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Unearthing "La Pila", A Remnant of A Bygone Hispanic Neighborhood

Courtesy of the Texas Collection, Baylor University
Located in the middle of this aerial photo, "La Pila" is just off the banks of the Brazos. Its circular foundation visible.

In Waco during the 1900s pockets of Hispanic communities lived in neighborhoods with names like Sandtown, White City and Calle Dos. These areas were eventually demolished and are now memories of the town’s early days. But there has been a recent effort to unearth a remaining vestige of one of these communities.

At the corner of Jefferson Avenue and University Parks Drive, volunteers use trowels to chip away at the ground beneath .They’re slowly unearthing a spring-fed water fountain known as “La Pila.” 

“It was a beautiful fountain, but not as ornate as some of the other ones," Alice Rodriguez says, remembering childhood days playing at “La Pila” – a wide, rounded concrete fountain with a bowl on top where water would flow. 

“The water there, I remember the water being cold, because my cousins, pushed me in there," Rodriguez says, laughing. "We were playing and they pushed me in there.” 

La Pilla – Spanish for “the fountain” – was a gathering point for Calle Dos, an early 20th century neighborhood in Waco that was home to Mexican Immigrants. Others from around the city would go there too. But, in the 50s, La Pila was plugged and covered up. In fact, the entire Calle Dos neighborhood and similar districts – were bulldozed as part of The Waco Urban Renewal Project in 1958. 

Louis Gaytan-Garcia – who has worked to dig out the fountain – says it could’ve been saved. 

“You know they could’ve kept this thing. They didn’t have to knock it down like they did. They just wiped it out," Garcia says, looking at a corner of the fountain that's visible. "It’s actually broke around the edges right there, where the Caterpillar was trying to crawl up on top of it and you can see where he broke the edges of the concrete trying to pack this dirt.”

A year ago, when the unearthing project was getting started, Garcia was told he needed to secure antiquities permits from the Texas Historical Commission. That’s where Katherine Turner-Pearson comes in. She's the principal investigating archeologist overseeing the project. 

She believes excavating “La Pila” will help bring back the memories of this neighborhood. 

“I think of it as the archeology of the memories, and get those down now. They will be lost forever," Turner-Pearson says. "Even though I’m an archeologist, that to me is more important that the fountain itself, and that’s really where we have to start working."

But unearthing the fountain will take time. La Pila is estimated to be some 4 to 5 feet under ground, and volunteers here are digging 10 centimeters deep at a time, says Annaliese Sonntag 

"That’s kind of why it takes so long too," she says, sweeping up dirt.

"I think of it as the archaeology of the memorie. Get those down now, they will be lost forever." - Katherine Turner-Pearson

Sonntag is from the Dallas area, but came to help. She says excavations like these are done slowly to make sure everything is exhumed evenly. 

“Then you stop, do the paperwork, sift through everything. Take photos if there’s anything photo worthy. When we get down to this part of the fountain, to the rim, we’ll definitely take a photo. Then we’ll start all over again and go deeper." 

Once the fountain is dug out, Garcia has big ideas, like getting it restored and turned back into the meeting spot it once was. 

He would also like a historical marker – he says – to remind people of the community that was once here.