StMU Research Scholars

Featuring Scholarly Research, Writing, and Media at St. Mary’s University

April 7, 2019

San Antonio Royalty: The Reign of the Chili Queen

the nightly encampments upon the historic Alamo Plaza, in the heart of the city, had been a carnival, a saturnalia that was renowned throughout the land.1
In the town of San Antonio, the Alamo Plaza transforms from a daytime marketplace into a lively nighttime fiesta. The plaza is bathed in twilight and flickering mesquite fires. The only other sources of light are distant street lamps and kerosene lanterns placed upon makeshift tables spread throughout the plaza. The lanterns shine and glimmer through colorful glass bottles, giving the plaza an effervescent glow. The sounds of the evening are boisterous, filled with the strum of guitars, the songs of troubadours, laughter, and a constant hum of conversation. Neighing horses, barking dogs, and cackling fowl can be heard in the distance. The aroma of simmering chili, grilled corn tortillas, and bitter coffee permeate the air. Hundreds of caterers sell their goods, and thousands of patrons wait to partake. This is the Chili Queens in their heyday, before it all came tumbling down. Eventually the plazas would silence, and the legendary Chili Queens would be lost to history.2
Chili Queens of San Antonio in Haymarket Plaza, 1933 | Courtesy of the San Antonio Light Photograph Collection
From dusk until dawn, the Chili Queens inhabited a nocturnal world in the plazas of San Antonio. But who were these legendary mujeres? What was it that elevated them to culinary royalty? “The Chili Queens” references the original purveyors of chili con carne, distributed at night throughout the plazas of San Antonio. These Queens were known for their delectable dishes ranging from their namesake, chile con carne, to enchilades, frijoles, tamales, chili verde, tortillas and to wash it all down, strong coffee, dark hot chocolate, or sweet atole. For a mere ten cents, you could enjoy a large bowl of chili with corn tortillas and cup of coffee.3 Aside from minor textual references dating back to the 1880s, historical accounts of individual Chili Queens do not exist. Researchers have pieced together components of their day-to-day lives through photographs, paintings, and various sources of journalism. Contrary to their royal title, Chili Queens were tough women working the night shift for a physically arduous job, with the goal of providing income for their families. Much like small, family owned restaurants of today, the process of operating a chili stand required all hands on deck. The family rented a plot of land in the plaza, and each day the pots, pans, food, and drinks to supply the stand had to be transported using a burro and wagon. The women of the family prepared portions of the food at home before bringing it to the plazas at night, where it was kept warm on charcoal braziers. Traditionally, the matron of the family was the main cook while the eldest daughter worked as hostess and served the patrons. Every morning, the supplies had to be packed up and transported back home until nighttime, when the cycle would repeat. Much more than just a nightly fiesta, life on the plazas was their livelihood.4
Chili Queen in San Antonio, March 1939 | Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons
At the turn of the twentieth century, the Chili Queens became known for their charm just as much as their culinary creations. Patrons came to the plazas to eat but they stayed for the beguiling Chili Queens, who joked, bantered, and flirted with their customers. The Chili Queen image transformed from a hardworking mother into a dark haired Mexicana with a sharp wit and bewitching allure. Soon, the Chili Queens gained notoriety beyond San Antonio, garnering attention from reporters and tourists alike. In a 1927 Frontier Times article, Frank Bushick described the “raven-haired, flashing-eyed senoritas of more or less pulchritude who served the customers and presided with an easy grace.”5 In a 1934 publication entitled Glamorous Days, Bushick provides a more intimate portrait of a Chili Queen: “The Chili Queens were adept at the art of rolling their own cigarettes with corn shucks and black tobacco, and they would roll cigarettes for customers, some played guitar and sang, and when given a tip, the chili queen curtsied.” Bushick also alludes to their adeptness in dealing with the often rowdy clientele, “They had the gift of banter, could kid around with customers, and could swear to slow down familiarity or diffuse rough stuff.”6 Although the chili stands were a popular tourist destination, not all reviews were kind. Stephen Crane, author of Red Badge of Courage, wrote in 1895 that “upon one of the plazas, Mexican vendors with open-air stands sell food that tastes exactly like pounded fire-brick from Hades — chili con carne, tamales, enchiladas, chili verde, frijoles.”7 The compilation of reviews, both positive and negative, made one thing clear — the Chili Queens made a name for themselves as a vibrant force in San Antonio history. Throughout their two hundred year history, the Chili Queens migrated throughout the plazas of San Antonio, forced to move by city expansion and civic reform. In 1877, the arrival of the railroad in San Antonio marked a boom in tourism and spurred business for working class vendors. According to Jeffrey Pilcher, a Mexican food historian, many of these visitors settled permanently, “tipping the demographic balance and pushing the Mexican population out of the city center into segregated barrios on the west side.8 Military Plaza, or Plaza de Armas, was the site of San Antonio’s first marketplace and the first home of the Chili Queens. In 1889, a new city hall building erected on Military Plaza forced the Chili Queens to move west of San Pedro Creek. The Chili Queens also operated out of Main Plaza, Alamo Plaza, Haymarket Plaza and Milam Park, continually on the move due to municipal restrictions. In the 1900s, the vendors ignored a ban on their business and returned to the Alamo Plaza, where city officials tolerated their presence. When World War I began in 1914, San Antonio became an important military training center, which again moved the Chili Queens out of the Plazas and across San Pedro Creek. This back and forth movement continued for the next few decades until finally the vendors were all secluded into the Westside of San Antonio, where a majority of the Mexican population lived in crude shacks called jacales, made up of dirt floors and grass roofs.9
Chili Queen displaying health cards for the public | Courtesy of the San Antonio Light Photograph Collection
Mrs. Victorio Senorio cooking on gas stove in kitchen | Courtesy of the San Antonio Light Photograph Collection
Questionable sanitation was the pervasive theme responsible for the chili stand shutdowns. In 1937, with an election looming, Mayor Charles Kennon Quin deemed the chili stands unsanitary and banned them once again from the plazas. After much public outcry, the stands reopened. In 1939, Mayor Maury Maverick created a central commissary kitchen, with stipulations requiring each vendor to pass health inspections and display their passing cards for the public. The Chili Queens received official sanction to operate, but only within screened-in structures. This seemingly innocuous restriction stole the romanticism once emanated by the plazas. No longer could you enjoy a bowl of chili con carne under a starry Texas sky while captivated by an enchanting Chili Queen. The customers diminished, and the chili vendors followed suit. By 1943, health officials shut down the last remaining chili stands for unsanitary dish-washing facilities. The once lively plazas became abandoned and empty.10 The struggle for cultural and racial hegemony likely contributed to the end of the Chili Queen reign. An 1897 review from the San Antonio Express cautioned, “Ignorance in the details of their manufacture is necessary to the complete enjoyment of tamales. The abstinence seldom lasts long, however, for tamales have too rare a deliciousness to be renounced on account of a trifle of dirt.”11 It is debated whether the “trifle of dirt” the author mentions refers to the sanitary conditions of the prepared food or the racial quality of the women who made them. Early Anglo settlers claimed that “coyotes refuse chili seasoned Mexican carne.”12 These claims were especially damaging because Mexican women held the responsibility as carriers of culture, so the idea that chili stands were unsanitary enforced the harmful stereotype of the “dirty Mexican.”13 According to scholar Jeffrey Pilcher, “Anglos invented the chili queens in order to populate their fantasy heritage.”14 Thus, the exoticized and eroticized image of Chili Queens popularized in the 20th century was partly a product of Anglo marketing. Eventually, entrepreneurs outside the Mexican community transformed the popular chili queen fare into a lucrative business opportunity through commercialization of chili powder, canned chili, and even canned tamales. The food processing industry was a profitable way to enjoy chili con carne without the imagined threat of racial contamination. In 1932, Elmer Doolin created a Tejano inspired snack from toasted corn tortillas, which he called Fritos. In addition, San Antonio was the birthplace of the first Pace Picante sauce.15 The Chili Queens may have vanished from the plazas of San Antonio, but their legacy will live on forever. These purveyors of chili con carne are the pioneers of Tex-Mex food. Once thought of as exotic dishes created by the descendants of Aztecs, Tex-Mex food is now a soothing and comforting dish, oozing nostalgia in each tasty bite. In 1977, the Texas Legislature even proclaimed chili con carne as the official state dish. Popular food trucks today owe their start to these open air chili stands.16 Aside from spurring a Tex-Mex revolution, the Chili Queens created a lasting impression. The plazas were almost otherworldly, a place where silk-hatted tourists, rough-handed vaqueros, soldiers, merchants, and traveling musicians were all were free and equal, sitting side by side to enjoy a bowl of chili con carne, happily spellbound by a Chili Queen. Although these mujeres dazzled many with their charms, they should be remembered as hard-working mothers, toiling day in and day out in grueling conditions. These women used their culinary skills to claim a public presence that was otherwise denied to them, and helped to pave the way for generations of women thereafter. According to scholar Pilcher, “Perhaps the greatest legacy of the chili vendors was their struggle to assert a form of cultural citizenship that helped to legitimize the Mexican presence in the multicultural mosaic of the United States.”17
Chili Queens Juanita and Esperanza Garcia making tortillas | Courtesy of the San Antonio Light Photograph Collection
 
Chili Stand in Haymarket Plaza, 1933 | Courtesy of the San Antonio Light Photograph Collection

It wasn’t just Mexican food on sale, but rather the romance of a vanquished people, a slice of Old Mexico in a state that hadn’t yet fully joined the Republic.18

  1. O. Henry and Paul J. Horowitz, “The Enchanted Kiss,” in Collected Stories of O. Henry (New York: Avenel Books Crown Publishers, 1979).
  2. Marian L. Martinello, The Search for a Chili Queen: On the Fringes of a Rebozo (Fort Worth, Texas: TCU Press, 2009), 1-11.
  3. Will Chapel Rogers III, “A History of Military Plaza to 1937” (Master’s thesis, Trinity University, May 1968), 48.
  4. Marian L. Martinello, The Search for a Chili Queen: On the Fringes of a Rebozo (Fort Worth, Texas: TCU Press, 2009), 39.
  5. Frank H. Bushick, “The Chili Queens of San Antonio,” Frontier Times 4, no. 10 (July 1927): 4-5.
  6. Frank H. Bushick, “Glamorous Days” (San Antonio, TX: Naylor, 1934).
  7. Frank W. Jennings, “Popular Chili Queens Graced San Antonio Plazas,” Journal Of The Life And Culture Of San Antonio (n.d.), http://www.uiw.edu/sanantonio/jenningschiliqueens.html.
  8. Jeffrey M. Pilcher, “Who Chased Out the ‘Chili Queens’? Gender, Race, and Urban Reform in San Antonio, Texas, 1880–1943,” Food and Foodways 16, no. 3 (2008):176. https://doi.org/10.1080/07409710802304168.
  9. Edmund Tijerina, “Chili Queens Once Ruled Alamo Plaza,” San Antonio Express News, January 28, 2015, https://www.expressnews.com/150years/culture/article/Chili-Queens-romanticized-sometimes-shunned-6047507.php.
  10. Donna R. Gabaccia and Jeffrey M. Pilcher, “Chili Queens’ and Checkered Tablecloths,” Radical History Review 110 (Spring 2011): 109–26, doi:10.1215/01636545-2010-028.
  11. Jeffrey M. Pilcher, “Old Stock’ Tamales and Migrant Tacos: Taste, Authenticity, and the Naturalization of Mexican Food,” Social Research 81, no. 2 (2014): 441–462, doi:10.1353/sor.2014.0018.
  12. Jeffrey M. Pilcher, “Who Chased Out the ‘Chili Queens’? Gender, Race, and Urban Reform in San Antonio, Texas, 1880–1943,” Food and Foodways 16, no. 3 (2008):179. https://doi.org/10.1080/07409710802304168.
  13. Jeffrey M. Pilcher, “Who Chased Out the ‘Chili Queens’? Gender, Race, and Urban Reform in San Antonio, Texas, 1880–1943,” Food and Foodways 16, no. 3 (2008):175. https://doi.org/10.1080/07409710802304168.
  14. Jeffrey M. Pilcher, “Who Chased Out the ‘Chili Queens’? Gender, Race, and Urban Reform in San Antonio, Texas, 1880–1943,” Food and Foodways 16, no. 3 (2008):175. https://doi.org/10.1080/07409710802304168.
  15. Frank W. Jennings, “Popular Chili Queens Graced San Antonio Plazas,” Journal Of The Life And Culture Of San Antonio (n.d.), http://www.uiw.edu/sanantonio/jenningschiliqueens.html.
  16. Frank W. Jennings, “Popular Chili Queens Graced San Antonio Plazas,” Journal Of The Life And Culture Of San Antonio (n.d.), http://www.uiw.edu/sanantonio/jenningschiliqueens.html.
  17. Jeffrey M. Pilcher, “Who Chased Out the ‘Chili Queens’? Gender, Race, and Urban Reform in San Antonio, Texas, 1880–1943,” Food and Foodways 16, no. 3 (2008):195. https://doi.org/10.1080/07409710802304168.
  18. Arellano Gustavo, Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America, (New York, NY: Scribner, 2012), 32.

Tags from the story

chili con carne

Chili Queens

food

food history

Hispanic History of San Antonio

Mexican

Mexican American

Sara Ramirez

I am a graduate student in the Public History program at St. Mary’s University and alumni of the Alexander Briseno Leadership Development Program. I work as a Library Assistant at the San Antonio Public Library, where I teach a STEAM program for kids. I am interested in bridging my Science background with the humanities by exploring Environmental History and Science Communication.

Author Portfolio Page

Recent Comments

Julia Edwin-Jeyakumar

This is an awesome article. I actually never went to one but, I’ve heard all about it! I love chilli so I should probably go some time. San Antonio is known to be a pretty chill place, with not much tourism available. But I believe the reason why people like san Antonio so much is because of an environment like this is so quiet and not always hectic. We have waterparks, and there are very nice houses haha and chilli competitions. But I definitely think we grew from racial discrimination. It is still there granted, but we definitely improved and I’m looking forward for the years to come to keep getting better. Once again, this is an awesome article, and well written.

reply

04/10/2019

11:24 pm

Mitchell Yocham

Because I’ve lived in San Antonio all of my life there have been so many different opportunities for culture and I’ve been exposed to the Mexican American culture. Although my dad never took me to Chili Queens, we entered competitions ourselves. However, despite the problems that they did end up facing in San Antonio I can only imagine their chili was to dream for.

reply

13/10/2019

11:24 pm

Margaret Maguire

I have never heard of the Chili Queens before and I have lived in San Antonio all my life. They were a really big part of the food based culture in San Antonio and I didn’t know anything about them until reading this article. They brought the plaza to life while selling food to make a living. I believed what the Chili Queens created and started could have also helped create the Fiesta we know and love today.

reply

18/10/2019

11:24 pm

Juan Arceo

With me being born and raised in San Antonio my whole life, I have not once heard about the Chili Queens but oh boy do I want to try it now. I could only imagine what the people who ordered from the Chili Queens in the past felt after indulging in such a delicious array of food at their disposal. It makes sense as to why it has influenced the development of food trucks and all the different restaurants that are available around our area and I hope to one day join the influential food industry and own a successful restaurant as well in the future.

reply

18/10/2019

11:24 pm

Sydney Hardeman

This was very interesting to read. I had never heard of the Chili Queens but it sounds like their food was great. The way that they interacted with their customers, by having fun, being welcoming, and even rolling their cigarettes shows that they were people who liked to be in touch with the community. It is a shame that they were banned from the plazas.

reply

20/10/2019

11:24 pm

Isabella Torres

Chili Queens put in so much more work than they were given credit for. The night shift is very hard to get used to and they worked incredibly hard to be able to provide for their families. Although they are no longer seen, Chili Queens were definitely a big part in influencing the culture around them not only with the food they cooked but with their charming personalities as well. I really like how this article provided specific details about what it meant to be a Chili Queen as well as the difficulties behind it.

reply

21/10/2019

11:24 pm

Bruno Lezama

I find very interesting that these women were situated in the plaza of San Antonio. However, after Mayor Charles Kennon Quin deemed the chili stands unsanitary and banned them once again from the plazas, Chili Queens had to move to another palace. I believe that these queens were the representation of Mexican culture in a city of the United States, San Antonio.

reply

22/10/2019

11:24 pm

Rosa Robledo Martinez

I was practically raised in San Antonio, I never really heard about the Chili Queens but I am glad that I did now. The Chili Queens reminded me of women in Mexico, because both the Chili Queens and women in Mexico they sell foods to make a living out of it. They both use the help of their family relatives to thrive and succeed in their businesses.

reply

22/10/2019

11:24 pm

Ashley Martinez

I found this article to be very interesting, especially because I am not here from this area. It was great to hear the history of the Alamo Plaza and how the Chili Queens made this place unique and special. The Chili Queens were the heart and soul of the plaza and made a very big impact to the history and culture of San Antonio. It really bothers me that Mexicans are stereotyped no matter the situation in a negative way. It was neat to read about the culture and diversity the Chili Queens created through the food they prepared.

reply

23/10/2019

11:24 pm

Hannah Hennon

Chili Queens deserve so much more reorganization than they have received. This is the first time I have ever heard about Chili Queens, but it takes a lot to work during the night downtown when you are prone to be around dangerous people. The Chili Queens brought culture into downtown San Antonio, and it is sad that they vanished overtime.

reply

23/10/2019

11:24 pm

1 2 3 4 5

Leave a Reply