Arts » Literature

'Chili Queen' Paints A Portrait Of Old San Antonio

by

comment
COURTESY
  • Courtesy

"It all began on the plaza that never slept – my favorite place in the whole of the city. In daytime, most people on San Antonio's Plaza de Armas, Military Plaza, were selling or shopping. After sundown, they came to have a good time." With those words, Marian Martinello begins her conjuring of the oft-forgotten world of the chili queens of 19th-century San Antonio.

Inspired by the true tales of mobile food vendors on the plaza, Chili Queen: Mi Historia follows 17-year-old Guadalupe Pérez as she attempts to use storytelling, music and a budding entrepreneurial spirit to help her family's business thrive. Her fictional memoir is built with actual historic artifacts — maps, recipes, folklore, photographs and songs — inserted into the narrative in order to craft a lushly detailed experience for young adults and history buffs alike.

A professor emeritus at UTSA, Martinello is no stranger to teaching history, but this is her first attempt at writing historical fiction. Building a career on historic inquiry, the lifetime teacher's previous TCU Press publications, The Search for Pedro's Story, The Search for Emma's Story, and the similarly themed Search for a Chili Queen: On the Fringes of a Rebozo, encourage readers to use evidence as a means to interpret the past. While at book signings for the latter, it became apparent to the author that there was an audience hungry for a full story from this world.

Conceptually, Chili Queen soars as it unearths an exciting piece of the past, however, there is a bit of weakness in the execution. Overall, the novel feels formulaic: With every chapter, our young female protagonist meets a character that provides her with a piece of information to incorporate into her business. When plot points occur, they often seem forced, and with a pivotal storyline introduced and resolved in the last 10 pages, it's clear that while Lupe's world is rich, her journey is murky.

Journey aside, Lupe's belly is full — and Martinello taunts her readers with descriptions so vivid the aroma of enchiladas, chili and poblanos practically wafts from the pages. As a bonus, the author includes authentic recipes adapted from 1880s-era newspaper articles and the handwritten Spanish cookbook Cocina Mexicana so readers may join our heroine in the kitchen for a bit of culinary time travel.

Despite some bumps in storytelling, Martinello's historical investigation is a worthwhile read that would shine in a classroom setting. And when it's at its best, Chili Queen paints a lamp-lit portrait of old San Antonio, complete with chili con carne cooked over an open flame, hand-rolled cornhusk cigarettes and true Texas trail driver histories.

Chili Queen: Mi Historia

Marian L. Martinello | TCU Press | $22.95 | 200 pp

Support Local Journalism.
Join the San Antonio Current Press Club

Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state. Our readers helped us continue this coverage in 2020, and we are so grateful for the support.

Help us keep this coverage going in 2021. Whether it's a one-time acknowledgement of this article or an ongoing membership pledge, your support goes to local-based reporting from our small but mighty team.

Join the San Antonio Press Club for as little as $5 a month.