San Antonio’s Chili Queens: The story behind their 60-year reign

For nearly 60 years San Antonio women cooked up and served Mexican food in downtown plazas.

By Jack Morgan, Texas Public RadioNovember 13, 2023 9:30 am, , ,

From Texas Public Radio:

San Antonio history is nothing if not unusual. One of its most curious periods is the 60-year one when the Chili Queens fed the city in open-air plazas. So what and who were the Chili Queens?

Their reign ran from about 1870 to 1930, and they cooked and served in open-air markets set in downtown plazas. Professor of Mexican American studies at UTSA Lilliana Saldaña said their day started early, probably sometime around 4 a.m.

“I can imagine these women waking up early in the morning to do all the prepping that goes in, preparing food,” she said. “Grinding the corn, making the tortillas. I imagine the smell of the chilis, the smell of these home cooked meals, conversations and pláticas and people just coming in and out of the plazas.”

Lilliana Saldaña. UTSA

The chili queens ruled no kingdoms, but for several decades they played a critical role downtown. Historian Lewis Fisher reminds us that San Antonio was a frontier city and the primary way to get anywhere was by walking or with horse-drawn wagons.

“All the wagon drivers and the cowboys and others who came through needed something to eat,” Fisher said. “And so the people there got some fast food together, which in those days was not just chili, but also enchiladas and tamales and menudo, all kinds of food.”

The queens worked in several plazas, though Military Plaza was one of the primary ones. That plaza is now dominated by the old City Hall building.

“But before city hall was there, it was basically a large open square,” Fisher said.

UTSA Special Collections

Dinner time with the Chili Queens.

Many of the Chili Queens lived just blocks west from there, in what was called Laredito, or “Little Laredo.”

Graciela Sánchez is Director of the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center.

“And you have all these fruit and vegetable farmers that are coming to town and selling all their wares and they get hungry,” Sánchez said. “And so this is where the women come in and set up shop, and they do it from early morning to late night.”

Necessity is the mother of invention, and these women and their families invented a way to fill San Antonians’ stomachs and make a living doing so.

Lewis Fisher

“The women are definitely the cooks, but it’s a family affair. So you have men coming into the market area, be it the Plaza de Zacate or Military Plaza or Alamo Plaza,” she said. “And they’re coming in with their horse drawn wagons. And within those horse drawn wagons, they’re pulling out all the different pots of food that they’re coming to sell later on. They’re also bringing the wood that they’re going to use to continue to warm up the foods that are there.”

In a sense, the Chili Queens were to their era what food trucks are now. Saldaña said just getting all your wares to the plaza was a huge effort.

“To transport all these big casuelas or pots of maybe pre-made food. Also the plates, the utensils, the wood to heat up the food in the plazas, the tables, the chairs, the tent…this is an enormous labor,” she said. “They were there every single day.”

Those who were able to thrive made enough money to help their families move in the right direction. Saldaña said it also gave them pride.

“I think there’s a level of also autonomy. These were women who were able to create a business from their food,” she said.

UTSA Special Collections

Chili Queens and customers.

Graciela Sánchez’s great grandmother was a chili queen, and Sanchez said she did quite well.

“My great grandmother lived in this area from 1890 ‘til the 1921 flood. And then by this time she had already saved some money and already had a home on Chihuahua Street in the historic West Side,” she said.

With hundreds of people gathering in plazas for their meals, Sánchez said it attracted people whose presence fanned the flames of culture.

“The musicians, the singers, the Lydia Mendozas, all the trios that we still see today at Mi Tierra–they were the walking musicians that went from one stall to the other and also tried to make their three cents or five cents per song, per stall. So it was just a really exciting time as well,” Sánchez said.

Graciela Sánchez. Photo by William Luther / San Antonio Express News

Lewis Fisher notes that the plazas where the Chili Queens cooked was also something of a sociology experiment.

“There’s a lot of socialization going on down there. There were no economic barriers,” he said. “You could have a well-dressed banker next to a street worker, all standing in line for the same food. It was very egalitarian.”

Hundreds of people from all walks of life coming together also creates something unintended: Saldaña said it was a place for genuine interchange between San Antonians from all walks of life.

“I imagine the plazas being spaces of political discourse at a time when Spanish speaking Mexican Americans didn’t have access to English language media,” Saldaña said. “So they’re listening to what’s going on in the community, through corridos, through music.”

Graciela Sánchez said this was still in an era when most common people couldn’t read or write their language.

“And so that space became a place where the politicians went and debated with the topics of the day,” she said. “There were individuals who were literate, and they would pick up a newspaper probably In Spanish language, La Prensa, and they read to the community. And so they were learning what was happening in the U.S. and Mexico and in San Antonio.”

Sánchez said that these plazas served another humanist function.

We also know that if people wanted to write, there was an Escrivano. So somebody that sat in the corner, writing on behalf of someone that’s like, ‘I want to send the letter to my mother, who’s in Mexico, but I don’t know how to write.’ So that person would write for them, and they would send off those letters. It was holistic,” Sanchez said. “Everything you needed and wanted you could probably find within this area.”

UTSA Special Collections

Chili Queens at Military Plaza.

Fisher said there was one event that turned the Chili Queens into an attribute known by people nationwide: the railroad got here in 1877.

“The travel writers would come to San Antonio and then in the pages of news magazines of the time, they would have a prominent place in the stories of this exotic city,” Fisher said.

San Antonio’s reputation as a place like none other was surely enhanced by articles and photos of the Chili Queens. But Fisher said there was trouble on the horizon.

“As people became more aware of germs in the latter 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, sanitation began to be an issue,” he said.

Sánchez said the Chili Queens were victims of their own success.

“I think they were so successful that that also became their downfall,” she said. “So you then start having indoor restaurants and those restaurant owners are complaining because the businesswomen outside don’t have to pay rent or have that sort overhead. And so suddenly there’s pressure by these business restaurant owners who start complaining to the health department.”

Saldaña said new rules involving inspections and health certificates led to more difficult hoops to jump through.

“They really did try their absolute best to resist some of these policies. But eventually they were banned,” she said.

Sánchez said this history speaks to the work ethic these Chili Queens had.

“We can be joyful about a history of memory. But these folks did struggle. I mean, they were making pennies on those meals or those songs,” she said.

By the 1930s the Chili Queens had been driven from the downtown plazas. But rather than having simply disappeared, their grit, creativity and determination has been passed on to many of those who create Tex Mex food now in hundreds of family restaurants around the city. In that sense, the Chili Queens still live on.

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