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Historian, San Antonio

When we began our chili queen research we quickly found our way to Mary Ann Noonan Guerra, the grand dame of San Antonio history. Mary Ann lives and breathes the history and rich traditions of old San Antonio. The walls of large 1920s hacienda, painted daring deep Mexican reds and blues, display historic Santos, paintings and photographs of the town's mission and plazas. A warm, gracious woman in her eighties with white hair swept back and large, dark glasses protecting her failing eyes, Mary Ann wrote an essay about the chili queens especially for our visit. 

photo - Mary Ann Guerra at her home in San Antonio 2005/KS

The Plazas of San Antonio

"From San Antonio's earliest days as a Spanish military encampment, life in the town revolved around the plazas. When the town was first mapped out by Spaniards in 1730, the viceroy mandated plazas "for the use and entertainment of the colonist.

San Antonio's chili queens reigned over the towns plazas for almost one hundred years and brought to the Old Town and this city, almost as much fame as its River and the Alamo. San Antonio was an isolated outpost, a refueling place for the military, a rest-stop for travelers and tourists, a haven for political refugees, and a gold mine for rustlers and thieves. From its founding days, San Antonio had foreignness about it, and it was on the plazas that its lifestyle and acharacter were shaped.

The plazas were once the center of life. They were the marketplace, the midway, the front porches of government and the church — the places where treaties were signed with the Coaches, where buffalo meat and skins were sold, where weddings, funerals, festivals and hangings took place.

Here was that life as seen in the 1870s by Harriet Prescott Spofford who arrived on one of the first trains into San Antonio and visited Plaza de Armas (Military Plaza).

"Beneath an umbrella-tree that sheds powerful fragrance, little tables are spread, where the market people get their roll and chocolate and bit of pastry… vendors of bunches of magnolias and great, ineffably sweet Cape Jasmines; Mexican women half veiled by their rebozos surrounded by wicker cages full of mokingbirds, vivid cardinals and lively little canaries… these faces are a great part of the little town; there are portions of it called Chihuahua and Laredo. Here you can buy skins of leopards and ocelots, which the Indian women work till they are supple as silk. Here are earthenware jarritos prettily ornamented with their molinillos or curious wooden sticks, set in many rings, which rolled upright between the palms, make the chocolate foam. Whatever you buy, pilon (a bonus) will be given you."

Plazas of San Antonio

Bird's eye view of San Antonio 1873 - Courtesy of the Witte Museum

  At dusk, as the public market closed down, came the arrival of the chili queens, pulling their carts loaded with sawhorses, plank tables, pots, and baskets of food. As darkness fell, the townspeople and tourists would crowd around the chili queens' tables to eat chili using tortillas rolled up like funnel to scoop the hot food. The plaza was a place to exchange news and compare notes on one's children and to share food and conversation. People could argue politics with a neighbor or listen to the guitars and sad songs of the troubadours walking amid the crowd.


"The ever-attentive, always jolly 'chile queen.' They are 'good fellows,' these 'chile queens,' and are able and willing to talk on any subject that may be named from love to law. As a general rule they are bright, bewitching creatures and put themselves to much trouble to please their too often rowdy customers. Every class of people who come to this city visit the places and partake of their piquant edibles."
~ San Antonio Daily Express, 1894

Archival news clipping courtesy of Institute of Texan Cultures at UTSA

news clipping on chili queens

But later in 1890, when the town council chose to construct the City hall building right in the center of Military Plaza, the chili queens and the bustling life of the market and plaza were forced to relocate. Some of the queens migrated to Alamo Plaza. Others moved to Milam Plaza, where they remained for a few years until they were forced to move again when the city decided to landscape the plaza. San Antonio was growing quickly — at the end of the nineteenth century; it was the fastest growing city in Texas. Newcomers were arriving, the own was developing and the queens were feeling the push and pull of progress."

chili queens

The chili queens of Haymarket Plaza, San Antonio, Texas, 1933 Courtesy of Institute of Texas Cultures at UTSA

  Read more about the legendary chili queens in Mary Ann Guerra's book The History of San Antonio's Market Square and in Hidden Kitchens—Stories, Recipes and More from NPR's The Kitchen Sisters.  
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