What’s in a name? It depends on your perspective
There has been a lot of discussion about the potential renaming of Durango Boulevard in San Antonio to César E. Chávez Boulevard. After Phillip Cortez proposed the ordinance to rename the street, the battle lines began to be drawn, almost as dramatically as Col. Travis’ fabled “line in the sand” in front of the Alamo. Several opposed the new name for Durango including the San Antonio Conservation Society, citing historical reasons for protecting the original name. Others, including Mayor Julian Castro, claimed the legacy of legendary civil rights leader César Chávez as reason enough to change the name. Regardless of what the reasons might be the fight has started to create lines of division throughout the city that seem to be opening old wounds.
The idea of renaming a street as “César E. Chávez Boulevard” is not a new one. Several years ago a group tried to get Commerce Street renamed in honor of Chávez but was unsuccessful. As pointed out in a 2005 article in the San Antonio Current, at that time the idea created a large public backlash against the change, many citing the cost and impact to businesses. Alternatives were floated but none really appeased the organizers who wanted a significant thoroughfare in San Antonio to bear Chávez’s name.
After all, once a street is renamed and businesses change addresses, the significance of that person becomes national as people use the address for correspondence or Google map searches. Having a major street in downtown San Antonio creates that national and international awareness thanks to hotels and businesses located along the street in one of the largest tourist and convention destinations in Texas.
Just think of other locations in cities around the world. Who would have ever really heard of George Bannerman Dealey, an early publisher of the Dallas Morning News, until a America experienced tragedy Nov. 22, 1963 when Pres. John F. Kennedy was gunned down while traversing the plaza named after him. In Austin, few people remember that MLK Blvd, which runs in front of the University of Texas, was originally 19th Street. In fact, if you really want to dig back in Austin’s street history, 6th Street was originally named Pecan Street and still bears the name for the annual street festival.
San Antonio has had it’s share of renaming streets for significant figures in the city’s history. The freeway, US-281, running from the airport to downtown is known as McAllister Freeway, named after the mayor who was in office when the major artery was proposed. Even some of San Antonio’s major streets once had different names, changed as the city grew. In an 1886 bird’s eye view of San Antonio you’ll see that Broadway was once known as River Avenue and Santa Rosa was known as S East Street until about 1909.
SACS challenge to the renaming of the street is in line with their charter to protect the history and heritage of San Antonio. In talking with Rollette Schreckenghost, former president of the Society, she explained that they have really taken a focus on the original 36 square miles of the city. I strongly commend them for their position and the charge they have taken. San Antonio’s history is one of its biggest assets, drawing tourists from around the world to walk the same streets of the defenders of the Alamo. However, Schreckenghost may have a little challenge on her defense of the Durango name.
In an article in the Express-News about the SACS lawsuit blocking the rename, Schreckenghost stated that their defense is “because the 5.4-mile street is historic, dating to about 1883.” But the street has a history of change that could get confusing depending on what part you are trying to defend. Granted the street south of downtown does date back to 1883, its name doesn’t have the same depth of history as the actual street. In looking at that same 1886 map of San Antonio you find that the name of the street, a small lane just north of the Arsenal as something other than Durango. Unfortunately the map is creased right at the name, but you can easily tell it’s not Durango.
In fact, in looking at an 1873 bird’s eye view map of the city, it appears the section of Durango that is south of Hemisfair Park was once named Goliad Street. The section north of the Arsenal did not exist at that time and was added between 1873 and 1886. The first time the street name actually shows up on a map of the city is in 1930 and is a short street just north of the Arsenal. In that same map set an 1889 map doesn’t show the street nor does a 1909 map show it.
Where Durango is prominent is in the west side of the city, west of San Pedro Creek, where the street shows up on both the 1886 and 1889 among streets such as El Paso, Matamoras, San Luis, and other Mexican provincial names. Apparently those names were changed after 1873 when the streets had numbered names and Durango was Fifth Street. So if you really want to be historical and hold the line shouldn’t we revert it back to that name since it’s the apparent original name of the street?
Putting all the originality debates aside, let’s focus on the figure the street is being named after. César Chávez was a prominent figure in the farm workers movement in California and protecting migrant famers’ rights in America. Interestingly, Chávez was opposed to immigration, during his tenure with the UFW, fighting against the Bracero Program, a program designed to allow immigrant farm workers to work within the United States. Looking at Chávez’s involvement, it was really focused on providing for legal immigrant farm workers in the US. Granted, I’m not completely educated on Chávez’s positions but it seems he would be taking more of a line for legal documented immigrants in the US than taking the stand for illegal immigrants.
Concerning San Antonio, his ties to the city are weak at best, but strong in terms of a unifying figure for the Hispanic community. Just as Dr. Martin Luther King is honored in San Antonio in one of the largest marches in the country as well as a prominent street named after him, Chávez probably deserves recognition within the city with such a large Hispanic population. San Antonio would be the last major Texas city to name a street after the civil rights activist, something that’s becoming more and more of an issue as the Hispanic population continues to grow.
Looking at the politics of the move, it’s pretty apparent former Councilman Cortez was pulling a political stunt to gain favor with the Hispanic community right before his exit from office. Using a Council Consideration Request (CCR) to push the change forward, Cortez possibly usurped standard procedure for such a change, prompting the lawsuit from the Conservation Society. When the council vote was taken, one of the last votes for Cortez, the three non-Hispanic council members voted against the motion, leading some to claim racial overtones in the vote.
After the SACS lawsuit, Judge Antonia Arteaga blocked the change and has since recommended the two sides try to mediate a solution for the change. On the SACS side will be Schreckenghost and Nancy Avellar, current SACS president and representing the city will be Councilwoman Mary Alice Cisneros and Councilman Justin Rodriguez, both remaining on council while their seats are settled in a runoff election. Interestingly, if the sides do not settle prior to June 17th, new council members will possibly take over the discussions. In a candidate forum held in late May, both Diego Bernal and Ralph Medina felt that Chávez should be honored but that the process was not followed, possibly signaling loss of support for the measure by the council member most affected by the change.
Looking at the situation I do feel Chávez should be honored by a street name change. However, I also feel Cortez circumvented the process and that it should follow standard procedures for street changes, including public input. Looking at the historical views, those hold strong positions but only in the west side of the city. In the area east of San Pedro Creek there’s very weak historical positions on the name. If you look at other streets in San Antonio including the counterpart to Commerce known as Buena Vista/Dolorosa/Market, many streets have multiple names depending on where you are located.
Personally I think Durango can be renamed in the area west of downtown but remain Durango in the downtown area. Granted this would challenge the historical view of the street but I believe the change in that area would be acceptable. Just as MLK sits within the east side of the city with a prominent African-American population, having Durango renamed in the west side of the city would follow the same viewpoints. But the change should stop at Alazan Creek and not carry over to downtown. The bigger question would be how far you carry it since Durango runs all the way under US-90 to SW 36th Street.
Regardless, the wheels are in motion to honor Chávez in some fashion, mostly likely by a street name change. Let’s just see who has the stronger political will.