Mounted in a rustic, hand-carved Mexican wooden frame, it hung on the wall of my dad’s east side San Antonio barber shop just above his cash drawer. As a child I always wondered who was that colorful Roman soldier on his horsey, cutting his cloak with his mighty sword, as an injured half-naked beggar lay at his footsteps. We lived in back of my dad’s humble barber shop and I’d see this picture every morning as I would roam the shop before he opened.
I asked Mom who he was and briefly she told me he was San Martin Caballero (St. Martin of Tours), a Catholic saint that helps people in business. Now I was really confused, there wasn’t a store in sight in that picture.
Dad’s barbershop at 908 1/2 Nolan, was affectionately named “Tiny’s” barber shop after my mom because she was so petite. It was more than a barbershop. Dad was an entrepreneur; a jack of all trades and master of all. To make ends meet and to afford a Catholic education for his two sons, the shop was an array of mini businesses.
Dad was a precision sharpener, he would sharpen scissors, clippers and knives. Barbers, butchers, poultry houses, seamstresses, restaurants, from all over town would bring their cutting tools to him. He’d charge 25 cents for scissors and 35 cents for clippers. Dad could sharpen any tool.
The barber shop even featured a 3 day dry cleaning service. Customers would drop off their clothing. In the morning before shop hours, Dad would drop off the items at Midway Cleaners on Houston St. and pick up the clothing that was ready. He would receive a small commission and our clothing was pressed and starched for free. A nice arrangement since both his boys were in Catholic ROTC and our khaki uniforms had to be starched.
The tiniest used-bookstore in Texas. Dad seemed to make room for everything in his small 2 chair barbershop. Now, remember we lived in the back. He traded & sold used pocketbooks, magazines and comics. Pocketbooks 15 cents or 2 for a quarter or trade 3 for 1. My favorites were the comics; I was in comic book heaven! I loved Saturdays when the shop was most busy, and Mr Reyna, who barely spoke English, would come in with a huge bag of publications. He would also bring his kids and all would get haircuts.
Mr. Reyna was a garbage collector for the City of SA and his bag of booty were clean pocketbooks, magazines & comics he would find in the trash. I’d count them and dad would give the Reyna family haircuts and cash for the stuff. Dad really liked the Reyna family and would even it out with cash. He didn’t do that for anyone else. Mr. Reyna had a boatload of kids and garbage collectors, especially Mexican-Americans and African-Americans were not paid much.
My Dad practically did everything, he had a sign on the window that said “Small Appliances Repaired and Sold”, the window had a little display case that showcased his used appliances for sale. Waffle irons, toasters, irons and chrome hair dryers that he had bought at the Salvation Army Store.
Dad & I would go to the Salvation Army on Commerce St, across from the Southern Pacific train depot right after we dropped off my brother Sonny at St. Michael’s School. The Salvation Army would open at 8am and we would always be part of the crowd waiting for them to open. I’d instantly run to the table of broken toys. Hey, I got my first tricycle/wagon, Alamo lunch box and skates from there!
My favorite spot in the barbershop was the shine stand. A huge wooden stand with a chair as its throne and my brother and I were in charge of it. Dad taught us how to saddle-soap and shine shoes. When Sonny was not shining, I was.
Now let’s get back to San Martin Caballero…. Being a preschooler, I was always with my Mom. Sometimes Mom would have to deliver the sharpened items to businesses downtown, especially the barbershops and the two barber colleges. Back then the “Mexican part of downtown” was everything west of the San Antonio River bridge on Houston St.. Segregation was still kind of in effect and Mexican-Americans did business with Mexican-Americans. Signs still hung on downtown restaurants that read; “No Dogs, No Mexicans, No Negroes.” When the business was closed the sign would be flipped over and it would read, “Closed”. I couldn’t figure out why these restaurants would not want to do business with us? I was still innocent of prejudice and segregation. Who in their right mind would turn down more business?
Mom would pack her large purse of the sharpened utensils and we’d get on the Nolan Street bus and head for downtown. First stop we would make was San Fernando Cathedral. Knowing she was on a schedule she would hurriedly go to her saints (she called them her lawyers), kneel and affectionately whisper prayers to them.
Next, we’d be off to deliver the sharpened tools! Once we were walking in front of the old Bexar County jail that was built in 1911, on Camaron St. to get to Houston street. All these men were hanging by the windows like monkeys and began whistling. I asked Mom, “Why are they whistling at us?” Mom grasped my hand tightly and we took a faster pace to get out the area. Mom knelt before me and told me, “Son, we won’t mention this to your father that those men were whistling at us.” I agreed. Later did I realize that those prisoners were whistling at my attractive Mom.
As we entered each business to deliver the sharpening, the store owners were happy to see us. One thing I noticed in practically every humble business was a picture of San Martin Caballero. Sometimes the picture was framed in gold, others in wood and a tiny shelf under him. The shelf had a bowl of coins, small mold stained bowl of water and even some coarsely cut grass.
Mom explained that the water and grass were for San Martin’s horse and the coins in the bowl when filled up would be taken to a Church and deposited in the poor box. Martin didn’t need any food, after all he is a saint! I was mystified, I had never seen him in a single Church.
As I got older I learned the story of the mysterious San Martin Caballero…
In the middle of the 4th century, Martin was a soldier in the Roman cavalry. As the son of a Roman veteran, at the age of fifteen he was required to begin service in the army. Though never neglecting his military duty, he is said to have lived more like a monk than a soldier.
Legend has it that Martin was stationed at Amiens, Gaul when an incident occurred, which tradition and art have rendered him famous. As he rode towards the town one winter day, he noticed near the gates, a poor man, thinly clad, injured, shivering with cold, and begging alms. Martin saw that those who passed him did not bother to stop and help the miserable fellow. The man had nothing with him but the torn clothes he wore, he was freezing.
Moved with compassion Martin drew his sword from its scabbard, Martin cut his great woolen cloak in two pieces, gave one half to the beggar, and wrapped himself in the other. Martin bound his wounds pouring oil and wine. He then puts the poor man on his own horse, takes him into town to an inn and took care of him. The next day when Martin departed he gives to the innkeeper some money and said to him, ‘Take care of him. Whatever you spend beyond that, I will repay you when I return.’
Later that night, Martin had a dream of Christ wrapped in his torncloak. Martin realized the man he helped was Christ. Martin soon became a convert to Christianity. He went on to become a Bishop.
San Martin Caballero is the patron saint of beggars, drunkards, innkeepers, equestrians and business owners.
Mexican tradition holds that when someone goes into business, a friend is to present the business owner a picture of San Martin Caballero to be hung on the premises. The business owner does not buy it for him/herself. This is kind of like joining a chamber of commerce, except without the exorbitant fees. They are joining the chamber of commerce of humanity.
The image of San Martin Caballero is to serve as a constant reminder to the business owner that if someone enters their establishment and is hungry or in need, they should do as Martin Caballero did: feed them, clothe them and help them.
In return, San Martin Caballero will bless their business with many years of success. There is definitely no luck, mojo or a good luck charm to this, only blessings from Martin thru God. Saints intercede for us.
We grew up poor, but we never lacked food or shelter. Dad & Mom helped others as San Martin Caballero blessed our famly with all the necessities and especially a Catholic education.
My Dad’s San Martin Caballero image now overlooks my livingroom with plenty of water & grass for his horsey!
This Christmas may we all be a little like San Martin Caballero and reach out to those that are less fortunate.
I was fortunate to have traveled many times into Mexico. In my travels I would stop at churches, missions and basilicas. Often these houses of God would have small gift shops to support the church & poor they serve. During my visits, I’ve accumulated colorful Mexican lithographs of San Martin Caballero. If your business would like to display an image of San Martin Caballero, I will send you a complimentary image. Kindly contact me by the information below and I will send one to you.
(Photos. A rustic framed picture of San Martin Caballero that was given to Dad by my Mom, back in 1948. Tiny’s Store when my parents had a mom & pop grocery store in Silver City, NM, at the corner of E. Broadway & Corbin St. The little store even featured a gasoline hand pump outside. Valero had nothing on these guys. Dad’s “Tiny’s” barbershop at 908 1/2 Nolan St. A restaurant segregation sign from the early 1960’s.)