She became my Girl With a Pearl Earring. I knew that she lived but nothing else about her. I called her Lupe Pérez and wove her into a story of late nineteenth century San Antonio. To this day, I wonder what she might think if she could read Chili Queen: Mi historia.
Writing Lupe’s story gave me an opportunity to gently introduce some ideas for readers to mull. Lupe’s romance with Peter unravels perhaps more because of his family’s objection to a working class Mexican American girl than to their interest in making a match for him. Matters of race and socio-economic status were as real in late nineteenth century San Antonio as they are today, although not talked about openly. The Pérez family accepts their lower status in American society. They do not contest it. Mamá offers that as a reason for Peter’s decision. No one raises objection. Younger brother José is the only one who speaks up about his rights.
In late nineteenth-century San Antonio, women did not enjoy many opportunities for personal advancement. They were second-class citizens, and Mexican American working class women had perhaps even fewer rights. Lupe is unique in her striving for entrepreneurial success. Despite a lack of formal education, Lupe is intelligent, and she tries many different ways to improve business at her family’s chili stand. She takes risks with money she does not have and ultimately makes a bold move when she decides to open a fonda instead of moving the chili stand to another plaza.
During Women’s History Month it is helpful for every reader to reflect on the constraints within which working class women had to function, how far women have come since Lupe’s day, and how much remains to be done to achieve equality of opportunity for all women, especially women of color with limited resources, inadequate education, but a strong desire to surmount difficulties. Lupe Pérez, a smart and mature seventeen year old, is willing to lose to gain.
My Girl With a Pearl Earring looks back at us from the photograph taken by Frank Hardesty on Military Plaza in 1886. What was she thinking then? What would she think if by some magic, her rebozo could transport her to twenty-first century San Antonio, where she might understand the importance of her legacy for enterprising business women in our city? What would she say about the story I have spun around her? I hope she would be pleased.
~Marian Martinello, author of Chili Queen: Mi historia, The Search for a Chili Queen, The Search for Pedro's Story, and The Search for Emma's Story