidewalks and street lights, etc.). In my role as EJ Director for the state office of Sierra Club, I was able to provide support to communities of color around the state who were also adversely affected by industrial pollution. I actually created a how to guide and facilitated workshops on filing civil rights complaints pursuant to Title VI of the Civil Rights Act and President Clinton’s Executive Order on Environmental Justice. It helped that prior to taking the position with Sierra Club and while I was finishing up my Masters degree, I worked as a legal assistant for a public interest law firm specializing in environmental cases, Henry, Lowerre, Johnson, Hess & Frederick. That group of lawyers was an amazing bunch of people!
Environmental justice work was very serious work because the situations being addressed had life threatening consequences for the individuals affected. You see, environmental justice does not refer to “justice for the environment” but to inequities in the distribution of industrial hazards (i.e., pollution and toxic contamination in homes, playgrounds, parks, schools, etc.) in communities of color. As alluded to earlier, Austin had more than its fair share of environmental injustice due in no small part to the 1928 City Plan that forced people of color to live in an area located just to the East of downtown and directed industrial development to the very same part of the city. PODER, working in coalition with other community groups and advocates, were able to eliminate the industrial operations that posed the greatest hazards and were successful in rezoning more than 1000 tracts of land from industrial to residential and less harmful commercial zoning categories. To add insult to injury, because of gentrification, most long time homeowners have been pushed out or are struggling to stay in the neighborhood.
My community advocacy work led to a decision to run for public office. Like most of my life altering opportunities, I sort of backed into it. Long time City Council Member Gus Garcia (and Austin’s first Latino school board member and first Latino mayor) had announced he would be retiring, and I decided that I would work to support a good grassroots candidate who might seek to replace him. As fate would have it, I could not identify a single person who was considering a run for this office but was offered support for my candidacy if I chose to run (which I was not really interested in doing). In the end, I decided I had nothing to lose by running and surprised everyone when I actually won. I won the election by the not-so-healthy margin of 200 votes and became only the fourth Latino City Council Member in the history of Austin. I was given the nickname “Landslide Alvarez” but lost that title a year and a half later when a good friend of mine, Eddie Rodriguez, ran for State Representative and won his race by 70 votes. Years later, he lost the “landslide” title to State Representative Donna Howard who won her 2010 race for State Representative by 12 votes. Hey, a win is a win is a win!
A few interesting notes about my political career that relate to Austin’s growth and popularity on a national stage. When I ran for City Council in the Fall of 1999 and Spring 2000, the central part of the City pretty much out voted all other parts of the City. So, if you won the Central City, you won the election. My election may have been the last time that a candidate won only the Central City and still won the election (by the slimmest of margins), an indication that the times were changing. I was out-fundraised by my opponent significantly for the general election but I had 100 volunteers out canvassing on election day and received enough votes to make the run-off. In the month leading up to the run-off, I matched my opponent in fundraising but had 200 volunteers out canvassing on election day (because we were able to recruit volunteers from all of the other political races that were now over). Did I mention that I won by 200 votes (i.e., 200 volunteers and a 200 vote margin of victory). Needless to say, I am grateful to all of those who donated funds, donated their time, and/or gave us their vote!
I’ll jump forward to 2010 to the only election I’ve ever lost. I had decided to run for Travis County Commissioner because the incumbent was allegedly going to retire. When the incumbent (who had been in an elected position for close to 30 years) decided she wouldn’t retire, I decided I would run anyway since my campaign apparatus was already in motion. There were issues that I felt I could address as County Commissioner in terms of affordability and sustainability. Historically, in this particular Commissioner’s race, the candidate that wins the 78702 and 78704 zip codes wins the election. These were the battleground areas. I won both of those zip codes but lost the race (by 400 votes). Because I was out-fundraised by the incumbent, I couldn’t reach those outlying voters as effectively as my opponent could. There were no 200 volunteers for this race. The county races just don’t generate the same amount of interest, although I argue that these positions are no less important.
I could do an entire chapter on what led to that political defeat, but there two main factors to which I attribute the loss. For starters, it was the first election cycle after Barack Obama’s historic 2008 election, and there were tens of thousands of new voters who may or may not have chosen to continue to vote. Sixteen-hundred of these voters came out to vote and none of them had ever heard of Raul Alvarez. The incumbent was still in office and received the Austin daily newspaper’s endorsement. Secondly, the incumbent won by slim margins in all of the outlying areas that are more difficult to canvas. As I’ve alluded to earlier, I didn’t have the money or volunteers to cover those areas. I do congratulate my opponent for running an incredible race and for an incredible victory. She is the longest serving county commissioner in the history of Travis County. If you are going to lose to someone, then losing to someone with this claim to fame MAYBE makes it a little easier to digest. MAYBE!
I shared the above because I feel it shares a little bit of the political drama involved in a campaign, and there is no shortage of drama with regard to being an elected official. I won’t go into the drama involving development/economic interest versus environmental/neighborhood advocates because not everyone is into that kind of drama (plus it makes me have not-so-pleasant flashbacks and makes me want to drink a stiff shot of something). The unique experiences are what I remember fondly. I presented the keys to the City (on behalf of the Mayor) to several Latino icons: iconic musician, Freddy Fender; iconic visual artist Amado Pena; Tejando legend, Little Joe; and, accordion legends, Ruben Vela, Santiago Jimenez, and Mingo Saldivar. I met two Mexican presidents (Zedillo and Fox) as part of exchanges between the Austin-Saltillo Sister Cities Associations. I sponsored a resolution to “Save Nick the Goat,” a goat who didn’t meet the specifications for a backyard pet (so we adjusted the language so that he wouldn’t become “Nick the homeless goat”). I also lead an effort to save a round wooden sculpture that was part of a public art installation at City Hall. The campaign was dubbed “Save the Stump,” and we were successful in our efforts. The sculpture can still be found by the elevators on the second floor of Austin City Hall. I consider it a good luck charm (thus my efforts to save it), so if you have the occasion to visit Austin City Hall, make sure you make it up to the second floor to rub the stump for luck.
The last political anecdote that I’ll share relates to the preponderance of food trailers in Austin. You may ask yourself how does the current plethora of food trailers relate to a political career that ran from 2000-2006. First and most directly related to food trailers is that the City almost outlawed food trailers in my last year on city council. Because one neighborhood had issues with one food trailer (El Taquito on Riverside Drive), City staff proposed rules for food trailers that included parking requirements and a 1000 foot buffer from residential properties. In the Austin of today, there are hundreds of trailers that sell hundreds of different kinds of foods. During my time on the City Council, food trailers outside of downtown sold mostly tacos, elotes asados (grilled corn), and snow cones, while those in the entertainment district sold things like pizza and sausage wraps. Since the restrictions affected the area outside of downtown the most, then most of the small businesses affected were Latino-owned. So, they came to the one Latino City Council Member for help. I had to fight the fight for them.
Even though all city council members were elected at large at the time (i.e., each city council member represented the entire city), the Latino and African American council members had added duties: to champion any issues important to the African-American and Latino communities as well as to represent the interests of neighborhoods that were predominantly black and brown. It was a blessing and a curse. It was a blessing because you had a little added clout on issues affecting minority communities, but it was a curse because those issues tended to be sticky issues. It was incumbent on the two council members of color to gain support from the rest of the council.
On the food trailer issue, since the bulk of the concern came from the Latino business owners, the issues landed on my plate. We employed every tactic we could think of to delay and oppose the change in regulations and ultimately, the interest in changing the rules waned. Austin’s food trailer culture would be much different today if this short-sighted bureaucratic response had gone unopposed. Our taste buds are all the much better for it!
Much more could be shared about those six years of politics, but I’ll end with just a couple of insights about having the opportunity to serve as an elected official. It is an incredible experience to run for office. The people that you get to know and the things you learn can never be taken away, regardless of the outcome of the race. It is equally incredible to serve in an elected position, although it is incredible in a different way. I remember feeling that I was the nexus of information for the universe. With all of that input came so many ideas about the potential that existed for improving our community, all parts of it and all people who were part of it. When you figure out that the possibilities are endless, then every day is an exciting proposition! I continue to have this perspective on life, that every day is an exciting proposition.
Finally, one interesting observation is that it appears that you are much more beloved when you leave office than when you are in office. I’m not sure if it is because people forget that you pissed them off (quite a few times in some cases) or that they acknowledge that it is a tough job (that they wouldn’t wish upon themselves or others). For whatever reason people decide to tell you that “you are missed” or that “you should run again.” The sentiment is greatly appreciated for it makes me appreciate more and more the fact that I had such a unique opportunity to serve!
Daily Prayer 3
To Our Lord Jesus Christ, The Blessed Virgin, and all of the Angels and Saints:
Thank you for all you’ve done for me, my family and humanity.
Thank you for being a resource for me, my family and humanity.
Thank you for helping millions and millions of people for thousands and thousands of years.
I ask that you forgive me, my family and humanity for not being more appreciative of the help you have given us and at times for not accepting the help you have offered us.
We ask that you have mercy on us and that you help us learn how to better access, accept and appreciate the help that you are able to provide now and in the future, for our good and for the good of all of humanity.