Regardless of where I travel, most conversations seem to include the same standard question: Where are you from? With the pride my home state is known for, I answer “San Antonio, Texas,“ and wait. Nine times out of ten, the response complements the NBA’s Spurs organization, or comments on the city’s love for tacos. However, under the surface lies a growing culture that was not only once shunned, but systematically repressed.
While many were still processing the change from Mexican rule to an independent state, Texas joined the union in 1845, and every Texan technically became an American citizen.
Over the next 73 years, tensions amongst citizens and settlers grew, and in 1918, Texas, along with several other states, created a law making any language other than English illegal to speak in public schools. In 1968, the US congress passed the Bilingual Education Act, allowing its citizens to no longer speak native tongues in fear.
Problem solved right? Well… nah. Fifty years of this practice completely changed the perception of cultural pride and language amongst many cultures, including Spanish-speaking Mexican-Americans. Many families chose to ignore heritage, never teaching the new generations the beauty of their roots and culture.
Fast forward on Life’s remote a few generations and you find a very interesting blend of San Antonio residents. Still a 62% Hispanic town, the influence of Mexican culture is undeniable. A new sense of pride seems to be on the rise. Previous generations who feared ridicule met a crossroads with the youth of modern times. Wanting to be proud of their culture and language while balancing individuality, a new kind of Chicano is emerging. No longer held by the constraints of being a cholo or some kind of stereotypical Mexican caricature, this new generation is blending old practices with a new swell of pride.
Traces of this are evident throughout San Antonio, but none more obvious than at N. St. Mary’s Squeezebox.
Throughout the week you can see Latinos mingling with non-judgmental Caucasians, holding their heads high, and sprinkling in a few words of Spanish in the conversation. You’ll even see Chicanos in modern day zoot suits, feather and all, Mexican soccer jerseys being sported while trap music and Selena is being sung by the youth — with all enjoying a craft cocktail.
The city’s own musical creation, conjunto (a unique blend of Mexico’s Norteno music with German influenced accordion rhythms), was created a few blocks away, and is proudly played any given time.
What brings them here? What draws various aspects of Latino culture to this location? The answer is simple. It has everything you want and need as an avid bar attendee.
With combinations including a beer and tequila shot for $5, the most budgeted drinker can visit and enjoy themselves. If you want to flex your diverse palate, you can order the most complex craft cocktail and have it served perfectly at a reasonable price.
Upon entry, a big neon guitar welcomes all with the phrase ‘Puro pinche blues (pure fucking blues)‘. Chicano artists have blessed the walls with paintings that truly reflect the city’s attitude and emotional connection to its Mexican history.
“Sundays are my favorite, I just want to drink and listen to some oldies,“ says co-owner Aaron Pena. Chicano soul records, trap music, conjunto, and even 90s freestyle music blare through the speakers while the enchanting aroma of brick oven pizza fills the air.
Following the scent of roasting garlic to the outside patio, I expected it to morph into hints of cigarette smoke, but was appreciatively wrong. My senses are more partial to fresh dough and melting cheese. This wasn’t just some national chain pizza, this was a pie.
Kitchen veteran and pizza enthusiast John Winkler and his pizza truck Sulla Strada provide fresh, made to order pies that perfectly compliment any cocktail or beer. With a variety of toppings and combinations, there’s flavor for everyone. Personally, I prefer the white pie, a sauce-less creation of mozzarella, ricotta, caramelized garlic and a garnish of fresh basil leaf.
The memory of my 8th grade art teacher telling the class “art needs texture“ kept repeating in my mind. Every bite was an experience full of texture. The brick oven created a crisp in the crust that matched perfectly with the flocculent ricotta. And the mozzarella had a slight sponginess complimented by the silky roasted garlic.
When I observe the crowd I see people of various cultures doing the same exact thing: Communicating over a drink, eating, and laughing. Through cultural differences, these are the things that make us all humans.
Such eateries serving as cultural havens provide a magical level of comfort for any visitor. Next time you’re in San Antonio, get lost in the sauce of distinct cultural pride. First places to start? The SqueezeBox and Sulla Strada.