What A 1921 Texas Flood Tells Us About The Latino Climate Struggle Today

It was two days earlier than Yom Kippur, and Char Miller was serious about the useless.

The Pomona College environmental historian had devoted all the last chapter of “West Side Rising,” his new ebook on the lethal 1921 storm that laid waste to San Antonio’s largely Latino barrios and sowed the seeds of the neighborhood’s environmental justice motion, to naming each sufferer he may determine. To Miller, it represented a model of the Jewish custom of itemizing the just lately deceased at the beginning of providers at synagogues on Yom Kippur, when Jews quick and pray to atone for his or her sins.

“As a Jew, that’s one of the things we do every year … and it seemed to me that was something the book should do, because the city didn’t just undercount them, it basically erased those who died,” Miller advised me. “The goal was to honor those who had died, to give them a name, and thereby to give them a voice.”

Entire households, worn out within the floodwaters, cry out from the pages of “West Side Rising.” The de la Garzas of McAskill Street misplaced not simply 35-year-old Petra, however an entire subsequent technology: Onesema, 4, Carlota, 3, Lontardo, 1. The frequency with which single-digit ages adopted the names is nauseating. The Caradenas siblings of Mitchell Street — Felipe, 6, Theodora, 2, and Louisa, simply 15 days — all useless. Their neighbors, the Morales household, solely recovered the physique of Francisca, 36. The seven youngsters and their father had been relegated to an everlasting limbo within the public data as “missing.”

Virtually all of the victims had been Latino. Even the one particular person to die within the whiter, richer downtown space had a Spanish final identify.

It’s a related story at present. More than half of Latino Americans dwell in California, Texas and Florida, three states struggling to beat again the record-breaking droughts, warmth and flooding scientists say are only a style of the warming to return. The Environmental Protection Agency’s personal numbers present nonwhite Americans normally breathe air that’s 1.28 occasions extra densely polluted with cancer-causing air pollution particles in contrast the nationwide common. And a University of Minnesota examine present in 2019 that Latinos within the U.S. are uncovered on common to air that has 63% extra air pollution than what’s brought on by their very own consumption.

In the rapid aftermath of the flood 100 years in the past, a mutual support society known as Cruz Azul Mexicana sprang to motion to assist the inundated. It rapidly unfold from San Antonio to cities throughout the area. The group supplied the primary unified entrance aimed toward serving to Latinos who had lengthy borne the implications of their European-descended rulers’ choice for constructing settlements in floodplains. By the 1970s, the community Cruz Azul constructed fashioned the connective tissue for a fair meatier type of Latino political group to lastly seize some energy and start to ship on long-promised reforms.

In what felt like a microcosm of how the ripples of a single occasion can travel even additional, Miller acquired an e-mail shortly after his ebook was reviewed this month within the San Antonio Express-News. The message got here from a grave restorationist at one of many metropolis’s cemeteries, who had simply refurbished the weathered gravestone marking in Spanish the place a lady and her youngster had been buried. They had died in the course of the flood.

Photos from 1921 show dozens of homes washed away by the waters.
Photos from 1921 present dozens of houses washed away by the waters.

Library of Congress

“I knew it wasn’t a complete record that I was able to build, but you’ve got to do what you can,” Miller stated. “If there’s a second edition, that family will be honored in there.”

This interview, carried out over two telephone calls, was edited and condensed for readability.

To begin, what occurred in San Antonio on Sept. 9, 1921?

What occurred in 1921 isn’t merely that there was an enormous storm that dropped plenty of water, though it did. It’s the place the water fell within the higher reaches of the watershed, the creeks on the West Side, and the San Antonio River. It unleashed a flood in contrast to some other within the metropolis’s recorded historical past.

The west aspect of the town ― which was largely impoverished neighborhoods, not solely Hispanic, however a big Hispanic inhabitants ― obtained destroyed within the late hours and early hours of Sept. 10, as the assorted creeks rose up and simply ripped by means of the shacks that stuffed the barrio. On the opposite aspect of the town, to the east, the downtown was inundated, destroying companies and finally leveling buildings.

On the West Side, upwards of 80 individuals, almost solely Hispanic, died, and the guess is it’s much more than that as a result of they only merely didn’t discover everyone. In the town, there was destruction of property, however not human beings. Even the one one that died downtown had a Spanish surname.

In the post-flood interval for roughly 50 years or so, what the white elite did was to make sure that its non-public capital was protected by the development of a dam alongside the San Antonio River. There had been floods in 1935, 1946, the early 1950s, the mid-1960s. And each single time, reporters would seek advice from what they known as the previous hassle spots, locations that had been troublesome within the 1920s and remained troublesome for the following 50 years.

When did issues begin to change?

What’s hanging, and I feel it could be one of the extraordinary turnarounds in American political historical past, was that yet one more flood within the 1960s triggered a really totally different type of political response on the West Side.

First, they elected [late Democratic Rep.] Henry B. Gonzalez to symbolize the town. He used that flood to embarrass the town based mostly on its neglect of his hometown, the barrio the place he lived, and he introduced in senators and congressmen to see it. That enabled Henry B., as he was identified regionally, to usher in federal cash to construct infrastructure that had been promised within the ’20s however had by no means been constructed.

Ten years later, one other flood hit the West Side. This time, a corporation known as Communities Organized for Public Services, or COPS ― a parish-based, largely female-led group ― emerged that simply battered the town council for its continued neglect. By the mid 1980s, COPS had grow to be so highly effective that not solely did it get [Democratic politician] Henry Cisneros elected as a councilman, however then as mayor. In that course of, it generated half a billion {dollars} for West Side streets, drainage, well being care, colleges and higher housing. It finally modified the town constitution.

A young woman who survived the flood holds a baby after the disaster that killed dozens in her community.
A younger girl who survived the flood holds a child after the catastrophe that killed dozens in her neighborhood.

Library of Congress

The title of your ebook talks in regards to the Latino motion this started. I think about most of those individuals had been of Mexican background, given the geographical location. Obviously the time period Latino represents a particularly numerous array of peoples that always, within the context of U.S. politics, have divergent pursuits, as we noticed from the 2020 election outcomes. With that in thoughts, is there a restrict to the teachings that may be discovered from this disaster and its political aftermath?

San Antonio is a selected type of place. It is ready inside a geography that floods in the way in which it doesn’t in lots of different locations within the United States. But one of many issues that COPS and its predecessor, a mutual support society known as Cruz Azul Mexicana that emerged from the 1921 flood, acknowledged was that the instruments of their organizing could possibly be scaled up throughout the area. They carried the banner throughout the state of Texas and to main cities and small ones to assist defend their even smaller Hispanic communities, politically, socially and economically. They noticed that the organizing could possibly be transferred to Houston and Dallas and Chicago and Phoenix and Los Angeles to assist communities in these locations to arrange round environmental justice points that they confronted, which had been strikingly totally different.

The nature of the organizing was the identical, even when the character of the place was totally different. So a few of that is recognizing that place issues enormously. So it’s vital to construct coalitions that may then commerce finest practices.

One factor that basically caught out to me studying this, notably when it got here to the undercounting of the demise toll, was the similarities between what occurred in San Antonio and 2017’s Hurricane María in Puerto Rico. To what diploma do you see parallels there?

When I began to appreciate that what the town posted as the ultimate demise rely of 51, which didn’t rely anyone who was “missing,” despite the fact that we knew they had been useless, I began to seek out tales that indicated that there have been extra. In reality, I simply came upon about one other particular person, who despatched me an image of a headstone he had simply restored with a reputation of somebody who had died within the 1921 flood however had appeared nowhere in any report, whether or not within the Spanish-language newspapers or the English-language newspapers. Back within the day, no one seemed past the rapid surroundings. They didn’t take into consideration the our bodies being carried miles downstream. They solely seemed a mile down the river. So, a few of that is simply dangerous investigation.

Some of it’s deliberate. What the town of San Antonio did ― which additionally occurred in Puerto Rico and in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, and in trendy contexts the place we’ve got significantly better knowledge ― was to undercount. They do that so you’ll be able to say to the world, “Well, it wasn’t really that bad. So let’s defend our tourist industry. Let’s defend our understanding that storms aren’t as brutal as, in fact, they actually are.” I might say San Antonio was in local weather denial in 1921 simply as badly as many locations are nonetheless at present. But it’s maddening. People died. Let’s inform that reality.

That’s an attention-grabbing use of the time period “climate denial,” notably because the ebook principally by no means mentions local weather change. Normally that time period refers to adherents of the fossil gas trade’s misinformation about how burning oil, gasoline and coal heats the planet. Can you expound on {that a} bit extra?

What helped me perceive what occurred in San Antonio, a spot I lived for a few years, was recognizing one key issue that the Spanish understood however couldn’t resolve. When they arrived within the 18th century, they knew they had been going to plant a metropolis and actually have a metropolis help itself by means of agriculture. To do agriculture, you want water, they usually had among the finest engineers when it comes to irrigation. They created irrigation ditches everywhere in the metropolis to carry water in from numerous components. That’s fascinating technologically, besides that additionally meant you needed to dwell inside a floodplain. They did the very same factor in Los Angeles and the Salt River Valley of Phoenix. They constructed inside the floodplain. So after they obtained flooded with an adobe metropolis that actually melted when heavy water hit it, they only merely rebuilt. They had been constructing at risk. But when the Americans arrived, they did the very same factor. They knew higher ― they talked about it on a regular basis ― however they only denied the fact or pushed off that actuality. In the brief time period, it was good for us. But in the long run, it wasn’t.

In New Orleans, which was constructed within the 18th century, it was the very same scenario. The solely excessive floor is within the French Quarter, and every thing else will get submerged. Look at Miami at present. The metropolis is at sea stage, the ocean rises and really comes up by means of the water sources. The metropolis goes to be destroyed, however what the town is doing is taxing buildings to allow them to construct a sea wall. A sea wall isn’t going to cease it.

It’s occurring additionally within the western cities going up in smoke. The very first thing they do is rebuild in the very same place that was incinerated. Even with all the information that we’ve got at our disposal, we’ve got a stage of denial at present that’s simply thoughts boggling. And it doesn’t bode properly for the remainder of the 21st century.

What made you wish to inform this story within the first place?

When we moved to San Antonio in 1981, I grew to become fascinated by the dam. It was not removed from my home. It’s a really spectacular object. But it grew to become fairly clear shortly thereafter that that dam, which protected downtown, did nothing for the opposite components of the neighborhood. I questioned why, and why comparable constructions of 1 kind or one other existed in components of clearly flood-prone neighborhoods. Every time it rained, one thing was underwater. So I started taking part in round with that. It wasn’t till the late ’80s, when different initiatives obtained accomplished, that I began digging into how San Antonio spends its cash on flood management ― and the place it determined to not. I began by strolling within the areas that had been unprotected and extra flood weak, and realized, oh my God, there’s a narrative right here.

In the final 5 years, as a lot of the native newspapers grew to become digitized, it grew to become simpler to do the analysis. It was actually an on-the-ground approach, strolling. That led to archives and to interviews and to talks the place individuals would come up afterwards and say, “My grandmother went through that flood.”

The type of the simple wooden homes Latinos on the west side of the city lived in. Many were instantly destroyed when the waters came.
The sort of the easy wood houses Latinos on the west aspect of the town lived in. Many had been immediately destroyed when the waters got here.

Library of Congress

It appears solely truthful to acknowledge the truth that we’re two white Jewish guys speaking a few Latino wrestle. In the course of researching this ebook, was there any level at which you felt like an outsider? How did you cope with that?

That form of positionality situation was very clear to me from the get-go, that to be an ally of Latinx activism and communities in San Antonio meant taking your cues from these communities. Frankly, had a neighborhood colleague determined to write down this ebook, I might have stepped again and accomplished one thing else. I floated numerous essays at numerous occasions to see if there was any curiosity on the one hand, and if anybody was doing it.

One factor I did was undergo the native Spanish newspapers ― La Prensa was the one one which was digitized ― to seek out these voices and experiences and share them as a lot as doable.

The different approach, and the dominant one within the narrative, was to show this deal with the white Anglo-dominated metropolis management and ask what they had been doing about it and what was accomplished about it. I did kind a place the place I may learn the politics of the town and its white domination, after which criticize it and lay it open.

The third factor was to not solely search for tales, however get different voices within the textual content that weren’t my very own. Part of the ebook’s objective, I feel, is to each inform the tales and have interaction people who can inform the story from totally different angles. That really started occurring at a current webinar, which is admittedly thrilling.


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