When I was a wee boy at Christmas-time, when the Christmas tree in our house had been fully decked out with tinsel, baubles and fairy-lights, I would look up at it and indulge in a fantasy. I fantasised that I’d shrunk to the size of one of the tiny snowmen, fairies and Santa Clauses hanging from the ends of its branches and I was living in the centre of it in an equally miniature treehouse. So that all around me were those shiny, shimmering, glittering Christmas-tree decorations, now fantastically big and a thousand times more spectacular.
Having lunch one day at the Mi Tierra Café and Bakery brought back memories of that childhood yuletide fantasy. This famous eatery does business in El Mercado in the Texan city of San Antonio. It celebrated its 75th anniversary in October this year and is as much a restaurant and bar as a café and bakery. And it’s so elaborately decorated that its dining experience is like having a meal at the heart of a gigantic Christmas tree.
Covering the ceilings are dangling constellations of big multi-coloured stars and floating galaxies of glinting fairy lights. The columns supporting those ceilings are wrapped in artificial greenery, which itself is so wrapped in coloured lights and tinselly decorations that it’s impossible to tell what the greenery is meant to be – pine, ivy, whatever. Adding to the phantasmagorical effect of the café’s interior are golden orbs, glittery ribbons, baubles shaped like hot-air balloons, miniature piñata, little snowman and angel dolls, sparkly-winged butterflies and squares of shiny coloured foil.
At one end of the premises is a drinking establishment called the Mariachi Bar, about which I scribbled in my trusty notebook at the time: “…rather less glitzy and, dare I say it, less chintzy… Its comparatively sparse decorations include a cello, mounted at a skewed angle on the wall, and a big wooden eagle raising its wings dramatically before the central mirror of the gantry.” However, this photo I took of the bar-sign hardly suggests sparseness and a lack of glitz and chintz.
At the café’s opposite end is a room containing a remarkable mural that folds around two walls. It depicts an array of Hispanic celebrities and political heavy hitters who’ve achieved prominence over the years, especially in the United States. I have to ashamedly confess that I recognised very few of them – only a handful whose fame has crossed the Atlantic like guitarist Carlos Santana, director Robert Rodriguez, actor Edward James Olmos and the dog whisperer himself, Cesar Millan.
I’m told that the mural includes the San Antonio-born Henry Gonzalez, who served as a Democrat member of the US House of Representatives for nearly 40 years and who was in Kennedy’s motorcade in Dallas on that fateful November day in 1963; the civil rights activist and labour leader Cesar Chavez, who co-founded the National Farm Workers Association; and the surrealist and folk artist Frida Kahlo, whose feminism-inflected work was once described by Andre Gide as being like a ‘ribbon around a bomb’. The mural began life in the 1970s, has gradually expanded since then and today incorporates over a hundred people.
Meanwhile, another corner of the same room houses a shrine dedicated to Selina (Quintanilla-Perez), the Mexican-American ‘Queen of Tejano Music’ who was murdered in 1995 by a former friend and employee. Since then her adulation by the Hispanic community has reached Elvis-like proportions; to the point where George W. Bush, when he was the Governor of Texas, was moved to designate her birthday ‘Selina Day’. The shrine is topped by a big framed picture of her singing on stage, the picture sounded by a purplish mane of tinsel, fake flowers and artificial birds. Smaller framed photos of her from various stages in her life crowd around the shrine’s base. There’s also a figurine of the Virgin Mary, enveloped in a halo of light, standing guard over the shrine on one side; and a statue of a girlish-looking angel acting as a sentry on its other side.
When I was there, the entrance area was dominated by an additional shrine. This was a Dia de los Muertos – Mexican Day of the Dead – shrine dedicated to deceased members of the family who’ve run the café for three-quarters of a century, most notably Pedro and Cruz Cortez, who in 1941 founded it as an early-morning breakfast place for market-workers. Back then it contained all of three tables.
A green-robed angel stood at the shrine’s summit, with a somewhat H.R. Giger-esque arrangement of horn-like spikes forming a vague halo behind her. There were also dolls, flowers, candles, papier-mâché skulls with cartoonishly-drawn features and the inevitable clutter of framed photos. I visited the café shortly before Dia de los Meurtos, which takes place from October 31st from November 2nd, and I don’t know if this shrine was a temporary one erected especially for the holiday or if it’s a permanent feature there.
During my visit, I was so busy making notes about the décor that I forgot to record anything about the Mexican food I ate. All I can say is that I don’t recall having any complaints about it. Actually, if you’re likely to be in San Antonio in the future and fancy trying the place out, here’s a link to its menu:
By the way, the Mariachi Bar has a Happy Hour every weekday evening from five to seven o’clock. However, if there’s a Christmas-loving wee kid inside you, any hour spent inside the Mi Tierra Café and Bakery is an enchantingly happy hour.