I Didn’t Know We Were Poor

“I didn’t know we were poor,” Carmen Aguilar admits. “Everyone around us was poor! It was just life.” 

Felix Yruegas echoes the same thought. “We had our own world. Sure, we went hungry from time to time, but that was normal,” he shares. “We didn’t know any different.” 

Aguilar and Yruegas both grew up on San Antonio’s Westside in the 1940s and 50s. They say they had no idea that just across town, people had plumbing in their houses. They had paved streets and sidewalks. They had electricity. They had bigger houses on bigger lots.  

Carmen Aguilar with her sisters Maria, Rosa, and Herminia in front of their Westside home.

In the heart of the Westside, they didn’t bat an eye at using their outhouse or trudging through mud every time it rained. As kids, they didn’t question why the only white people in the community were their teachers. They stuck together and continued on their way.  

What they didn’t realize at the time was their little world on the Westside was a direct result of redlining and deed restrictions, legal policies of segregation that shaped the early design of San Antonio.  

“People like to forget the preferential development of San Antonio,” attorney and historian Art Martinez de Vera says. “We like to forget that we forced Brown and Black neighbors to the West and Eastsides and gave them few city resources while we built up white communities in Alamo Heights, Woodlawn, and Monte Vista with large houses, paved roads, and even a dam to help with flood control.”  

Yruegas didn’t see the racial and economic disparities between the neighborhoods until he got a job with the postal service and moved to Harlandale in South San Antonio. Harlandale was originally created as a neighborhood for the white working class, but demographics began to shift as Latino families moved in during the 1960s and 1970s.  

“The houses were painted. The yards were maintained. Everything was cleaner and larger on the Southside,” Yruegas says. “Everything was different.”

For Aguilar, she started to notice differences in resources when neighborhood councils on the Westside started educating the community on housing opportunities and the necessity of voting.

Aguilar’s childhood home that her father built on the Westside.

This proves just how successful redlining and deed restrictions were. They created such completely different worlds in the same city that many people who lived in the red zones had no idea there was even another way to live just across town. And we aren’t talking about a small number of people here. As writer and urban historian Dr. Ricardo Romo says, “There was nothing little about our barrio in San Antonio, which the US Census estimated as the second largest Mexican American community in the United States after Los Angeles in 1960.”  

While the Westside may not have had indoor plumbing or electricity in all the homes in the 40’s and 50’s, it still had a vibrant business center. 

Yruegas remembers the shops and theaters that lined Guadalupe Street. It was a place where neighbors helped neighbors. He remembers Romo’s father letting his family buy grocery items on credit from their store. “He knew most of us would not be able to fully pay him back, but that’s how he helped the barrio,” shares Yruegas.  

Were redlining and deed restrictions successful? Yes. Do we still see the effects of them today? Also, yes. But how we counteract the effects today is the same way the community counteracted the effects in the 1940s and 50s. The community came together. They shared their resources.  

So how do we do this today? How do we create formal and informal infrastructures that support the most vulnerable in our communities? How do we truly care for our neighbors and our neighborhoods?  

There is no single answer to these questions, but we can look at the groups who are working on the Westside as an example of action and hope. We can look at Prosper West, who is trying to help economic development occur from within the community. We can look at the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center, who is investing in real estate on their block and creating programs for community engagement and development. We can look at Good Samaritan Community Services, who is helping families thrive in their communities.  

The work is happening—we just have to open our eyes and see where we can join the effort.