AUSTIN (KXAN) — Pan American Neighborhood Park in east Austin has been home to concerts, family gatherings, church events, picnics and daily neighborhood hangouts since the 1950s.

However, a potential park renaming is drawing opposition from neighbors. 

The process is underway to rename the park for Tony Castillo, an Austinite with about 65 years of community work in east Austin. Derek Castillo said he nominated his father to be the park namesake because of his length of service and specific involvement in the neighborhood. 

“He’s molded a lot of minds in the area, in east Austin. He grew up there, he went to school there and went back there,” Derek said. 

Pan American Neighborhood Park in East Austin may be renamed for Tony Castillo, pictured at the Pan Am fastpitch Hall of Fame ceremony. (Courtesy Derek Castillo)
Pan American Neighborhood Park in east Austin may be renamed for Tony Castillo, pictured at the Pan Am Fastpitch Hall of Fame ceremony. (Courtesy Derek Castillo)

Tony helped create the Jokers Athletic Club in 1961 that met at the park, served on the Pan Am advisory board and served on the Austin Parks and Recreation board. Tony was also a teacher at Johnston High School, which is now Eastside Early College High School, and Akins High School for 33 years.

If approved, the park name would become Tony Castillo/Pan American Neighborhood Park. The names of the community center and softball field would not change. 

Austin native Herbert Martinez grew up with Tony after meeting in junior high school and remembers how Tony was involved in youth sports all his life. 

Martinez said Pan Am park is a true neighborhood park where he and his friends would gather almost daily. He said Tony is the type of person who he would like to see the park named after. 

“He’s been loved by everyone,” Martinez said. “You would have a hard time finding someone to say something not nice about him.” 

Neighbors opposed

Gavino Fernandez, who has lived across from Pan Am park since 1965, said he remembers listening to Tejano bands play at the park’s Hillside Theater every Tuesday in the summer. He said it was a main anchor for the Latino community. 

Pan American Neighborhood Park is located at 2100 E. Third St., Austin. (KXAN Photo/Taylor Girtman)
Hillside Theater is located in the center of Pan American Neighborhood Park in east Austin. (KXAN Photo/Taylor Girtman)

Today, he is working to maintain the heart of his neighborhood as the Barrio Unido Neighborhood Association president. Fernandez said he worries name changes would remove the “legendary history” of the park.

“Through this gentrification, there are very few of us left in east Austin. We’re losing our land. They’re closing our schools. We’re losing our businesses,” Fernandez said. “Now, they’re coming and trying to erase our history by changing the names of the parks that are historic to our community.”

Fernandez said he is against renaming the park altogether and not against specifically renaming the park for Castillo.

As an alternative, Fernandez believes a “hall of fame” sidewalk or community center area would serve as a way to honor people who made a lasting impact in the community. He hopes the parks and recreation department would put a moratorium on renaming anything at the park. The community center and softball field have been renamed after community members. 

“We couldn’t name something for everybody,” Fernandez. 

History of names

The park started in 1940 as the National Youth Association’s Latin American Community Center, which was located near the current Comal Pocket Park about two blocks away. It served the neighborhood’s Mexican-American community and later shifted to World War II efforts, according to the city. 

The center moved in 1956 to the current location at 2100 E. 3rd St. To name the now-city-managed park and recreation center, a naming contest was held with “Pan American” as the winning name. Fernandez said he believes the name was selected because of its international application.

The existing recreation center’s name changed in 1996 to Oswald A.B. Cantu/Pan American Recreation Center. Cantu was a former boxing coach and longtime community pillar, according to the city’s park history.

Steps to renaming

The city ordinance-mandated process to rename any city park starts with a nomination. Then, the city council, city manager, Parks and Recreation board and city public information staff are notified to begin a 90-day comment period, according to the city. 

For the Pan American park nomination, the period began March 30 and ends June 4. The city held two community meetings in April to collect feedback and provide information about the process. An online survey, which is offered in English and Spanish, is also collecting responses through June 4. 

Two more community meetings are scheduled for feedback. A virtual meeting will be held May 19 at 7 p.m., and an in-person meeting will be held at the A.B. Cantu/Pan American Recreation Center on May 21 at 10:30 p.m. 

Then, the Parks and Recreation Board will review comments from the meetings and survey with a public hearing in June. The board can submit a recommendation either in favor or against the renaming to city council members, who ultimately decide whether to approve the new name.

Editor’s note: The date for an upcoming community meeting has been corrected to May 21.