The Prospect Hill neighborhood in San Antonio, Texas was one of the first major middle-class Latino communities in the United States. Over the period 1920-1950, many of the city’s leading Latino merchants, lawyers, and community leaders resided in Prospect Hill. Among the families who lived there were Mayor and HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros, La Prensa printer Romulo Munguia, and Texas Secretary of State Hope Andrade. The community also had many notable artists and writers, including Porfirio Salinas, Jesse Trevino, Rolando Brisceno, and Tomas Rivera. The grandparents of poet Carmen Tafolla and the family of State Senator Leticia Van de Putte also resided in that esteemed community. This essay about Prospect Hill is based on interviews with residents of the community and my own recollections of growing up in that same neighborhood.
Valentin and Justina Larios, early residents of the Prospect Hill neighborhood, came to San Antonio during the mid-1910s as the Mexican Revolution raged across the Mexican countryside. They soon became part of the merchant class that settled in the Prospect Hill community after modest success in the grocery business in an older Mexican community downtown known as Laredito. Their businesses enabled a chain migration process that helped later arriving relatives with work opportunities.
I found records confirming that Valentin Larios was born in 1896 in Jalisco, Mexico. Family lore suggests that Larios, the Director of Telegraphs in Mexico, faced certain death by the Revolutionary Villistas who identified all bureaucrats as useless citizens or traitors to Francisco Villa’s revolutionary cause. The Villistas captured most of the men in Larios’s Mexican colonia and lined them against a wall facing a firing squad. By good fortune Larios was saved by a friend.
In order to leave Mexico Larios called upon the Cortezes, family friends from the same city. Both families agreed that Valentin Larios’s life as an immigrant in the United States would be more manageable if he had a wife.
Thus the families arranged a marriage for Larios with a Cortez daughter, Justina.
In his adopted home of San Antonio, Valentin Larios demonstrated ambition and talent in managing small businesses. By the 1920s, he had opened a grocery store, La Villa del Carmen, on the corner of Frio and Durango [now Cesar Chavez]. Among his first employees was Larios’s nephew Pedro Cortez who had left Mexico in the early 1920s and lived with the Larios. Cortez aided his sponsors in the Larios grocery business as a butcher and deliveryman. The Larios family also opened a restaurant named La Blanca Cafe in a building once owned by Jose Antonio Navarro. [Today the Navarro building, across from the new Federal Court House, is designated as a historical structure].
In the mid-1920s, the Larios family purchased a home on Durango Street in Prospect Hill. They were among the first Mexican American families to reside in Prospect Hill. I asked my history-buff friend, Tim Palomera, for help in locating the Larios home, and he found the Larios family in the 1920s San Antonio telephone books with an address on Durango Street. Phone book records show that Valentin Larios moved a block away in the 1930s to 2010 Saunders, a block from my family’s home on 2014 Monterey Street.
Pedro Cortez continued making deliveries and working as a butcher with his uncle Valentin Larios. While making deliveries, Pedro met his future wife Cruz. Together they bought a small cafe on Market Square which led to the purchase of a larger space nearby that they opened as Mi Tierra Cafe. The Cortez family lived at 2411 Saunders Street, two doors from the home of Hope Andrade, the future Texas Secretary of State.
Another of the earliest families to live on Durango Street, the Villarreal family, moved to Prospect Hill in 1940. Their home was on the southern edge of Prospect Hill one block west of Zarzamora Street. In the 1940s, many of the long-term German, Jewish, and Belgian residents of Prospect Hill left for better housing in the new suburbs of the city. These new communities included Monte Vista, Alamo Heights, Laurel Heights, and Beacon Hills.
The Santos Villarreal family had left their home in Rosales, Coahuila in 1919 crossing at the Eagle Pass, Texas border station. They were also among the thousands of families who came to San Antonio during the early 20th century to escape the violence of the Mexican Revolution. Families knew they must hide or flee when rebel troops arrived at their communities. Santos Villarreal II had joined the Villista forces and was seriously injured in battle. His wife went to the battlefield to bring him home. Under her directions, the family decided to cross the border to the U.S. at the Eagle Pass border station. However, Villarreal II did not recover from his wounds and died before leaving for Texas.
Villarreal’s widow led her family to Seguin where the entire family worked in the fields picking cotton. The younger Santos Villarreal III was twelve when he helped his family pick the crops. Later, he found work at a Mexican bakery in Seguin where he learned the skills of a baker and also made deliveries to restaurants and grocery stores. At the time, Seguin had “Sunset laws” that required that Mexicans stay off the streets after sunset.
Santos Villarreal IV, the son of Santos Villarreal III, recently looked up the marriage records of his parents and found that they had married at Guadalupe Church on El Paso Street in the heart of the Mexican barrio of San Antonio. The 1933 marriage records revealed that his mother lived on El Paso Street across from the Guadalupe Catholic Church. Santos Villarreal III recorded the Progreso Cafe on Guadalupe Street as his address.
Like his neighbor, Petro Cortez, Mr. Villarreal III demonstrated an entrepreneurial spirit, operating two restaurants during the 1930s and 1940s. His first restaurant was the Venus Cafe on the corner of Guadalupe and Zarzamora which he opened in the late 1920s. By 1933, he had married Juanita Solis and was the proprietor of the Progreso Cafe next to the Progreso Theater.
The Progreso Cafe was across the street from a tire shop that was demolished in 1939 when the owners built the famed Guadalupe Theater. While running the Progreso Cafe, Villarreal may have learned about the planned construction of the Alazan–Apache Courts public housing project across the street from his restaurant. Plans for the housing project called for the demolition and removal of many homes in the Westside neighborhood near his restaurant and across from Lanier High School extending south to Chihuahua Street.
In order to arrange the move to the Prospect Hill community, Villarreal first bought a lot on 2601 Durango Street and followed up with the purchase of an older home destined for demolition as part of the new public housingproject. Santos Villarreal IV [he is the younger of the three Santos Villarreal namesakes] recalled that his family moved to Prospect Hill in 1940. Villarreal recalled that there were few Anglo families on Durango Street by that time.
By the mid-1940s, Prospect Hill had become the home of many of the small merchant-class Latinos of San Antonio. The community also included my first-grade teacher [Ms. Mary Vela], doctors, pharmacists [Davilas and Guerras], and midwives [Maria Saenz Romo, my grandmother]. My interviews with more than a dozen of these early Prospect Hill families revealed that each had strong determination, enduring patience, and an exceptional ability to save money and plan ahead. The families initiated small businesses, opened restaurants and cleaners, and bought homes in the Prospect Hill community. They maintained strong family ties, took pride in their neighborhood, and encouraged their children to pursue higher education.