San Antonio The City Of The Little Squares
( Originally Published 1913 )
IN after years, you will like to think of it as the City of the Little Squares. After all the other memories of San Antonio are gone — the narrow streets twisting and turning their tortuous ways through the very heart of the old town, the missions strung out along the Concepcion road like faded and broken bits of bric-a-brac, the brave and militant show of arsenal and fort — then shall the fragrance of those open plazas long remain. The Military Plaza, with its great bulk of a City Hall facing it, the Main Plaza, where the grave towers of the little cathedral look down upon the palm trees and the beggars, the newer, open squares always plazas in San Antonio and then, best of all, the Alamo Plaza, with that squat namesake structure facing it — the lion of a town of many lions. These open places are the distinctive features of the oldest and the best of the Texas towns. They lend to it the Latin air that renders it different from most other cities in America. They help to make San Antonio seem far more like Europe than America.
To this old town come the Texans, always in great numbers for it is their great magnet — the focusing point that has drawn them and before them, their fathers, their grandfathers and their great-grandfathers far reaching generations of Texans who have gone before. For here is the distinct playground of the Lone Star State. Its other cities are attractive enough in their several ways, but at the best their fame is distinctly commercial Fort Worth as a packing house town, Dallas as a distributing point for great wholesale enterprises, Houston as a banking center, Galveston as the great water-gate of Texas and the second greatest ocean port of the whole land. San Antonio is none of -these things. While the last census showed her to be the largest of all Texas cities in point of population, it is said by her jealous rivals and it probably is true, that nearly half of that population is composed of Mexicans ; and here is a part of our blessed land where the Mexican, like his dollar, must be accepted at far less than his nominal value.
But if it were not- for these Mexicans —that delicate strain of the fine old Spanish blood that still runs in her veins — San Antonio would have lost much of her naďve charm many years ago. The touch of the old grandees is everywhere laid upon the city. In the narrow streets, the architecture of the solid stone structures that crowd in upon them in a tremendously neighborly fashion shows the touch of the Spaniard in every corner; it appears again and again — in the- iron traceries of some high-sprung fence or second-story balcony rail, or perhaps in the lineaments of some snug little church, half hidden in a quiet place. The Cathedral of San Fernando, standing there in the Main Plaza, looks as if it might have been stolen from the old city of Mexico and moved bodily north without ever having even disturbed its fortress-like walls or the crude frescoes of its sanctuary. The four missions out along the Concepcion road are direct fruit of Spanish days and remember that each of the little squares of San Antonio is a plaza, so dear to the heart of a Latin when he comes to build a real city.
But the impress of those troublous years when Spain, far seeing and in her golden age, was dreaming of Texas as a mighty principality, is not alone in the wood and the stone of San Antonio, not even in the delirious riot of narrow streets and little squares. The impress of a Latin nation still not three hundred miles distant, is in the bronzed faces of the Mexicans who fill her streets Some of them are the old men who sit emotionless hours in the hot sun in the narrow highways, and vend their unspeakable sweets, or who come to affluence perhaps and maintain the marketing of tamales and chile con carne at one of the many little outdoor stands that line the business streets of San Antonio, and make it possible for a stranger to eat a full-course dinner, if he will, without passing indoors. These are the Mexicans of San Antonio who are most in evidence —the men still affecting in careless grandeur their steeple-crowned, broad-brimmed hats, even if the rest of their clothing remain in the docile humility of blue jeans; the women scorning such humility and running to the brilliancy of red and yellow velvets, although of late years the glories of the American made hat have begun to tell sadly upon the preeminence of the mantilla. These are the Mexicans who dominate the streets of the older part of the town— they are something more than dominant factors in the West end of the city, long ago known as the Chihuahua quarter.
But there is another sort — less often seen upon the streets of San Antonio. This sort is the Mexican of class, who has come within recent years in increasing numbers to dwell in a city where unassuming soldiery afford more real protection for him and for his than do all of the brilliantly uniformed regiments with which Diaz once illuminated his gay capital. Since our neighbor to the south entered fully upon its troublons season these refugees have multiplied. You could see for yourself any time within the past two years sleeping cars come up from Laredo filled with nervous women and puzzled children. These were the families of prosperous citizens from the south of Mexico, who in their hearts showed no contempt for the comfortable protection of the American flag.
A man plucks you by the sleeve as you are passing through the corridors of one of the great modern hotels of San Antonio, hotels which, by the way, have been builded with the profits of the cattle trade in Texas.
" That hombre," he says, " he is the uncle of Madero."
But a mere uncle of the former Mexican President hardly counts in a town which has the reputation of fairly breeding revolutions for the sister land to the south; whose streets seem to whisper of rumors and counter-rumors, the vague details of plot and counter-plot. There is a whole street down in the southwestern corner of San Antonio lined with neat white houses, and the town will know it for many years as Revolutionary Row." For in the first of these houses General Bernardo Reyes lived, and in the second of them this former governor of Nuevo Leon planned his coup d'etat by which he was to march into Mexico City with all the glory of the Latin, bands playing, flags flying, a display of showy regimentals. Reyes had read English history, and he remembered that one Prince Charlie had at-tempted something of the very sort. In the long run the difference was merely that Prince Charlie succeeded while Reyes landed in a dirty prison in Mexico City.
Here then is the very incubator of Mexican revolution. There is not an hour in San Antonio when the secret agents of the United States and all the governments and near-governments of our southern neighbor are not fairly swarming in the town and alive to their responsibilities. The border is again passing through historic days — and it fully realizes that. It is twenty-four hours of steady riding from San Antonio over to El Paso the queer little city under the shadows of the mountains and perched hard against the " silver Rio Grande," this last often so indistinguishable that a young American lieutenant marched his men right over and into Mexican soil one day without knowing the difference — until he was confronted by the angry citizens of Ciudad Juarez and an affaire nationale almost created. Every mile of that tedious trip trouble is in the air.
And yet El Paso does not often take the situation very seriously. It is almost an old story, and if the revolutionists will only be kind enough to point their guns away from the U. S. A. they can blaze away as long as they like and the ammunition lasts. In fact El Paso feels that as long as the Mexican frontier battles have proper stage management they are first-rate advertising attractions for the town — quite discounting mere Mardi Gras or Portola or flower celebrations, Frontier or Round up Days, as well as its own simpler joys of horse racing and bull-fighting. On battle-days El Paso can ascend to its house-tops and get a rare thrill. But when the atrocious marksmanship of ill-trained Mexicans does its worst, and a few stray bullets go whistling straight across upon American soil, El Paso grows angry. It demands of Washington if it realizes that the U. S. A. is being bombarded the fun of fighting dies out in a moment.
San Antonio is a safer breeding ground for insurrection than is El Paso. For one thing it is out of care-less rifle-shot, and for another— well at El Paso some Mexican troopers might come right across the silver Rio Grande in a dry season, never wetting their feet or dreaming that they were crossing the majestic river boundary, and pick up a few erring citizens without much effort. There is a risk at El Paso that is not present in San Antonio. Hence the bigger town in its very atmosphere emitting a friendly comfort toward plottings and plannings is chosen.
You wish to come closer to the inner heart of the town. Very well then, your guide leads you to the International Club which perches between the narrow and important thoroughfare of Commerce street and one of the interminable windings of the gentle San Antonio river. It was on the roof of the International Club that Secretary Root was once given a famous dinner. It is an institution frankly given " to the encouragement of a friendly feeling between Mexico and the United States." It is something more than that, however. It is a refuge and sort of harbor for storm-tossed hearts and weary minds that perforce must do their thinking in a tongue that, to us, is alien. Most of the time the newspaper men of the town sit in the rear room of the club and look down across the tiny river on to the quiet grounds of an oldtime monastery. They play their pool and dominoes — two arts that seem hopelessly wedded throughout all Texas. The International Club nods.
Suddenly a tall bronzed man, with mustachios, perhaps a little group of Mexicans will come into the place. The pool and the dominoes stop short. There are whisperings, flashy papers from Mexico city are suddenly produced, maps are studied. One man has " inside information " from Washington, another lays claim to mysterious knowledge up from the President's palace of the southern capital, perhaps from the constitutionalists along the frontier. There is a great deal of talk, much mystery after all, not much real information.
But when some real situation does develop, San Antonio has glorious little thrills. To be the incubator of revolution is almost as exciting as to have bull-fights or a suburban battle-field, the treasures for which San Antonio cannot easily forgive her rival, El Paso. Each new plot-hatching of this sort gives the big Texas town fresh thrills. Gossip is revived in the hotel lobbies and restaurants, the cool and lofty rooms of the International Club are filled with whisperers in an alien tongue, out at Fort Sam Houston the cavalrymen rise in their stirrups at the prospect of some real excitement. San Antonio does not want war of course not but if it must have war well it is already prepared for the shock. And it talks of little else.
"Within ten years the United States will have annexed Mexico and San Antonio will have become a second Chicago," says one citizen in his enthusiasm. " And what a Chicago railroads, manufactories and the best climate of any great city in the world."
Even in war times your true San Antonian cannot forget one of the chief assets of his lovely town.
The others say little. One is a junior officer from out at the post. He can say nothing. But he is hoping. There is not much for an army man in inaction and the best of drills are not like the real thing. For him again — the old slogan — " a fight or a frolic."
Not all of San Antonio is Spanish although very little of it is negro. An astonishing proportion of its population is of German descent. These are largely gathered in the east end of the town, that which was formerly called the Alamo quarter, and like all Germans they like their beer. The brewing industry is one of the great businesses of San Antonio and the most famous of all these breweries is the smallest of them. On our first trip to " San Antone " we heard about that beer; all the way down through Texas " the most wonderful brew in the entire land."
The active force of this particular Los Angeles brewery consisted of but one man, the old German who carried his recipe with him in the top of his head, and who had carefully kept it there throughout the years. In the cellar of the little brewery he made the beer, upstairs and in the garden he served it.
In the mornings he worked at his cellar kettles, in the late afternoon and the early evening he stood behind his bar awaiting his patrons. If they wished to sit out in the shady garden they must serve themselves. There were no waiters in the place. If a man could not walk straight up to the bar and get his beer he was in no condition for it. The old German was as proud of the respectability of his place as he was of the secret recipe for the beer, which had been handed down in his family from generation to generation.
Only once was that secret given and then after much tribulation and in great confidence to an agent of the government. But he had his reward. For the government at Washington in its turn pronounced his the purest beer in all the land. Men then came to him with proposals that he place it upon the market. They talked to him in a tempting way about the profits in the business, but he shook his head. His beer was never to be taken from the brewery. It was a rule from which San Antonians and tourists alike had tried to swerve him, to no purpose. Of course, every rule has its exceptions but there was only a single exception to this. Each Saturday night Mr. Degen used to send a small keg over with his compliments to a boyhood friend — he believed that friendship of a certain sort can break all rules and precedents.
All the way down through dry Texas we smacked our lips at the thought of Degen's beer. Before we had been in San Antonio a dozen hours we found our way to the brewery; in a quiet side street down back of the historic Alamo. But we had no beer.
The brewer was dead. In a neighboring street his friends were quietly gathering for his funeral, and rumor was rife as to whether or no he had confided his recipe to his sons. It was a great funeral, according to the local newspapers, the greatest in the recent history of San Antonio. It was a tribute from the chief citizens of a town to a simple man who had lived his life simply and honestly who in his quiet way had builded up one of the most distinctive institutions of the place.
Rumor was soon satisfied. The secret of the recipe of the beer had not died. In a few days the brisk little brewery in the side street was in action once again. The stout Germans in their shirt-sleeves were again tramping with their paddles round and round the great vat while their foaming product was being handed to patrons in the adjoining room. But, alas, the traditions of the founder are gone. The beer is now bottled and sold on the market — in a little while is will be emblazoned in electric lights along the main streets of New York and Chicago. We are in a commercial and a material age. Even in San Antonio they are threatening to widen Commerce street — that narrow but immensely distinctive thoroughfare that cuts through the heart of the town — threatening, also, to tear down the old con-vent walls next the Alamo and there erect a modern park and monument. By the time these things are done and San Antonio is thoroughly " modernized" she will be ready for an awakening — she is apt to find with her naďve charm gone the golden flood of tourists has ceased to stop within her walls. Truly she will have killed the goose that laid the golden egg.
You will like to think of it as the City of the Little Squares. After all the other memories of San Antonio are gone you will revert to these gay open places, filled with palms and other tropical growths, and flanked by the crumbling architecture of yesterday elbowing the newer constructions of today. You will like to think of those squares in the sunny daytime with the deep shadows running aslant across the faces, there is de-light in the memory of them at eventide, when the duster lights burn brightly and the narrow sidewalks are filled with gaily dressed crowds, typical Mexicans, tall Texans down from the ranches for a really good time in " old San Antone," natives of the cosmopolitan town, tourists of every sort and description. Then comes the hour when the crowds are gone, the town asleep, its noisy clocks speaking midnight hours to mere emptiness San Antonio breathes heavily, dreams of the days when she was a Spanish town of no slight importance, and then looks forward to the morrow. She believes that her golden age is not yet come. Her plans for the future are ambitious, her opportunity is yet to come. In so far as those dreams involve the passing of the old in San Antonio and the coming of the new, God grant that they will never come true.
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