San Antonio, Texas Has a Way Of... Part 2 - Catalina, A Chili Queen


“Mama, will we all have enough money when the new year is 1900?”, Gabriella said in her typical sweet voice. “God always provides for our family, little one. When it is 1900, we will still make the fresh tortillas and Tico will pull our cart with all of the things

Chiles Drying in the Sun

we need to make our meat stew with chili for the  people to buy at the plaza. ”

Gabriella was only seven years old, but seemed much older. She always asked her mother detailed questions about life and the things she observed seeing every day ; like when they went to the plaza to sell their chili con carne …every day except Sunday, the Lord’s day.They used that money to live ! They were now alone in their little jacal on Zarzamora Street -her oldest sister Maria was twelve, Gonzalo was six, the twins Enrique and Eleuterio were ten …and of course their Mama, Catalina. Grandma Lourdes had died last winter. She had such a hard time breathing.One morning she did not get out of bed. She always was the first up at 430 to start the cooking fire.”It was not a home without grandma”, said Gabriella that day. Grandpa Teofilo Calderon had  gone to heaven five years before. Her family had made the trek to downtown San Antonio from their home, west of town, for over thirty years. Catalina’s husband worked as a vaquero on a large hacienda in Coahuila across the Rio Grande River in Mexico . He came home at least two times a year; for Christmas and at his wife’s birthday in June. He always brought gifts for the children. It was not the best arrangement for a family, Jesus knew that, but he had a good job and could not afford to leave it. The money he sent home was needed to make sure his family stayed warm, had food to eat and were not living in a tent .

Catalina’s father, Teofilo had built the one room jacal in 1862, just like the one he had lived in as a child on the Rio Grande in Southwest Texas  . Over the years some mesquite poles and the roof thatch were replaced. Jesus and his father in law added a small addition made of caliche bricks that they dug from around the little house. That helped them to make the garden larger since caliche is like thick clay and does not drain well. No matter how much burro droppings and straw was turned into the soil, it was hard to have a good yield from a garden.Catalina now could have more corn to grind into masa for tortillas, chiles to hang in ristras and pinto beans for their family staples.These were also needed to sell at the plaza; since every bowl of chili con carne came with freshly made refritos and tortillas.

The twins job was to hitch up the elderly burro Tico, to the cart and help Maria pack and load all of the goods for the three hour journey to the plaza. They had to be ready to leave by noon. Mama did not cook her chili con carne at home , as many of the other ChiliQueens did, she made it right at the plaza . Upon arriving at the their favorite spot, the children would unhitch Tico (“little brother”) ,tether him to to a blocked wagon wheel, set down a bucket of water and some corn stalks to eat. Next was to set up the tables, start the fire and get some water heating from the big old clay jug.As the children, supervised by Maria, finished the set up, Catalina made her way across the plaza and down the rows of cow pens, to the slaughter house she had always visited. Mr. Murphy, who spoke fairly good Spanish, had been trading odd pieces of beef that he could not sell to the butcher shops or hotels and restaurants, to Catalina (and to her mother before her) in exchange for chili con carne , tortillas and beans for some of the slaughterhouse worker’s supper . He instructed the men to cut it exactly to the sizes she wanted for her chiliThis made for a good arrangement for everyone. Murphy spread the word about how Catalina’s was the best chili, freshly made , and a bargain …. tortillas,refried beans and coffee for only a penny! Twelve year old Maria spoke perfect English, so she was the ‘waitress” , at the family chili stand….her charm and big smile also brought back happy return customers.

Longhorn at The Stockyards

The plaza started to look crowded, now that evening was approaching. The red sunset was casting an orange and yellow glow over the clouds of smoke from all the cooking fires. A three piece band with two guitars and an accordion was setting up their music stands,hoping to garner some money from the crowds to be. could make some money. Over beside Herr Schmidt’s big tent, well worn, tan and stained , a card game already had three players dealing poker. Herr Schmidt’s ominous tower of a man was guarding and keeping a keen eye at the tent, watching and making sure no bad behavior erupted. Gambling in public was illegal…. but the City Police with their shiny bright star badges,a uniform of floppy hats and coats open for access to their revolvers, except at the neck, mostly turned a blind eye. Maybe a favor or some coin changed hands. Inside the tent , the lanterns clearly outlined the figures within. The three women that worked in the tent; one with red hair the color of cinnamon rock candy, a large boned blond girl , and a tiny Mexican woman wearing a ruffled skirt of bright yellow and green may have been part of the arrangement, one would consider.

Catalina was now busy adding the pieces of meat, the chiles that Gabriella had ground in the molcajete while she was gone ( she wanted them to be the freshest possible), some oregano from her garden, three split pig’s feet;her special ingredient to the bubbling pot. “Mama, come quick behind the cart”, Gabriella called out. Catalina, thinking the worse, left the pot and hurried around back to where the children were standing.“I didn’t steal it. I didn’t”, pleaded Little Gonzalo. “I found it over by that big tent on the ground. Can’t we sell it and buy some food for Mama to make her chili?”. Eleuterio was holding it and pointing it to the sky.“Put that down,now”, screamed Maria.Catalina came upon all the commotion and saw it laying on the serape that covered the back end of their cart.”That is a pistola.Put that down, immediately. Don’t anyone touch it. Leave it be!”, she commanded. A small, very fancy, old style shiny pistol with a pearl or bone handle lay there while all looked intently at it.” Where did you get that pistola,Gonzalo? It is very dangerous. We don’t have guns. Only your papa has a pistola for rattlesnakes and maybe to shoot a peccary,” she instructed. “We must find the police. We must give it to somebody, the owner or……


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