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TALK ON - Professor Felix D. Almaraz

 

Professor Felix D. Almaraz Jr., a proud, stately man
in his seventies, spoke to us in his small office at the University of Texas in downtown San Antonio, very near the plaza he remembers from his childhood. He is an historian, an expert on the Alamo, and the deep,
booming voice of San Antoinio's Fiesta Week. He's also one of the keepers of the chili queen story — an eyewitness. He's eaten the chili queen's food, heard their conversations, and smelled the black coffee, hot hili, and enchiladas that once perfumed the night air. Here are some excerpts from our conversation with Professor Almaraz about the Chili Queens of San Antonio.

 
 

The Plaza ‘Buzzing with Life’

The plaza was central in San Antonio both geographically and socially. It was a meeting place. It was a teaching center. It was where you had parades, where you would honor someone.  If you are going to say something important, you have to do it at Alamo Plaza.

The plaza also held a central place for commerce and cultural activities in San Antonio.  In the mornings, for example, the produce growers would bring their products into town and people would come out and go from stall to stall and buy their produce for the day.  About one o’clock things would fold up for the vendors.

In the evenings, the plaza picked up a different ambience. Particularly in wintertime, there would be this aroma of the mesquite burning into charcoal and the aroma of food in the air.  People enjoyed it. There were these ladies—these families who came out and brought their equipment and their food.  The equipment was—I guess anthropologists would say, very primitive—but it was very practical.  They would have these, what we would call, carpenter’s benches and sawhorses and then they would put boards and they would create a table or a counter.  They had these lanterns that would illuminate the place. And there were the troubadours, to the musicians who came and entertained.   So, you had then, a multitude of little stands with their little lanterns—their fadilitos—and people would come out to buy some food and partake in the ambience of the plaza.

 
 


Home-cooked Food with a Flare
- The Reign of the Chili Queens

The food would be prepared at home, usually on wood stoves.They cooked it at home and they took it—conveyed it—in pots.  Using little logs of mesquite they would light a fire and then reheat their food and then serve it to the public.It could be chili con carne or it could be beans, tamales. Usually it would be the mother who would prepare the food and the daughters would serve.  They became known as the Chili Queens.  We don’t know who coined that name, but somehow it stuck.

They would set up a booth and they would dispense food. They decorated their little booths.  They would put ribbons on them or papier-mâché or they might have natural flowers.  They might have a little bouquet there.  People liked that. It was very simple and very basic.  The tables were covered in oilcloths.  I remember they were red-and-white-checkered oilcloths.  They would try and make them colorful so people would come.  Then they would have a rag and they would come and clean up that oilcloth.  That was the practicality of it—you could clean it up in a hurry.  And new customers would come in and buy their food, buy their lunch, buy their evening meal; whatever they might wish. For a dime you could get a serving of food; chili con carne.  That was something that was kind of a staple with beans, but the beans were separate.  Some people like chili con carne with beans or without them.  Chili, tamales and coffee or chocolati—the old Mexican chocolate that was laced with cinnamon—this became the general fair of life during those times.  And the people would always come. 

Colonel Frank W. Jennings, in his book, San Antonio: An Enchanted City described these ladies who sold their food as entrepreneurs. They were business ladies and so they would make, let’s say, ten, perhaps twenty dollars in one day or one night.  That was considered a small fortune.  So, they were selling their food for fifteen cents or a dime. But, they sold a lot of it in volume and made enough money to take care of the family.  Everybody pitched in.  Everybody had a vested interest in the family.

There have been phases in San Antonio’s collective history where certain individuals who might be considered undesirable because of the way they dress or what they sell, would be banished from certain areas.  Somebody felt that the Chili Queens were an eyesore.  And later they were criticized for sanitary reasons.  So, they got banished.

There’s a nostalgia now about the Chili Queens, but I believe this is infusing into the Chili Queens a facet that wasn’t there at the time.  They are romanticizing them and they want an idea of them back not what they were.  When they were here, those of us who were around, we didn’t protect them; we patronized them. True, we didn’t know there would be bureaucrats who would try to get them either to reform or to move out, but the fact is, they were moved out.


 
 
 

Chili Trail

Max Moorehead in his book, The Presidio:  Bastian of the Spanish Border Lands—.  Presidios were from here to the San Francisco.  They were all over.  They were garrisons.  When you have the garrison, people came.  Usually, they were merchants that followed the garrison—to sell produce or to sell wares to the soldiers.  It was likely that the Presidio was where city hall was located.  Very likely, the soldiers brought their families.  Then came other families who were not associated with the military.  The opportunity was there to sell produce or some food to the soldiers.  What was the most basic staple here—you had meat and you had chili.  Now, the chili has an interesting history. 

We know that there was a connection with New Mexico and the cultivation of chili, but the seeds had to be taken to New Mexico from central Mexico.  So, if you have the Camino Real through Durango, you go through Chihuahua, through El Paso del Norte, to Santa Fe and they you can follow the chili trail. 

There was also an eastern segment of the Camino Real—Saltio.  Saltio was the last place where there was an official royal trade fair.  Certain towns were designated to be trade fairs, so the merchants would go.  The merchants from New Mexico would go to Durango.  The merchants from Texas would go to Saltio.  Very likely they traded.  If I go down the list of items that were imported here, by the Veremendez store, chili was one of the ingredients—one of the commodities that they bought.  So, there was this chili trail.  — Professor Felix Almaraz

photographs courtesy of the Institute of Texan Cultures at UTA Austin

Professor Felix D. Almaraz Jr. -- Professor of history at the University of Texas at San Antonio. His books include Knight Without Armor: Carlos Eduardo Castaneda, 1896-1958 (1999). Most recently, he has been working on two books about the missions of San Antonio from the 18th to the 20th century. He is former president of the Texas State Historical Association and of the Texas Catholic Historical Society. (photo - Prof. Almaraz with Nikki Silva)
 
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