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Council rejects renaming Pan American park but adds plaque to honor Castillo

Wednesday, September 7, 2022 by Jo Clifton

Toward the end of its Thursday meeting, City Council decided not to add the name of Tony Castillo to Pan American Neighborhood Park in East Austin, but to honor him with a plaque at the park instead. That vote was in line with a recommendation from the city’s Parks and Recreation Board.

Council Member Leslie Pool made the motion to dedicate a plaque honoring Castillo for his years of service. The vote was 9-2 with Council members Pio Renteria and Paige Ellis opposed because they supported renaming the park to Tony Castillo Pan American Neighborhood Park.

Renteria told his colleagues that his first job was with President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty, where he was expected to teach youngsters how to play baseball. However, since he grew up without recreational opportunities, he did not know how to throw or hit a baseball. Castillo and another East Austinite taught Renteria how to play sports and mentored him, leading to opportunities he would not have otherwise had.

Castillo grew up in East Austin and was in the first graduating class from Johnston High School. As a teenager, Castillo was among the founders of the Jokers softball team. According to several speakers, he worked to help young people throughout his 65 years of community service. After graduating from the University of Texas, he became a teacher and coach at Johnston High and later at Akins High. He also helped organize the Jokers basketball team and put together league tournaments for neighborhood youth.

According to the application to rename the park, Castillo was one of 11 children who spent much of his childhood at the park. The application notes that, “as an adult, Tony gave back to Pan Am in numerous ways. He organized and directed a Christmas toy drive for the underprivileged of East Austin, he coached in youth leagues, and he umpired hundreds of games. He also served on the Pan Am Recreation Center Advisory Board for seven years with four of those years as president. In addition, he served on the Austin Parks and Recreation Department Advisory Board in the mid-1970s. Through all his efforts, Tony’s goal was to advocate for the children and residents of East Austin. He wanted to make sure the families in his neighborhood were afforded the same or better recreational opportunities than himself.”

Although several members of the public expressed concern about changing the name of the Oswaldo A.B. Cantu/Pan American Recreation Center, renaming the popular rec center was not on the table.

While Castillo is a popular, even beloved figure in East Austin, the community was divided over renaming the park, which has been called Pan American since 1956. According to a memo from Parks and Recreation Department Director Kimberly McNeeley, the park “is tied deeply to East Austin’s Mexican American and Chicano roots.”

Staff learned through community engagement meetings that “the Pan American name was to honor unity across North and South America, and it was significantly supported by Korean War veterans returning to East Austin at the time.” Both the recreation center and the park were given the same name. In 1996 the name of the rec center was changed to honor Oswaldo A.B. Cantu’s “efforts to bring boxing, cooking classes, art classes and other activities to the community, as well as his work to keep kids away from drugs and gangs.”

Although the majority of respondents to an online survey supported renaming the park, the parks department found that 51 percent of respondents in District 3, where the park is located, opposed the name change.

Speakers on both sides of the issue pleaded with Council members. Peggy Vasquez and Moses Sifuentes asked Council not to change the name of the park, as did Bertha Delgado.

“We are here not to fight with our community. We’re asking that this dais respect the community and the people that have written letters to oppose any name changing. We are against this. We do not want any of our parks in any of our districts to be renamed,” Delgado said. “We ask District 3 Council Member Renteria to not support your friend. We are emotional and irate. We have been fighting for the last five months in our community.”

Juan Garza, the former general manager of Austin Energy, was one of several speakers in favor of changing the park’s name. He said, “I want to talk about the importance of heroes in our lives. As a child I fell in love with reading the biographies that are written for children. I think they inspired me to do better. But in all my reading it was hard to find names like mine …. It’s an important thing. It inspires our children to be better. I can think of no name better than Tony Castillo for this park.”

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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