The Sad Case of San Antonio Serves as Warning to Santa Ana as it Seeks to Kill Taco Trucks

Tomorrow, if all goes according to plan, the SanTana City Council will read into law an anti-taco truck ordinance they passed by a 5-0 vote two weeks ago. Councilmembers and the gadfly losers who pushed this insist that this won’t ban mobile food vendors outright (no, they’ll just make it legally impossible for the vast majority of loncheras to operate as they have for the past decade), and that the new regulations are being done because food trucks “pose traffic hazards and special danger to the safety and welfare of children and residents of the City.”

(Note that language: “special danger.” Nothing in SanTana’s recent history has received such a demonic designation by council-culeros—not gangs, not cartels, not the city’s trigger-happy police force, not anything else but carne asada.)

SanTana is the largest city in the United States with an all-Latino city council—and they’re all Democrats to boot, albeit of the vendido variety. But all (with the probable exception of Juan Villegas, who only cares about cop issues because that’s what his masters tell him to care about) will insist that their crusade against food trucks is not anti-Mexican, because no way would they ever go against la raza, you know? It’s all about health and safety for the community!

That argument, of course, is convenient bullshit. It’s one that gabacho councilmembers have used to attack Mexican street food across the United States for over 125 years. And at every opportunity, they’ve listened to the racist ramblings of a few at the expense of the hungry majority in order to pass resolutions that history has rightfully judged as racist and just plain pendejo.

But what do I know? In 2012, I wrote a book called Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America that obviously not enough people read, and definitely not anyone at SanTana City City Hall. In one of the chapters, I covered the two pioneering Mexican street-food vendors that helped make Mexican food the worldwide obsession it is: the “chili queens” of San Antonio, and the tamale men and wagons of San Francisco and Los Angeles. Much like the SanTana loncheras of today, the food scene those sellers of the past created brought their respective cities national, positive coverage and a slew of out-of-town customers. And it also inspired NIMBYers and jealous restauranteurs to do everything possible to ruin the businesses of those successful Mexicans.

I’m not going to tell the full stories of what happened in San Francisco, San Antonio, and Los Angeles, because someone, anyone should buy Taco USA. But I will offer the sad tale of San Antonio as a case study, one that will befall SanTana if politicians aren’t careful with their xenophobia.

San Antonio’s so-called chili queens—mujeres who would stage pop-up restaurants in the city’s plazas from sunset to sunrise and serve what Texans of a certain age still call chile con carne while the rest of the world calls chili—were the first famous Mexican restauranteurs in the United States. They helped to normalize a cuisine that until then was thought so spicy that it would poison people (you can look it up in my book—no, seriously). From the 1870s until well into the 1940s, the allure of the chili queens brought San Antonio hundreds of thousands of tourists annually looking to eat the city’s Mexican food.

San Anto’s city fathers tried at every opportunity to ban them in the name of modernization and proper taxation, and always insisted there was no racism behind their actions. The chili queens hung on over the decades, because demand was that high for their food. The battle was even used as a mayoral campaign plank for Maury Maverick, who—quick aside—created the word “gobbledygooks” and whose grandfather made their surname the rebellious synonym it is today.

Okay, I’m revealing too much from my book. Maverick told Mexican-American voters he’d save the chili queens, and they largely believed him. Instead, he ended up killing them once and for all with regulations in the name of health and safety. All chili queens were forced into tents and specific areas of San Antonio where they could sell their product, instead of the free-market desmadre of the past. The scene collapsed completely soon after, and it made national news. It remains an open wound in San Antonio, because the Alamo City—which essentially created Mexican food in the U.S. through all of its innovations until then—has been a national culinary afterthought ever since, so much so that Austin steals all of its ideas, and the rest of the U.S. doesn’t care. (Don’t get me wrong, Texans: I LOVE San Antonio’s food, and I will defend it more than any non-Tejano Californian should. But facts are facts.)

Does SanTana want to be San Antonio? The choice is yours, council-babosos. But heed the lessons of the past: pass your anti-lonchera resolution, and watch SanTana’s food scene turn into that of Coto de Caza.

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