Cinco de Mayo & the Latino Community in Old San Francisco

The first Cinco de Mayo celebration in San Francisco I’ve come across happened in 1867, five years after Mexico’s victory at the Battle of Puebla. The Daily Alta reported: “our Mexican population assembled last night in Dashaway Hall [south side of Post between Kearny and Grant], to celebrate the anniversary of the Battle of Puebla, fought on the 5th of May, 1862, and in which the Mexican Liberal Army achieved a victory over the French invaders. The rear end of the Hall was tastefully decorated with the flags of the United States and Chile. Immediately back of the speaker’s platform hung the portrait of General Saragossa, encircled, as was a lithographic picture of the battle-ground of Puebla, with handsome floral wreaths. On the right hung photograph portraits of the President of the United States, and Hidalgo, and Corona: on the left, those of Juarez, Morelos and Rube [?]. Over the table in front was spread the Mexican Flag, and the reading-desk was adorned with large and handsome bouquets. . . .”1

Three years later, on the eve of May 5, 1870, in honor of the eighth anniversary of said battle, the “Mexican artillery company” mounted Telegraph Hill, and from its heights fired off an 100 gun salute.2 This small bit of info brings up an interesting point about pre-1906 San Francisco which most current inhabitants do not realize: the Latino community of Old San Francisco was located in North Beach. Today, it’s a no-brainer to locate the heart of the Latino community in the Mission District, and due to the obvious correlation with the old Spanish mission there it can also be easily assumed that SF’s Latino population has primarily remained there since before the California Gold Rush, but that’s not the case. In fact, the Mexican elements of the original Mission area were promptly meted out in the wake of the Mexican-American War in the 1840s, and when SF became a city within a state of the U. S. as we know it today, in the early-1850s, the Mission District was transformed into a getaway from the city proper, with numerous race tracks, hotels, bars, gardens, and family retreats. The sizable Latino population surrounding SF’s Mission District today did not coalesce there until the mid-1900s.

Yglesia de Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe at left, from below Taylor Street, looking down Broadway to the bay (across the bay is Oakland, and you can see Mount Diablo up on the horizon)
Yglesia de Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe, from Mason Street

One of the only remnants of the original pre-1906 Latino quarter of SF is Yglesia de Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe (Our Lady of Guadalupe Church) located at 906 Broadway, between Mason and Taylor streets, where the base of Russian Hill meets North Beach. [Lady of Guadalupe is the patron saint of Mexico.] Though the current structure–designated SF historic landmark #204–was a reconstruction in the wake of the 1906 Earthquake and Fires, the history of the church goes back to Christmas Day, 1875, when it was established for the nearby Latino, Hispanic, and Italian communities. Furthermore, it is worth noting that at that time, it was the only Catholic church in the city that included services in Spanish,3 and was referred to as “the Spanish church.”4 Also interesting, is that the editor of the city’s Spanish newspaper La Republica, the voice of the “Spanish quarter”5 at the time, lived just across the street from the church, on Himmelmann Place.6

In the latter part of the 19th century, poet Charles Warren Stoddard published reflections on the city from his youth, and had this to say of the Spanish quarter circa 1855, that is, the commercial heart of the Latino community along Broadway at the base of Telegraph Hill, about four or five blocks east from where Our Lady of Guadalupe Church was later established: “We knew the Spanish quarter at the foot of [Telegraph Hill] by the human types that inhabited it; by the balconies like hanging gardens, clamorous with parrots; and by the dark-eyed senoritas, with lace mantillas drawn over their blue-black hair; by the shop windows filled with Mexican pottery; the long strings of cardinal-red peppers that swung under the awnings over the doors of the sellers of spicy things; and also by the delicious odors that were wafted to us from the tables where Mexicans, Spaniards, Chilians, Peruvians, and Hispano-Americans were discussing the steaming tamal, the fragrant frijol, and other fiery dishes that might put to the blush the ineffectual pepper-pot.

from an article about the “window gardens” of the Spanish quarter in the S. F. Call, April 19, 1896.

“Everywhere we heard the most mellifluous of languages–the ‘lovely lingo,’ we used to call it; everywhere we saw the people of the quarter lounging in doorways or windows or on galleries, dressed as if they were about to appear in a rendition of the opera of ‘The Barber of Seville,’ or at a fancy-dress ball. Figaros were on every hand, and Rosinas and Dons of all degrees. At times a magnificent Caballero dashed by on a half-tamed bronco. He rode in the shade of a sombrero a yard wide, crusted with silver embroidery. His Mexican saddle was embossed with huge Mexican dollars; his jacket as gaily ornamented as a bull-fighter’s; his trousers open from the hip, and with a chain of silver buttons down their flapping hems; his spurs, huge wheels with murderous spikes, were fringed with little bells that jangled as he rode,–and this to the accompaniment of much strumming of guitars and the incense of cigarros.”7

Furthermore, in 1902, a book titled San Francisco and Thereabout was published that highlighted the Latino quarter just after the turn of the century: “The Mexican restaurants of the Latin quarter at the base of Telegraph Hill, serve all sorts of hot concoctions–peppery stews, chicken tamales, frijoles, and the flat corn cakes so dear to the Mexican stomach, tortillas, with Chili con carne and red peppers to warm up the meal. Italian restaurants stand side by side with the Mexican on Broadway . . .”8 This last sentence is interesting to note, as today, the North Beach neighborhood is presented to SF visitors as the “Little Italy” of SF–with the Italian flag painted on light poles even–but its root as the city’s early Latino quarter was soon forgotten following the neighborhoods destruction in 1906. For instance, in 1922, when the S. F. Call reviewed a new movie called Singed Wings playing at the California Theater, which was filmed in and around SF, the reviewer wrote: “Bebe Daniels, the star, is a perfect fit . . . in the role of the dancer in a cafe of the Spanish quarter of San Francisco, where ever that is.”9

Notes

1 Daily Alta, May 7, 1867; Langley’s City Directory of 1867, 157.

2 Sacramento Union, May 6, 1870.

3 Langley’s City Directory of 1880, 1108; they also had a service in Italian, so in other words, its history shows how the area was populated sizably of both communities.

4 Daily Alta, Dec. 13, 1884.

5 S. F. Call, Oct. 21, 1892.

6 Langley’s City Directory of 1892, 430.

7 Charles Warren Stoddard, In the Footprint of the Padres (A.M. Robertson, 1912), 54-55.

8 Charles Keeler, San Francisco and Thereabout (California Promotion Committee, 1902), 46.

9 S. F. Call, Dec. 18, 1922.

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