Mexican American businesses in San Antonio date back to the early 1850s shortly after Tejanos, as they were called, became American citizens by virtue of the American victory in the war with Mexico.
Latino businesses were generally small family enterprises, and the majority of the initial family-run businesses disappeared by the 20th century. With the exception of Jose Cassiano and his heirs who outfitted cowboys and the cattle drives, we know little about these 19th century San Antonio businesses. This is because the early observers and historians never thought it important to mention them.
This essay is an account of a few of the 20th century Mexican American businesses that contributed to the expansion of the city’s Westside. In the 1920s Latinos began moving west from the center of town (Laredito)–and with their movement west, Latino businesses gained new customers by providing services and goods to Mexican immigrants who were arriving in significant numbers during the Mexican Revolution and the 1920s.
Mexican Americans were especially active in the food industries. The B. Martinez Sons Company, which sold tortillas and other corn products, opened its doors in San Antonio in 1896 (initially known as El Azteca Molinos). Located on Leona Street just west of San Pedro Creek, the business is listed today as a tortilla factory and it recently celebrated 123 years of making corn products in San Antonio. The factory, across the street from the Navarro Achievement Center, has a long history. The company was founded by Jose Bartolome Martinez, known as Bartolo Martinez in the 1910s.
Roy G. Martinez, a grandson of the senior Martinez, notes that Martinez Sr. founded his first mill on Dolorosa Street in the heart of Laredito, the first large Mexican barrio of San Antonio. As the mill produced more and more masa (corn) it moved to a larger space on Leona Street where it resides today. On a daily basis, Martinez produced huge volumes of masa, known by its trade name Tamalina, a dehydrated corn flour used to make tortillas, tamales, and corn chips.
Roy G. Martinez and other members of the Bartolo Martinez family credit their grandfather with selling more corn than anyone in the United States in the early 20th
century. The family also credits the elder Martinez with commercializing corn chips in America.
Bartolo Martinez was certainly a pioneering Latino businessman of a national statue. He introduced ideas on how to mass produce tortillas to an American market, as well as how to take surplus tortillas and turn them into corn chips. Today there are about 418 tortilla factories in the United States whose sales amount to $5 billion in revenue annually.
Another businessman in the Westside neighborhood, Fernando Guerra, attended elementary school across the street from B. Martinez Sons Company and went on to the University of Texas to study pharmacy. After his graduation, Guerra worked at the Socorro Drug Store and Navarro Drug Store before opening his own pharmacy on the corner of South Pecos and Guadalupe. Guerra’s Drug Store and the surrounding neighborhood were the gateway to the growing Westside of San Antonio.
As San Antonio Westsiders traveled west on Guadalupe Street, passed the Martinez Funeral Home, and crossed the railroad tracks, the three major icons of the Westside–the Guadalupe Theater, the Progreso Drug Store, and Progreso Theater–became visible.
The Progreso Theater opened in the late 1920s just as the film industry converted from silent to “talking” movies. Former Texas State Senator Joe Bernal grew up a block from the barrio theater district and remembers selling candy to customers entering the Progreso Theater in the mid-1930s.
Bernal loved watching movies at the Progreso and would stand near the entrance on Tuesdays and Thursdays when “dos por uno” (two for one) promotions were in effect. He got in free by convincing someone attending the movie alone to include him. On the weekends the Progreso offered popular Hollywood movies featuring Tarzan and Flash Gordon.
Bernal called the corner of Brazos and Guadalupe the “center of my universe.” His father’s cousin, Pedro Bernal, operated the Progreso Drug Store and his family frequented Progreso Cafe, a Mexican restaurant next door owned by Santos Villarreal’s family.
These three businesses were located on Brazos and Guadalupe, across from the well-known Casa Grande Restaurant. After school and on the weekends, Bernal and his friends would stop by Casa Grande or Progreso
Cafe next to Progreso Drugs to buy pan dulce. In the late 1930s, Casa Grande was owned by Pancho and Rosa Gomez. No other intersection in the Westside of San Antonio had as much popularity and fame.
Bernal’s Guadalupe neighborhood included the Black Cat taxi stand next to the Guadalupe Theater, as well as the Mexican Christian Institute, a block away on Guadalupe and San Jacinto. Bernal worked part-time at the Mexican Christian Center under the direction of executive director E.G. Luna. Bernal had fond memories of taking woodwork classes at the Inman Center on Colima and San Jacinto which the Mexican Christian Center operated. The Inman Center offered after-school programs in the arts and crafts as well as family counseling.
A major Federal Housing project came to San Antonio in 1938 and changed the landscape of the Westside. By 1939, the land had been acquired to build two large public housing structures in the Guadalupe church Parrish area.
The Alazan Courts were completed in 1941 and the Apache Courts followed that same year. Green Peyton, author of San Antonio: City in the Sun, wrote that the “two projects covered about sixty acres–ten city blocks”
providing housing for 1,180 families or nearly sixty-five hundred people.
My own family moved to the new Apache Courts on the southern edge of the housing project in 1941. They did not stay long as my dad joined the Army Air Corp after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and we moved to the back of my grandmother’s grocery store on 900 Leal Street.
In 1941, a construction crew had already demolished Juan Vidauri’s tire shop on the corner of Guadalupe and Brazos streets and had started building the Guadalupe Theater. The famed theatre opened its doors in 1942, just as the Westside was sending its sons and daughters to fight in World War II.
The theater took the name Guadalupe to compliment the well known Guadalupe Catholic Church located one block north on El Paso Street. Centrally located, the Guadalupe Theater and Guadalupe Church stood at the hub of a newly created commercial zone west of downtown.
There had never been a better time to open a Spanish language theater than in the 1940s. The
Guadalupe Theater opened as “La Epoca de Oro” (the Golden Era of Mexican Cinema) was underway. In this famous cinema period,1936-1958, Mexico’s film industry flourished and Mexican films gained great popularity in the barrios of the United States as well as in South America and Spain. For the Spanish speaking world, Mexican films featuring great singers, beautiful actresses, and entertaining comedians more than filled the movie void. The Guadalupe Theater featured only Spanish language movies, while the Progreso Theater offered English language movies on the weekends. The Westsiders flocked to the Guadalupe to see Pedro Infante, Jorge Negrete, Maria Felix, and Dolores de Rio, but for many movie fans, young and old, the films by Cantiflas and Tin Tan delighted the most. In the age before television, everyone went to the movies.
The early success of both the Progreso and Guadalupe Theaters demonstrated that Westsiders appreciated neighborhood entertainment venues. While film lovers from the Westside could see movies at the downtown Spanish-language theaters, they actually had a choice of two excellent movie houses on Guadalupe and Brazos streets.
Much has changed in the old commercial hub of the Westside. Today the Guadalupe and Brazos corner is home to the Guadalupe Cultural Center which uses the old Guadalupe theater for cultural events. The Cultural Center has also opened a small gallery at the old Progreso Drug Store. The Progreso Cafe and Progreso Theater closed their doors in the early 1960s and today the buildings are utilized by numerous Guadalupe cultural activists. Near the corner is the well known Jesse Trevino Veladora sculpture, a new art landmark for the neighborhood.
The entrepreneurial spirit is still thriving in the Westside. Many of San Antonio’s 44,000 Latino small businesses are located west of I-35. Westside businesses include small barber shops, pharmacies, funeral homes, raspa stands, and food trucks. Nonetheless, Westsiders continue to spend more and more each year in the larger national chains, such as Family Dollar and McDonald’s.