Artist Paints Memories Of Historic Onion Creek Floods

By Blair Waltman-Alexin and Sofia Treviño | Friday, October 20th 2023

In the Onion Creek Metropolitan Park parking lot, Alonso Estrada, who goes by the artist name The Death Head, brushes the asphalt with paint, filling the spot with visuals of horses, stars and pumpkins. The mural came to life over the course of several weeks, the brighter hues of the paint contrasting between the greens of the trees and trails.

More than a public display of art, Estrada’s mural serves as a remembrance of stories of resilience for Onion Creek flood survivors.

“There is some anger and pain, so as an artist and a human, I have that connection and understanding,” Estrada said. “Through my artwork, I'm trying to help them heal and be somebody that's there to listen to what they're going through.”

The 2013 flood resulted in damage to over 1,000 homes. The combined effect of intense floods in 2013 and 2015 led to a city buyout of the neighborhood which relocated families out of the flood-prone area in 2016 and eventually established the Onion Creek Metropolitan Park. In response to councilwoman Vanessa Fuentes’ resolution to honor the 2013 and 2015 Halloween floods, the city designed the Onion Creek Mural Project, which brought a collaboration between Estrada, Onion Creek flood survivors and Caminos student interns from the Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center.

Aerial Photo

An aerial view of the Onion Creek Metropolitan Park. The City of Austin bought out homes in the community starting in 2016. Remnants of the neighborhood, like old roads, remain.

Chosen from a pool of artist applicants, Estrada joined the project in 2022. Estrada said he didn’t want to sketch out the art without hearing firsthand from those affected by the floods. Through discussions between the artist and survivors in focus groups, Estrada said he conjured up the visuals for the mural featuring imagery packed with symbolism of the survivors’ stories.

“I wanted to hear their stories because I didn't go through losing my house in a flood and losing everything that I had and had to restart,” Estrada said. “So how can I paint for our community or for some people who have never experienced it?”

Former resident Jo Garcia bought her Onion Creek home in 1994 once she started a family. She said camaraderie filled the close-knit neighborhood and brought a positive atmosphere she missed once she relocated.

“The neighborhood was just very friendly,” Garcia said. “I thought,‘I’d love to raise my family in a neighborhood like this.’”

One of various flood survivors involved in Estrada’s focus groups, her story of that night contributed to the symbolism in the mural. Garcia survived the 2013 flood. While her son and two of her grandchildren stayed trapped on the roof, she was caught in the water for hours until they received help. She said it felt like an eternity as her three-year-old grandson clung to her neck and held to her body with a rope she tied around them, their heads just above the water.

Because of the coldness in the water, Garcia wanted to hoist her grandson onto the roof of a shed, praying aloud to reassure him.

“Somehow I was able to loosen the rope enough to get him to push him up to the top of the roof,” Garcia said. “I sat him there, and then he said, ‘Grandmother, there’s bugs here.’ That poor baby. When I looked up, I saw stars. It was a beautiful night. So I said, ‘You know what? Let's connect the dots. Look up and let's connect the dots.’”

Jo Garcia

Jo Garcia participated in Estrada’s community feedback sessions, sharing her stories and insight about the area’s floods. “I hope [people] take back that this happened…that this isn’t forgotten.”

Garcia said she asked Estrada during a focus group to add stars to the mural because she felt the distraction they offered her grandson and herself during the difficult time represented hope that night.

“For somebody that went through that trauma, it's their story,” Estrada said. “The responsibility I wanted to take was to create something for them and remind them that someone is listening to them.”

Though Estrada’s art opens up a space for the community to feel listened to, he said the project allowed him to feel heard as well. Estrada said in the 18 years of his career, he’s never received as much support as from this community, building a strong sense of trust in the project.

“For the first time I started feeling that I was heard,” Estrada said. “Through this project, as you give them a platform to talk and hear, I also felt the same way. We connected in those focus groups.”

This same community effort reflects in the Caminos Teen Leadership program’s involvement in helping Estrada grid, sketch and paint the mural. Every weekend, the group of young artists work under Estrada’s mentorship as he inspires them in their pursuit of an artistic career and offers them the experience of working in a professional environment.

“This project is cool because we need that in the art world,” Estrada said. “We need more people being supportive of younger audiences and motivating them to keep on creating.”

mural photo 4

Estrada demonstrates how to get different effects with a spray paint nozzle to an intern from the Emma S. Barrientos Mexican-American Cultural Center Caminos Teen Leadership program. Estrada says having community involvement in this project has been key.

Caminos student interns such as Ethan Barrera said they like getting hands-on experience working with different types of mediums, while also getting involved in their community. Barrera’s stepdad used to live in the neighborhood, but relocated before the 2013 and 2015 floods. He said he’s excited to work on a project for the community and spread awareness on what happened.

“Those people got left behind in terms of relief, so it’s nice to have something to recognize the issue and give back in a way,” Barrera said.

Daniel Llanes, who assisted with community outreach for the project, said the mural creation will lead up to a city-wide mural unveiling on October 28 at 10 a.m. There, the mayor, other speakers and survivors can share their stories and take part in a space where they can feel heard. He said the project would help people remember or learn about how the park once held homes for families.

mural photo 5

An aerial view of the mural from early October. An unveiling ceremony is slated for October 28th at 10 am at the Onion Creek Metropolitan Park.

“This whole process is really a healing process because there has never been a recognition of what happened,” said. “This is not only going to be recognized, but what is important for the community is that people don’t forget and that people learn from this.”

As an artist, Estrada said he had to keep residents’ stories alive to honor them as well as to not allow the city to forget about the floods.

“All of them for me are heroes,” Estrada said. “They’re still fighting and honoring the community. Even the people that left are strong. They all want the same thing, to make everybody aware of what they went through.”

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