Jorge Guerra, longtime owner of El Azteca, has died

Jorge Guerra, longtime owner of El Azteca restaurant and a fixture on the East Austin scene for decades, has died at home on Thursday afternoon, his grandson, Juan Guerra, has confirmed. He was 85.

Jorge Guerra, longtime owner of El Azteca restaurant. Contributed by Lonnie Limon

The elder Guerra opened his restaurant 3 p.m. May 10, 1963. He closed it last year due to family health care costs, rising property taxes and a drop in sales during two years of street work on East Seventh Street. His wife of 61 years, Ninfa Guerra, died after a long illness on March 28.

RELATED: The story behind El Azteca restaurant.

During El Azteca’s 53 years of operation, the spot was among the first of its kind to go beyond enchiladas, tacos and beans. Locally, Guerra popularized, among other things, cabrito and Mexican beers such as Corona, Carta Blanca, Bohemia, Tecate, Dos Equis and Negra Modelo. He also introduced colorful calendars that celebrated Aztec culture.

Yet the outspoken Guerra was also a community leader, who crusading to fix East Austin flooding, roadwork, safety and services.

“His civic engagement and political participation in his community was always a part of El Azteca,” former Austin City Council Member Mike Martinez said in a 2016 interview. “He challenged me on numerous occasions to think about things from a different perspective. We didn’t always agree, but I surely did respect his service to our country and our community.”

“Mr. Guerra was a key leader for the people of East Austin back in the day, especially in the Zaragoza and Govalle neighborhoods,” says advertising executive and community historian Lonnie Limón said in 2016. “He got things done because he was fearless and determined.

Born Monterrey, Nuevo León in 1932, Guerra came to this country with visa on Nov. 23, 1953. He had worked in his uncle’s restaurant in Reynosa, Tamaulipas, when folks crossed the international border several times a day.

As a U.S. Marine, he was stationed in Japan and South Korea. In 1955, he married Ninfa Guerra and they had two boys and two girls. A year after opening El Azteca, they bought a house at Linden and Lyons streets where they lived for years.

Family took priority, although that often meant working from morning to midnight seven days a week. This and diabetes eventually took its toll on Guerra’s wife, who spent her last years in rehabilitation.

“He was the rock,” his grandson, Juan Guerra said on Friday. “He was the person that everybody could count on. He was an amazing husband, father and grandfather. He always instilled faith and respect for others.”

“Opening El Azteca was a matter of survival,” he told this newspaper last year. “I don’t know how the name came to me. I thad to be something that belongs to anyone who wants to respect the culture. It is a name to be honored and respected.”

An announcement about services has not been made yet.

This is a developing story. Check back for more details.

Scenes from Harvey: Austin nonprofits in action

It was a given that Austin nonprofits such as the Austin Red Cross, Austin Disaster Relief Network and Central Texas Food Bank would send immediate aid to coastal Texans reeling from Hurricane Harvey.

Nancy Flores has been sharing the ways that Austin groups have rallied to support the stricken.

Also, as Matthew Odam has reported, Austin’s always generous food community, is lining up to help out.

  • MORE STORIES: Mary Herr Tally sends us additional reports from Austin Pets Alive. I especially like the two van loads of Labs and Goldens headed for Pennsylvania.

“The rescue stories are so powerful and evolve quickly — daily or by the minute, from a tiny puppy found alone and brought in badly needing to nurse and luckily matched within minutes w a momma and her new litter.

“Or a young dog with a particularly traumatic rescue that the rescuer wanted it known. The muddy pup had a fresh a head and shoulder wound and injured pelvic. She’d shut down emotionally and wouldn’t eat for days, and after being held closely for hours and lovingly talked to, perked up and was later jetted off by Oakland-based MAD Dog Rescue.

“MAD Dog volunteers arrived yesterday morning, walked thru APA’s Burnet site to cherry-pick 60 seniors, dogs needing medical care, and puppies that they would then fly out last night.

“The APA Harvey dogs are leaving quickly, yesterday a Golden Retriever Rescue group from Pennsylvania left with two vans loaded with Golden Retrievers and Labs. Another rescue group from California sent a plane on Saturday.”

  • From Mary Heerwald at Austin Pets Alive, which has rescued more than 330 animals since Thursday afternoon.
“We received an incredible dog family named Snow White, Prince Charming and each of the seven dwarves (puppies), no less, that was abandoned in a truck port in Columbus. This Facebook plea was sent to us via our Positive Alternatives to Shelter Surrender line and we were able to help coordinate their evacuation transportation and get them all safely into foster homes in Austin.”

• From Margo Sawyer, the distinguished Austin artist whose old Elgin building — not her studio or house, but one she had planned for a sculpture garden — was destroyed in Harvey’s high winds and rain.


“This is especially devastating as I have had a  summer meeting with artist friends, investors, realtors and architects thinking and dreaming what this special place could be a sculpture garden or sculpture garden and spa with art that doubles as ice plunge pool to be a relief of the summer heat. I know there are many horrific situations in Texas right now, but as artists we often take the big risks in living in areas or building building the need a lot of work, as we see the potential value.” Visit Sawyer’s GoFundMe site to stabilize and rehabilitate the building.

• From Chelsea Rodriguez at Austin Humane Society:

Shawn with Roco and Mimi. Contributed

“As Hurricane Harvey began to make its way to the Texas coast, Shawn of Rockport, Texas was preparing to weather the storm. Many people in the Rockport area had already fled to outlying towns, but there were some who stayed behind. Little did Shawn know, this would be one of the most terrifying events he had ever experienced. “’We ended up being buried into our house. We live next door to a recycle yard so there were pieces of metal and boats, you name it, on top of us.’ Shawn, his wife and their two dogs, Roco and Mimi, were able to dig themselves out of the debris on Saturday morning. “I was a smoke jumper in California for the National Forrest Service for 17 years and this was the scariest thing I have ever been through.”

Lewis and Jade. Contributed
“Lewis and his 8-year-old Doberman, Jade, were among the fortunate to have evacuated from Rockport before Hurricane Harvey hit. ‘We went to Mathis to ride out the storm, when it was over we made our way back to Rockport around 10:30 in the morning and my house was gone.’” Along with his home, Lewis, a small business owner, found that his construction shop had also been destroyed. AHS was able to provide general wellness vaccines and microchipping for the pets of the victims of Hurricane Harvey. For the hundreds of people like Shawn and Lewis that are seeking refuge in Toney Burger Activity Center and Stadium in Austin, Texas, the future is unclear.”
Brandon, Tess and Harvey. Contributed
“Hurricane Harvey has continued to devastate Texas and its surrounding states, but like they say, ‘every cloud has a silver lining.’ For Rockport evacuees, Brandon and b, that silver lining comes in the form of a tiny four-legged friend. Just as Brandon and Tess were preparing to evacuate their home, a beacon of hope showed up on their doorstep. ‘He just came out of nowhere and we knew we couldn’t leave him behind. The water was starting to rise and we expected alligators to show up pretty soon,’ said Brandon. The duo, now a trio, scooped up the adorable German Shepherd pup and headed out. When morning came, Brandon, Tess, and their new furr-baby traveled back to Rockport and came to find that their house had been completely destroyed. ‘All that matters is that we’re together. All 3 of us,’ said Tess. When asked what they decided to name their new little guy, they responded, ‘Harvey.'”

•  Some nonprofits are helping out indirectly. Consider the Paramount Theatre, whose system is pretty efficient and clever.

“In response to the widespread damage caused by Hurricane Harvey, the Paramount is offering free admission to this week’s Summer Classic Films to Red Cross donors. In order to redeem their free ticket, patrons are encouraged to donate $10 to the Red Cross by texting REDCROSS to 90999. All they need to do is show the text at the Box Office, and they’ll receive a free ticket to that day’s film(s). Additional ways to donate will be available on site. More details and other giving opportunities here:”


RELATED: Before Harvey, nightmares of Texas hurricanes past.

RELATED: Central Texans with coastal property await word.

RELATED: Thrall holds pre-Harevy rain record at 38 inches.

Major Austin benefactor James Armstrong has died

Much admired Austin philanthropist James Armstrong died on Monday of natural causes. He was 85.

James Armstrong at an Umlauf Sculpture Garden event. Robert Godwin for American Statesman

A collector of art, Armstrong gave millions to the arts, social services and other causes. Among his favored beneficiaries were Zach Theatre, Austin Opera, Austin Symphony, Ballet Austin, Long Center, Umlauf Sculpture Garden and Museum and the Armstrong Community Music School.

“I loved James’ natural warmth, honesty and engaging charm,” said Margaret Perry, head of the Armstrong School. “His deep passion for the missions of the organizations he so generously supported was touching and inspiring. He set the standard for philanthropy in our community.”

A businessman with West Texas ties whose mother encouraged an interest in the arts, Armstrong moved easily among the various social strata of Austin and Houston. He and his husband, Larry Connelly, a retired teacher and principal, welcomed folks into their West Austin home, but they also made classy, witty, yet kind impressions on the city’s social circuit.

“James was a person of supreme grace, elegance and generosity,” said leading social advocate Carla McDonald. “A champion of so many important causes, he set the bar where giving back is concerned. There is not a person who lives in or has visited Austin who hasn’t been the beneficiary of his extraordinary generosity. Simply put, Austin wouldn’t be Austin without him and, like all who knew him, I will miss him terribly.”

Born in Fort Worth in 1932, Armstrong earned a bachelors degree from Texas Christian University and married Jane Bradford in Midland in 1954, where he was involved in the oil and gas field. There, they reared Brad, Elizabeth and Tony. All three children survive him. Armstrong and Bradford divorced in 1975.

While working in real estate and banking in Houston, he met Connelly. They lived together for 30 years and married in 2015.

In Houston, Armstrong got to know opera singer Beverly Sills and he went on to serve on the board of the New York City Opera.

“James believed so strongly in the importance of having lively arts in Austin,” said Austin Symphony music director Peter Bay. “He generously supported so many artistic organizations. He also in his quietly kind way convinced others to do so by setting an example.”

Recent Austin Opera board leader Wendi Kushner agreed.

“James was a true gentleman in every sense of that word,” Kushner said. “He was keenly aware of the transformative power of music and was a friend and supporter to so many arts organizations in Austin.  The music school that bears his name is the perfect lasting tribute to this wonderful man.”

Armstrong and Connelly recently hosted a preview of Zach’s new season at their home.

“James understood art, he lived (with) it and he celebrated artists with his support,” said Dave Steakley, artistic director at Zach. “He has been so important to the Austin arts scene and to Zach because he was often the first to support an endeavor with a major gift, and once James gave then many other civic leaders also fell in line to give. There would not be a Topfer Theatre at Zach without James and Larry.”

Armstrong also supported social service groups such as Hospice Austin, Project Transitions, AIDS Services of Austin, Center for Child Protection, Habitat for Humanity, Anti-Defamation League of Austin, the Thinkery and University of Texas College of Fine Arts.

“We rise in a sustained standing ovation for James Armstrong,” said Austin Mayor Steve Adler in a tweet. “His life was a stellar performance. Our thoughts are with Larry and the family.”

Connelly threw a memorable 80th birthday bash for Armstrong at the Driskill Hotel in 2012. Texas swing musician Ray Benson sang “Happy Birthday” and Zach performers rendered standard tunes. Not many 80th birthdays end with dancing late into the night.

In fact, Armstrong, whose health had deteriorated over the years due to Parkinson’s disease, attended more than one dinner party in the past weeks because he felt on the mend.

Fellow philanthropist Richard Hartgrove on the news: “The Austin nonprofit world just lost one of its giants.”

No memorial has yet been announced.

This is a developing story; check back for more details.

Austin’s nonprofit Care Communities to close its doors

In a surprise move, Austin’s Care Communities has announced that it will stop providing free support for those living with HIV or cancer in Central Texas.

Star Furniture store manager John Chronister, right, and Z Blair, a social worker with the Care Communities, arrange gifts that were part of the American-Statesman’s Season for Caring campaign in 2014. Andy Sharp/For the American-Statesman.

The mid-size nonprofit that operated with an annual budget of almost $600,000 according to sent out a message Monday afternoon saying it would close its doors Oct. 31 after 26 years of coordinating volunteers, staff and care partners for the seriously ill.

FOR MORE INFO: Expanded story on the Care Communities closing.

“It has been our esteemed honor to serve those in our community who have faced serious illness alone or with little to no support and who have extremely limited resources,” shares Executive Director Mary Hearon in a statement. “We have had the great privilege of working with phenomenal volunteers and outstanding staff who have given of themselves to ease the pain and suffering of others.”

It was found in 1991 as part of the Central Texas AIDS Interfaith Network, then became its own nonprofit in the mid-1990s. Care was extended to cancer patients in the mid-200os, which is when it took on the name Care Communities.

Its close nonprofit partners have included AIDS Services of Austin, Breast Cancer Resource Center, Family Eldercare and Meals on Wheels Central Texas. It has also received help from the St. David’s Foundation, Shivers Foundation, Stillwater Foundation, Donald D. Hammill Foundation, Ilsa Carroll Turner Friendship Trust and Certoma Club, along with the Hill Country Ride for AIDS and the Texas Mamma Jamma Ride.

For several years, Care Communities was also part of the American-Statesman’s Season for Caring campaign.

“Nonprofits have to constantly hustle to serve the missions and raise money at the same time,” says Monica Maldonado Williams of GivingCity, which covers Austin charities. “The power of Care Communities was all in its volunteers, but great volunteers alone can’t keep the organization running. The problem is, the needs served by Care Communities doesn’t go away just because the nonprofit closes its doors. It’s a loss for Austin, for sure.”

Best Austin parties for late August

Despite the unbearable heat, Austin throws some pretty fine parties in late August.

2016 Texas 4000 Gala

Aug. 16: Brian Jones Classic Etiquette Dinner for Boys & Girls Clubs of the Austin Area. Four Seasons Hotel Austin.

Aug. 18: Opening of “Chicago.” City Theatre.

Aug. 19: Austin Originals Benefit Concert for Austin Child Guidance. ACL Live.

Aug. 19: An Evening with NASA Pioneers from Texas State Historical Association. Driskill Hotel.

Aug. 20: Pure Prairie League. One World Theatre.

Cynthia Lee Fontaine rides on the Oil Can Harry’s float as it makes its way through downtown in the Pride Parade on Sept. 7, 2013. Christina Burke / American-Statesman

Aug. 20: Cochon 555 US Tour. Four Seasons Hotel Austin.

Aug. 23: “An Evening with the Piano Guys.” Long Center.

Aug. 25: Texas 4000 Tribute Gala for Cancer. JW Marriott.

Aug. 26: Austin Pride Festival and Parade. Downtown Austin.

RELATED STORY: 25 years of Pride.

Aug. 26: Ice Ball for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Texas. JW Marriott.

Aug. 26: Studio 54lift for Forklife Danceworks. 5540 N. Lamar Blvd.

Aug. 27: “Gregeriart” from Rude Mechs. Carousel Lounge.

Aug. 29: Opening of “Austin at Midcentury: Photographs of Dewey Mears.” Austin History Center

Aug. 30: Opening of Robert Schenkkan’s “Building the Wall.” UT campus.

Aug. 30: “An Evening with Carrie Rodriguez.” Long Center.