What A 1921 Texas Flood Tells Us About The Latino Climate Struggle Today

A new book, "West Side Rising," tells the story of the storm that ravaged San Antonio's Latino community and gave rise to a political movement still growing today.
Illustration by Derek Abella for HuffPost

It was two days before Yom Kippur, and Char Miller was thinking about the dead.

The Pomona College environmental historian had dedicated the entire final chapter of “West Side Rising,” his new book on the deadly 1921 storm that laid waste to San Antonio’s mostly Latino barrios and sowed the seeds of the community’s environmental justice movement, to naming every victim he could identify. To Miller, it represented a version of the Jewish tradition of listing the recently deceased at the start of services at synagogues on Yom Kippur, when Jews fast and pray to atone for their sins.

“As a Jew, that’s one of the things we do every year … and it seemed to me that was something the book should do, because the city didn’t just undercount them, it basically erased those who died,” Miller told me. “The goal was to honor those who had died, to give them a name, and thereby to give them a voice.”

Entire families, wiped out in the floodwaters, cry out from the pages of “West Side Rising.” The de la Garzas of McAskill Street lost not just 35-year-old Petra, but a whole next generation: Onesema, 4, Carlota, 3, Lontardo, 1. The frequency with which single-digit ages followed the names is nauseating. The Caradenas siblings of Mitchell Street — Felipe, 6, Theodora, 2, and Louisa, just 15 days — all dead. Their neighbors, the Morales family, only recovered the body of Francisca, 36. The seven children and their father were relegated to an eternal limbo in the public records as “missing.”

Virtually all the victims were Latino. Even the one person to die in the whiter, richer downtown area had a Spanish last name.

It’s a relevant story today. More than half of Latino Americans live in California, Texas and Florida, three states struggling to beat back the record-breaking droughts, heat and flooding scientists say are just a taste of the warming to come. The Environmental Protection Agency’s own numbers show nonwhite Americans in general breathe air that’s 1.28 times more densely polluted with cancer-causing pollution particles compared the national average. And a University of Minnesota study found in 2019 that Latinos in the U.S. are exposed on average to air that has 63% more pollution than what is caused by their own consumption.

In the immediate aftermath of the flood 100 years ago, a mutual aid society called Cruz Azul Mexicana sprang to action to help the inundated. It quickly spread from San Antonio to towns across the region. The group offered the first unified front aimed at helping Latinos who had long borne the consequences of their European-descended rulers’ preference for building settlements in floodplains. By the 1970s, the network Cruz Azul built formed the connective tissue for an even meatier kind of Latino political organization to finally seize some power and begin to deliver on long-promised reforms.

In what felt like a microcosm of how the ripples of a single event can travel even further, Miller received an email shortly after his book was reviewed this month in the San Antonio Express-News. The message came from a grave restorationist at one of the city’s cemeteries, who had just refurbished the weathered headstone marking in Spanish where a woman and her child were buried. They had died during the flood.

Photos from 1921 show dozens of homes washed away by the waters.
Photos from 1921 show dozens of homes washed away by the waters.
Library of Congress

“I knew it wasn’t a complete record that I was able to build, but you’ve got to do what you can,” Miller said. “If there’s a second edition, that family will be honored in there.”

This interview, carried out over two phone calls, was edited and condensed for clarity.

To start, what happened in San Antonio on Sept. 9, 1921?

What happened in 1921 is not simply that there was a big storm that dropped a lot of water, although it did. It’s where the water fell in the upper reaches of the watershed, the creeks on the West Side, and the San Antonio River. It unleashed a flood unlike any other in the city’s recorded history.

The west side of the city ― which was largely impoverished neighborhoods, not exclusively Hispanic, but a large Hispanic population ― got destroyed in the late hours and early hours of Sept. 10, as the various creeks rose up and just ripped through the shacks that filled the barrio. On the other side of the city, to the east, the downtown was inundated, destroying businesses and ultimately leveling buildings.

On the West Side, upwards of 80 people, almost exclusively Hispanic, died, and the guess is it’s a lot more than that because they just simply didn’t find everybody. In the city, there was destruction of property, but not human beings. Even the one person who died downtown had a Spanish surname.

In the post-flood period for roughly 50 years or so, what the white elite did was to ensure that its private capital was protected by the construction of a dam along the San Antonio River. There were floods in 1935, 1946, the early 1950s, the mid-1960s. And every single time, reporters would refer to what they called the old trouble spots, places that had been troublesome in the 1920s and remained troublesome for the next 50 years.

When did things start to change?

What’s striking, and I think it may be one of the most extraordinary turnarounds in American political history, was that one more flood in the 1960s triggered a very different kind of political reaction on the West Side.

First, they elected [late Democratic Rep.] Henry B. Gonzalez to represent the city. He used that flood to embarrass the city based on its neglect of his hometown, the barrio where he lived, and he brought in senators and congressmen to see it. That enabled Henry B., as he was known locally, to bring in federal money to build infrastructure that had been promised in the ’20s but had never been constructed.

Ten years later, another flood hit the West Side. This time, an organization called Communities Organized for Public Services, or COPS ― a parish-based, largely female-led group ― emerged that just battered the city council for its continued neglect. By the mid 1980s, COPS had become so powerful that not only did it get [Democratic politician] Henry Cisneros elected as a councilman, but then as mayor. In that process, it generated half a billion dollars for West Side streets, drainage, health care, schools and better housing. It ultimately changed the city charter.

A young woman who survived the flood holds a baby after the disaster that killed dozens in her community.
A young woman who survived the flood holds a baby after the disaster that killed dozens in her community.
Library of Congress

The title of your book talks about the Latino movement this began. I imagine most of these people were of Mexican background, given the geographical location. Obviously the term Latino represents an extremely diverse array of peoples that often, in the context of U.S. politics, have divergent interests, as we saw from the 2020 election results. With that in mind, is there a limit to the lessons that can be learned from this catastrophe and its political aftermath?

San Antonio is a particular kind of place. It is set within a geography that floods in the way it does not in many other places in the United States. But one of the things that COPS and its predecessor, a mutual aid society called Cruz Azul Mexicana that emerged from the 1921 flood, recognized was that the tools of their organizing could be scaled up across the region. They carried the banner across the state of Texas and to major cities and small ones to help protect their even smaller Hispanic communities, politically, socially and economically. They saw that the organizing could be transferred to Houston and Dallas and Chicago and Phoenix and Los Angeles to help communities in those places to organize around environmental justice issues that they confronted, which were strikingly different.

The nature of the organizing was the same, even if the nature of the place was different. So some of this is recognizing that place matters enormously. So it’s important to build coalitions that can then trade best practices.

One thing that really stuck out to me reading this, particularly when it came to the undercounting of the death toll, was the similarities between what happened in San Antonio and 2017’s Hurricane María in Puerto Rico. To what degree do you see parallels there?

When I started to realize that what the city posted as the final death count of 51, which did not count anybody who was “missing,” even though we knew they were dead, I started to find stories that indicated that there were more. In fact, I just found out about another person, who sent me a picture of a gravestone he had just restored with a name of someone who had died in the 1921 flood but had appeared nowhere in any record, whether in the Spanish-language newspapers or the English-language newspapers. Back in the day, nobody looked beyond the immediate environment. They didn’t think about the bodies being carried miles downstream. They only looked a mile down the river. So, some of this is just bad investigation.

Some of it is deliberate. What the city of San Antonio did ― which also happened in Puerto Rico and in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, and in modern contexts where we have much better data ― was to undercount. They do this so you can say to the world, “Well, it wasn’t really that bad. So let’s defend our tourist industry. Let’s defend our understanding that storms aren’t as brutal as, in fact, they actually are.” I would say San Antonio was in climate denial in 1921 just as badly as many places are still today. But it’s maddening. People died. Let’s tell that truth.

That’s an interesting use of the term “climate denial,” particularly since the book basically never mentions climate change. Normally that term refers to adherents of the fossil fuel industry’s misinformation about how burning oil, gas and coal heats the planet. Can you expound on that a bit more?

What helped me understand what happened in San Antonio, a place I lived for many years, was recognizing one key factor that the Spanish understood but could not resolve. When they arrived in the 18th century, they knew they were going to plant a city and literally have a city support itself through agriculture. To do agriculture, you need water, and they had some of the best engineers in terms of irrigation. They created irrigation ditches all over the city to bring water in from various parts. That’s fascinating technologically, except that also meant you had to live within a floodplain. They did the exact same thing in Los Angeles and the Salt River Valley of Phoenix. They built within the floodplain. So when they got flooded with an adobe city that literally melted when heavy water hit it, they just simply rebuilt. They were building in danger. But when the Americans arrived, they did the exact same thing. They knew better ― they talked about it all the time ― but they just denied the reality or pushed off that reality. In the short term, it was good for us. But in the long term, it wasn’t.

In New Orleans, which was constructed in the 18th century, it was the exact same situation. The only high ground is in the French Quarter, and everything else gets submerged. Look at Miami today. The city is at sea level, the sea rises and actually comes up through the water sources. The city is going to be destroyed, but what the city is doing is taxing buildings so they can build a sea wall. A sea wall isn’t going to stop it.

It’s happening also in the western cities going up in smoke. The first thing they do is rebuild in the exact same place that was incinerated. Even with all the data that we have at our disposal, we have a level of denial today that is just mind boggling. And it does not bode well for the rest of the 21st century.

What made you want to tell this story in the first place?

When we moved to San Antonio in 1981, I became fascinated by the dam. It was not far from my home. It’s a very impressive object. But it became pretty clear shortly thereafter that that dam, which protected downtown, did nothing for the other parts of the community. I wondered why, and why similar structures of one form or another existed in parts of clearly flood-prone neighborhoods. Every time it rained, something was underwater. So I began playing around with that. It wasn’t until the late ’80s, when other projects got completed, that I started digging into how San Antonio spends its money on flood control ― and where it decided not to. I started by walking in the areas that were unprotected and more flood vulnerable, and realized, oh my God, there’s a story here.

In the last five years, as most of the local newspapers became digitized, it became easier to do the research. It was literally an on-the-ground approach, walking. That led to archives and to interviews and to talks where people would come up afterwards and say, “My grandmother went through that flood.”

The type of the simple wooden homes Latinos on the west side of the city lived in. Many were instantly destroyed when the waters came.
The type of the simple wooden homes Latinos on the west side of the city lived in. Many were instantly destroyed when the waters came.
Library of Congress

It seems only fair to acknowledge the fact that we’re two white Jewish guys talking about a Latino struggle. In the course of researching this book, was there any point at which you felt like an interloper? How did you deal with that?

That sort of positionality issue was very clear to me from the get-go, that to be an ally of Latinx activism and communities in San Antonio meant taking your cues from those communities. Frankly, had a local colleague decided to write this book, I would have stepped back and done something else. I floated various essays at various times to see if there was any interest on the one hand, and if anyone was doing it.

One thing I did was go through the local Spanish newspapers ― La Prensa was the only one that was digitized ― to find those voices and experiences and share them as much as possible.

The other approach, and the dominant one in the narrative, was to turn this focus on the white Anglo-dominated city leadership and ask what they were doing about it and what was done about it. I did form a position where I could read the politics of the city and its white domination, and then criticize it and lay it open.

The third thing was to not only look for stories, but get other voices in the text that weren’t my own. Part of the book’s purpose, I think, is to both tell the stories and engage folks who can tell the story from different angles. That actually began happening at a recent webinar, which is really exciting.

Go To Homepage