La tortillera. DR

Woman Making Tortillas – Diego Rivera, 1972

I found myself at a recent Fiesta party making small talk with a small Hispanic woman toasting handmade tortillas over an old charcoal stove, “How long have you been doing this?”, I ask. “Oh, most of my life.” came her answer. “I used to serve tortillas at this party with my mother when I was just a little girl. My mother did this until her dying day at 84, and I’ve done it ever since.” I ask, “So are your daughters interested in following in your footsteps?” “Oh, no.” she replies, “My daughters aren’t at all interested; my daughters-in-law have no interest either. I will be the last.” Her words stung me with regret. I’m certain her daughters all have a college education and have moved on from such a simple life. Soon, we will only tell our children of the Chili Queens and Tortilla Ladies that used to create the unique flavors of San Antonio.

So many stories have been lost in such a short time. I was recently strolling down my street when my neighbor started telling stories of our street “back in the day.” Sid talked about how when he had first moved into his house over thirty years ago, that most of the neighbors were in their nineties. These were the keepers of the history; those who knew the neighborhood as it used to be. They had shared many stories with Sid that were never written; never recorded- oral stories passed on as coffee talk. They shared with my neighbor stories of our street well before the road was paved and even before the horse-drawn wagon had pulled up to his lot with the lumber that built the house in which he lived today.

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They told stories of when there was once a small stone Indian village called Avoca, down the hill where they would herd the buffalo into slaughter. The medicine men used our hill for its resources of peyote and mountain laurel beans used for inducing a spiritual journey in the cave down the street. My neighbor’s house directly across the street is said to occupy once sacred ground (a lore of which I am certain they are unaware of).

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Indian village at the headwaters of the San Antonio River by Susan Dumas


The old folks told of how the Irish rancher had driven the Indians off his ranch and built the first ranch house on the hill over looking San Antonio- the house we stood chatting in front of now; a simple column-fronted house set behind a circular driveway, “The conical tower is now gone, but you can still find the well in the side yard.” Sid mentions. The House served both as ranch headquarters, as well as an inn for travelers. The cheapest rent went for tent sites under the huge oak tree that still stands across the street.

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These tenants; bandits, such as Sam Bass and John Wesley Hardin gave the hill its name, Outlaw Hill. Here, they would camp within view of San Antonio down the hill, but within easy escape to the rugged Hill Country north. They could water their horses down the hill at the creek (now Broadway, where I walk to buy my Starbucks coffee every morning). Then, they would mount their ponies and make the short ride down the creek to the nearest brothel that once stood just outside of town; and where today, a high-rise condo advertises the views. Sid mentions he once found a token under his house used by the house of ill-repute.


Brothel as it might have been

At the turn of the century, a developer re-branded the hill, “Alamo Heights” and paved roads around its crest. There was a hunt club built down the street and the ranch house (eventually, rebuilt grander a few blocks over) was turned into an exclusive private club. Yet even then, the stories continued; such as, the story of the giant oak with the concrete crouch around the corner, where a family had once displayed their young daughter as in a coffin after she had turned blue from the poison she had consumed as a caution to those who would follow her fate.


The City would eventually reach towards the neighborhood with a trolley line to the end of the street that would bring visitors that would bring visitors to the headwaters of the San Antonio river and a lovely bucolic lake with gondoliers that would row young lovers dressed in their Sunday best.


Like the Chili Queens, the Lake is now long gone and forgotten, lost to flood control, along with the trolley. The trolley stop can still be seen as a bus stop along a busy four-lane avenue. I still have my stone wall with an iron gate that, although ample once for a buggy, we must carefully squeeze our cars through every morning.

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The old-timers have left the neighborhood now (many feet first), and with them, the lore; the oral stories told over and over again. Little is written to validate their truth, but they still hang with us- barely a whisper now as the wind still rustles the leaves of the old oaks that once bared witness to a time now most forgotten- and I wonder, what could be found in that old filled water well under my house?