I have a strange relationship with the Spanish language. I hardly speak it, and don’t understand it very well, but I’m still glad when it’s around. I think that this is particularly true when I’ve been traveling, as I grew up in California, where Spanish is fairly common. Nowadays, Spanish is becoming common all over the country (like it or not) and I had some some fabulous Salvadorean food in Charlottesville, Virginia and some very good Mexican food in Livingston, Alabama. Even in Minnesota there is now a large Latino population, where they have created a cooperative market in Minneapolis called Mercado Central. But when I go from places where it is not part of the culture, (such as Alabama or Louisiana or Minnesota) to places where Spanish used to be the primary language (such as Texas), I have this strange sort of relief. Almost home.
Here in Austin, I have enjoyed the hospitality of a bi-lingual couple that uses Spanish to communicate with each other. The Latina half of this couple is a fairly recent arrival from central Mexico, where she is partly descended from Welsh miners who were brought in to work a centuries-old mine; her grandmother was born in this insular community but didn’t learn Spanish until she was nine. I’m fascinated by these cultural ebbs and flows. As a bonus, I got to attend a quinceanos today, which is a coming-of-age ceremony marking a girl’s fifteenth year (and incidentally, more foreign to a Mexican than to a gringo like myself).
Aside from the cultural comforts of almost home, Austin is quite the hotbed of cooperation. There are two different student housing co-op organizations: College Houses specializes in big, dorm-style living, while ICC Austin organizes smaller houses that function more like communal houses. Each has several houses, with new ones being developed. The largest was a brand new five-story building on top of several levels of parking garage.
The University of Texas has quite a history of these things, dating back a half-century. A mansion near the University of Texas was once the Christian Faith and Life Community, which lived in some sort of communal arrangement beginning in 1956. It was a radical hotbed, and after its dissolution, some members went on to work with Students for a Democratic Society and helped to draft the Port Huron Statement.
And just today, there was a big article in the Sunday paper about Barbara Conrad and her struggles against racism in theater. It made a passing reference to her living in a “private dormitory” for black female students, who were excluded from official campus dorms. A caption under a photo of her dorm-mates identifies this as the “Almetris Co-op.” I suppose (and hope) that there was a similar co-op for black male students.
One of my hosts is currently working on a new housing co-op for the Presbyterian seminary located near UT, and a couple of other communities, including one that apparently started with support from Campus Crusade for Christ. I’ll have to look further into this report that a major group like that is dabbling in community living.
UT student cooperation goes well beyond housing. The University Co-op is the main texbook outlet (and 113 years old!), with two main stores and an additional apparel outlet featuring evening wear in UT orange and onesies for the li’l longhorns (can’t start hookin’ ‘em too early, I suppose). There is also the University Federal Credit Union, which has ATMs at the bookstores and sticking out of the side of one housing co-op that is located on a main road bordering campus. This is a great example of the sixth co-op principle of cooperation among cooperatives.
Cooperation extends beyond the student community. Not surprisingly, Austin has a food co-op called Wheatsville, which is in the midst of a major expansion that will more than double its size. Finally, there is a co-op brewery under development, called Black Star. Hooray for Austin.
And I suppose I should say hooray for Texas in general. We paid a visit to a friend whose parents live in a gated community outside of Austin, and the first thing I saw on their coffee table was Texas Co-op Power magazine, which was the publication of Texas Electric Cooperatives. This was cool enough, but in the few minutes I spent browsing the thing (before it started to feel rude) I noticed that the lead story very clearly and prominently talked about why co-ops are such a good thing. Many co-ops neglect that message, but apparently this is not the case in Texas, where even ex-president Bush is an electric co-op member.
To wrap up my lovely visit, I had an amazing encounter: I was at a café this afternoon, frantically trying to wrap up a grant application for food co-op development in California. I was up against a serious deadline and not having a particularly enjoyable time. In fact, I wanted to just run screaming and never write a grant or budget again. As I was bashing my head against the keyboard, a familiar face plunked down on the couch next to me. It was one of my co-owners at the New Riverside Café in Minneapolis, where my whole co-op adventure started. Quite the coincidence, no? But if that wasn’t strange enough by itself, she was with her roommate whom she had just that very day told about a road trip through Idaho that we took together fifteen years ago. I’m gonna have to chew on that for a while.