San Francisco History

San Francisco's Foreign Colonies:
No. 3 — Spanish-Mexican

By Robert H. Willson

Still Survivors of Famous Old Families, But They Are Being Absorbed by the Newcomers.

The stranger in San Francisco might naturally start out some fine day to look for a trace of the early Spanish atmosphere of California. The Mission Dolores is still here, but it is now chiefly a landmark. There are still survivors of the famous old families of California, but they were for the most part absorbed by the inrush of the new population, intermarriage and a general acceptation of the modern order of things.

Taking the index of the Spanish language as a guide, one soon finds himself among those of a later migration from Mexico. The Mexican population of San Francisco now numbers about 4,000. At times it is probably larger than this. The Mexicans are now the nomads of the West. They furnish practically all of the man power that is required to build and maintain railroads. They also "follow the fruit," which means that they go through the country with the seasons to work in the various harvests. The Mexican consul estimates that less than half the Mexican population of North California is permanent or stationary.

Nevertheless El Cinco de Mayo, the fifth of May, demonstrates yearly that the Mexican colony of San Francisco is present and vigorous. You have only to be at the dock on a steamer day when one of the ships plying the west coast comes in to appreciate the fact that there are active and friendly relations between California and its nearest neighbors.

Quant Restaurant.

Not far from the church of Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe there is a quaint little Mexican restaurant which has not yet been discovered by those who go in search of foreign atmosphere. So many of these places have been discovered in former years, made known to the general public, and then succumbed to popularity that the identity of this one will not be revealed here. If a dozen additional patrons were to come in the Donna Paula would have to hire extra help. When the cooking ceased to be that of her own hand, it would cease to be the cooking that is probably to be found nowhere else this side of the border.

This little restaurant seats no more than 20 people and therefore it is still possible to pat out the tortillas by hand. The place is so plain and simple in all its appointments that the stranger will be astounded by its cuisine. A bowl of sopa de verduras and a plate of tortillas, fresh from the fire; a salad of lechugay tomatoes; chiles verdes, with just a tang of the cebolla; a plate of chiles rellenos con queso, the sweet green peppers stuffed with cheese, fried in batter and served with a pungent sauce; and then what you will—carne con chili, tender bits of beef in a real salsa de chili colorado; or enchiladas, home made; or gallina en pippian; or albondigas; or perhaps, a fine breast of pollo en molle. Always at the end, of course, the frijoles, but here such frijoles as make of the common bean a delicacy fit for the epicure. If you are hungry and extravagant, you might order it all. One dollar is as much as the Donna Paula considers it legitimate to charge for all that one person can eat. The bill is usually less.

All Are Friendly.

A young Mexican at the next table is enjoying a frugal meal. He hears a familiar word or two from a stranger and with the spontaniety and enthusiasm of his race comes over to offer some rare fruit that has just been brought to him by a friend from Mexico. A youth more shy takes courage from this adventure and leaves his table to bring a roll of papers. He is an artist and wants you to see his sketches. A third joins in the conversation over the cafe negro. Everything is so complete for an evening in Mexico that you inquire if there are none of those cigars from Vera Cruz to be had. To one who has cultivated the taste they excel even the Havanas.

"No, Senor," says one of your new acquaintances, a businessman from the south, "but I have kept a few for myself; tell me where is your office, and I will bring you some." And the next day the office boy brings you in a package of choice and unpurchasable cigars.

It is not only the food but the spirit of Old Mission that you find here. A poet sometimes appears to recite his verses, and the pretty little muchacha of four years comes out of the kitchen when she feels disposed to dance the tango. On rare occasions only will you hear a single word of the English language.

There is another little Mexican restaurant in the same quarter, with mural decorations by well-known artists, which is worthy of a visit and may appeal more readily to the uninitiated. Close by are the tiendas, panaderias and shops where all of the Mexican delicacies and curious are obtainable. Pan is a Mexican dessert. You have tortillas with your dinner and bread if you wish cake. Preserved pumpkin or conserva de calabasas is another of the dulces for which you might search uselessly unless you found your way into the Mexican quarter and the tienda. It is always an entirely new field of exploration for the American housekeeper and cook.

The Mexicans who are building and keeping in repair the railroads come in at El Paso by the thousands and move out all over the West, sometimes in large gangs, sometimes in isolated groups. The Southern Pacific Company transacts almost as much of the business among the Mexicans in California as does their own consul general stationed in San Francisco.

Like Their Weapons.

Among the problems now confronting this group of newcomers is one that arises entirely through ignorance of the law. There is a new statute which forbids the possession of firearms by anyone not a citizen of California. The Mexicans working on lonely and isolated sections of the railroad have become accustomed to keep some small weapon for self-protection. A number of them have been arrested, not for using such weapons, but for having them in their possession. The constitutionality of the law has been brought into question and there will probably be an appeal to the higher courts.

With the restriction of immigration Mexican labor has become almost indispensable to the agricultural as well as the railroad industry. The returns from manual labor have become so large that it offers comparative luxury for large families of Mexicans and Spanish.

A Spaniard living on Telegraph Hill, where there is a picturesque section of the colony, found no little difficulty in supporting a family of eight children until this year, when he heard of a dearth of help in the country. He took his entire family and moved out to the orchards and gardens of the San Joaquin valley. A number of the children were old enough to pick fruit. This man when he came back to his home in the city a few weeks ago, announced proudly that he had saved $2,000 in the season, besides finding a comfortable and healthful living for his family.

There is a mistaken impression about the Mexican people as a whole. If some of them seem to be lacking in industry, it is because of lack of incentive. A number of the big ranches in Mexico lease the land to those who were formerly peons. Then you see the Mexican family in the fields at 4 or 5 o'clock in the morning and coming home after it is dark. Ambition anywhere must have an incentive.

Favorite Diversions.

Music and dancing are the favorite diversions of the Mexicans and Spanish. Occasionally there is a theater, when a traveling troupe of entertainers finds its way this far from Mexico City. The theatrical entertainments are usually given in Fugazi Hall, which also harbors many of the Italian social functions. When there is no theater there is still enough local talent to provide its own amusement. You hear the strains of waltz or tango issuing from an upper window, but instead of a formal party you find a group of neighbors with mandolin and guitar enjoying themselves.

There have been, during the past decade, many promiment and influential citizens from Mexico, resident in San Francisco for considerable periods of time. Some of them were political refugees and others escaped from communities where the revolution was making life too uncomfortable and uncertain. For the most part, they have returned to their homes in Mexico. Rosters of public and private schools, however, still show a large number of pupils speaking the Spanish language, who are here for the educational advantages offered by American schools.

When stable conditions are reached in Mexico and the present friendly relations of the two republics are more thoroughly established, it is probable there will be a larger American population in most of the Mexican cities than there is Mexican population in American cities. There is but a small part in the Southwestern corner of this country that is like home to the Mexican, and it is rapidly developing into a much too busy and noisy condition to attract those who were the first settlers of California.

There is an old story which illustrates the long misunderstanding that has existed between the Mexican and the American neighbors along the border. The Mexican does not believe in the American word "hurry." He has plenty of time. If you ask him when, "manana" (tomorrow) is apt to be his answer. To a great many other questions he may reply noncommitally "Quien sabe?" literally, "Who knows," implying as well, "I do not."

A funeral procession passed down the street of a border city. Said an American bystander to a Mexican, "Who is dead?"

"Quien sabe," replied the Mexican.

"Well that's not so bad," suggested the American. "Now if his old friend 'Manana' should die tomorrow [we] might get somewhere."

That has been one point of view, but not a fair one. A certain indirection is characteristic of the Spanish language and makes it rather picturesque. This indirection also carries with it a degree of politeness and courtesy. To many questions which you would answer in the affirmative, you do not say, "yes," flatly, but, "Como no," meaning, "Why not."

To understand the Mexican one should spend a year or so on the other side of the border. The habit of "quien sabe," and "manana" comes very naturally there. Things are not certain, definite and regular nor does anything move as rapidly.

It will be a long time before a modern American city is anything like home to a race transplanted from the quiet little cities and fields of Mexico. Where is the plaza when the sun goes down, that quiet, shady square with the orchestra playing music that is sometimes dreamy, sometimes gay, but never harsh or noisy? What is there to take the place of that promenade which brings a large part of the people down to the central square to sit about under the trees and listen to the mocking birds wakened by the music and the hum of conversation? How are the cebolla and the chilli to be enjoyed in stuffy and heated rooms after they have been tasted in the balmy air beneath the arbor? Where does one go for a moonlight stroll in the alameda?

The Mexican who comes to San Francisco has to be ambitious, at least to make money. He leaves too much behind that is alluring to come here otherwise. The resident of a metropolis who thinks he has all the best of it in the great rush of modern city life may be almost as ignorant as the Mexican who looks about him terrified upon his arrival. To sleep on a broad piazza in the open air, to be awakened in the morning by the parakeets and ravens, to stroll leisurely down the jasmine-scented lane to a breakfast of papaya, and husvos and cafe with a loaf of pan, to climb into a saddle and be off for a day in fields of corn and tobacco and to lunch on the milk of a cocoanut brought down from the top of a tall palm in the shade of which one taken his siesta, is, perhaps after all not unattractive compared to climbing into a little corner in the fourteenth story of a skyscraper and spending a day at the desk.

"I cannot find a home," said a Mexican who had just arrived with his wife and baby, and that was all the comment or criticism he had to offer about San Francisco.

From this point of view it is true that there are few homes in the city available to him. The Mexican family is accustomed to its own little house, no matter how humble and inexpensive. Down in the tropics, it is necessary only to have a good machete, an instrument which is always at hand and serves almost every purpose. One can then go to the river, cut his palos, bind them together with thongs of tough bark for walls and thatch the whole with palm leaves. A little ingenuity and plenty of hard work result in a very comfortable bungalow. What a contrast to two or three rooms in a big flat or apartment building, the most moderate-priced, of course, for the newcomer! The Mexican does not naturally like a dirty or ill-kept place. When you find him there he has been forced into it by circumstances. On a big ranch in Mexico the winter has seen hundreds of laborers coming out every other day in freshly washed clothing. In what other rural district will you find the same fastidiousness about working clothes? That is where the laundry work is done with much hard labor by the women down on the bank of the river.

The Mexicans are excellent artisans. You will find in many of the little towns of Old Mexico a man who takes a big log of mahogany and, working day by day, with a few simple tools, turns out in the course of time a beautifully finished guitar or violin. It is not difficult to find a mechanic who will repair an automobile although the automobile has been very slow in getting into Mexico on account of lack of roads and the unsettled conditions of the country. The man who has spent years in plowing fields with a crooked stick keenly appreciates machinery. Quite a number of the Mexicans who have settled permanently in San Francisco have become wood workers or skilled laborers in the metal industries.

There is a probability that San Francisco's Mexican colony will increase slowly as business develops between the two countries. There will be more business men, and clerks engaged in commerce. The industrial population on the other hand, shows a tendency to wane. There are as big opportunities today in Mexico as there have been in the United States, and with the return of peaceful conditions, and friendly relations stimulating all sorts of enterprise, the call of the Mexican is homeward. The flight of La Golondrina is Southward.

Source: San Francisco Examiner. 2 December 1923. K3. Pictures not included: professional dancers, a padre, a little senorita, and the Church of Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe.

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