The parking lot of longtime East Austin Mexican restaurant Joe’s Bakery was packed on a recent Sunday morning, as staffers wearing masks and T-shirts urging the importance of voting darted between cars to take orders and drop off bags full of migas plates and sweet empanadas. Among the employees was co-owner and manager Regina Estrada, one of the bakery’s masterminds, who is covering a shift for a sick staffer. In between orders, Estrada was also ensuring customers stayed in their cars and offering friendly reminders in Spanish and English that Tuesday was Election Day.
Estrada’s grandparents Joe and Paula Avila, who opened Joe’s Bakery in 1962, couldn’t have predicted this scene: a bustling lot full of customers confined to their cars and waiting to order as the restaurant’s staff works to accommodate pandemic safety precautions. But still, despite the industry’s notoriously slim margins and a global pandemic that has decimated parts of the hospitality industry, the bakery is up and running. Now, the restaurant is in the hands of the next two generations of the East Austin-born and raised couple: Estrada, and their daughters, Rose Ann (Estrada’s mother) and Carolina Avila (Estrada’s aunt).
While Estrada leads the trio, it’s the work of all three women that keeps the restaurant’s spirit alive through comforting platters of Tex-Mex dishes and their deepest commitments to the community. Paula isn’t involved in the restaurant’s day-to-day ongoings anymore, but they all still regularly reach out to her with questions about the business.
Joe Avila, who passed away in 2011, was “already so forward thinking back then,” says Estrada. He was someone who pushed back on cultural norms that might have overlooked the women in his life, who, he knew, were capable of continuing the family’s ideals and life’s work. When people come in asking about Joe and where he is, the usual response from the Avila women is, “Well, we’re Joe.” The restaurant is their family and their business.
As one of the heads of the longstanding bakery, Estrada sees her role as having two sides. First, there’s ensuring that the legacy of the restaurant is still true to her grandparents’ visions. She wants to make sure that the restaurant still reflects all of the work her grandparents poured into the business. It’s about preserving the legacy of Joe’s Bakery and the Avila family for generations to come.
Likewise, Estrada wants to make sure she continues to serve as a pillar for the community, an informal mantle she has taken upon herself as more people look to the bakery for guidance on civic issues uniquely affecting the East Austin neighborhood the bakery’s called home. This is especially so as the world becomes more divisive, as she sees it. “Knowledge is power,” she says.
East Austin isn’t the same as it was back when her grandparents were growing up in the neighborhood and the city’s Mexican-American community was heavily centered in the area. Now, the same areas are experiencing demographic shifts from being predominantly Latinx/Hispanic to increasingly white, leading to rising house values, property taxes, and developments.
Estrada’s not a fan of the word “gentrification” and the baggage that comes with it — she doesn’t fault East Austinites who have lived in the neighborhood for decades for selling their homes at a high price because they want to be able to give their families more space, more stability, more security. “It’s an unfair request for a family to want to go to a better side of town,” she says, when it’s the city’s fault for not taking care of the neighborhood. “For the longest time, East Austin was neglected.”
“Whether you agree with what’s happening or not,” Estrada says, “it’s happening.” But she gets why people are upset. “It’s natural for there to be resentment. Why is our neighborhood changed now that there’s houses selling for $500,000, which just baffles my mind.”
Then there’s dealing with operating during the novel coronavirus pandemic. The restaurant’s dining room continues to stay closed, but there were two instances of staffers getting COVID-19 so far. As soon as it happened, Estrada informed the public. For her and the rest of the family, it was important to be transparent. “At the end of the day, when your business is your home and your family,” she says, but there’s one question she always comes back to: “Is this the best reflection of our family, of what we strive to do?”
“Sometimes, it’s hard being honest,” Estrada adds. This frankness meant facing the possibility of losing sales, of offending people with her reminders of the importance of civic engagement. Still, she believes transparency is the right first step — always.
Between the pending election, the ongoing pandemic, and broader conversations about gentrification and racial equity, Estrada knows that acknowledging change is crucial, but it’s only the first step. “It’s up to you to make a conscious effort: how are you going to handle that change?” Acceptance? Fighting? Or there’s Estrada’s approach: just stay true to yourself and your roots. “We’re going to stay and do what we do,” she says, which is to continue to serve as a center for the community. “We’re more than just a business, we’re more than just a restaurant, we’re serving not only our Latino community, but we’re serving the whole community,” she says.
As her world becomes more fragmented, Estrada constantly asks herself if she’s embodying her family’s values every step of the way — “Am I staying true to who we are? To our roots?” That’s why she aims to equip people with the resources to make the decisions that are best for them. Ultimately, people can do whatever they want with information, but at least she offered them a way forward. “I’ve given them a stepping stone in the right direction to find what they need,” and ideally, that is getting more involved with the community.
Scroll through Joe’s Bakery’s social media feeds, and you’ll see an overwhelming amount of posts about voting: selfies of people holding up “I voted” signs, informational graphics about voting locations and their hours, and Hispanic voting statistics.
Estrada knows that it isn’t easy for everyone to know what’s actually happening in the neighborhood, the state, the country, the world. “Half the battle is there’s such a disconnect in our communities,” she says, referencing a range of issues from blatant sexism and wage inequality to racial injustice and other issues that have disproportionately plagued communities with marginalized identities. “It’s not them versus us. We’re a community together, we just have to find a way to acknowledge that we can agree to disagree.” Everyone really wants the same things. “If you focus on what you have in common and the small things,” she says, “then sometimes it’ll help baby steps to get you to bigger things.”
“You’re entitled to have an opinion,” Estrada says, “we don’t always have to get along. And you don’t always have to understand or agree with me. Just educate yourself, learn, and take the time.”
This is also why Estrada is a huge advocate for voting, what she sees as being perhaps the most vital civic tool citizens have for implementing real change. When people start complaining, she always asks, “‘Did you vote?’ If the answer is ‘no,’ well, okay, then you can’t complain because it’s your fault.” It’s through empowering people who are upset with the status quo that she feels most hopeful that change is possible.
After encouraging people to register to vote for so long, she finally became a deputized voter registrar last year. “I might not have registered the most people in Travis County,” she says, adding, “I think I’ve done about 20 and I’m happy about those 20 people.”
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