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History & Culture

The Chili Queens

Historic Market Square thrives today on a plaza that was gifted to the original settlers “for their use and entertainment” by the King of Spain in 1730. Throughout the early years the plazas of San Antonio were lively marketplaces, where vendors sold fresh produce, beef, venison, wild turkeys, honey and pecans. At nightfall, the famous “Chili Queens” took over from the vendors and presided over stalls lit by distinctive glass lanterns, selling steaming bowlfuls of the spicy beef stew that they cooked at home and hauled into the market in huge earthenware ollas. The women and their trade were memorialized by O. Henry and other writers who were enchanted with the festive atmosphere and exotic fare they dished out.

The Growing City

The market moved from the main plaza, Plaza de Armas, to its current location in the 1890s to make room for an influx of new settlers. By 1900 San Antonio was the largest city in the state and the fastest-growing. A wave of immigrants from Europe, the Middle East and Asia lent their own unique flavor to the Mexican character of the market, establishing grocery stores, restaurants, pharmacies and social clubs. Francesco “Don Pancho” Pizzini opened a store at the market and rented space to other immigrants, including Pete Cortez, who would eventually open Mi Tierra. Chinese immigrants settled around the market and opened a Chinese café, which also offered Mexican pan dulce.

Revitalization

Throughout the 1900s the city continued to grow. During World War II the produce wholesalers outgrew their surroundings and established the Terminal Market at a railroad spur on Zarzamora Street. When that happened the foot traffic around Market Square stopped and the energetic street life died out. But some of the merchants stayed, determined not to give up on the place where their ancestors had started out. Eventually they persuaded the City Council and Chamber of Commerce to create the first market committee in the 1960s. Headed by nationally recognized architect Boone Powell, the committee spurred the revitalization of the entire market area. The emphasis was on retaining the unique character of a working market, a place for both residents and tourists to shop.

By 1976, Historic Market Square had regained its color and vibrancy. Three city blocks bounded by Dolorosa, Santa Rosa and West Commerce Streets were turned into pedestrian malls, with stone fountains, ornamental streetlights, trees and benches. Today it bustles with activities celebrating Cinco de Mayo and Día de los Muertos, among other festivities. Working artists offer their handiworks from stalls and carts, and local retailers sell quality Mexican artifacts, clothing and art. Locals like to say visiting the square is like leaving town for a few hours.

Source: The History of San Antonio’s Market Square by Mary Ann Noonan Guerra. San Antonio: The Alamo Press, 1988.
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