The story of the rise and fall of Mario Cantú, like the slivers that fall when a cascarón bursts atop one’s head, calls to mind brightly colored bits and pieces of a moment that no longer exists. Mario, who died of complications from cirrhosis on November 9 at the age of 63, perhaps none too soon, was himself a cascarón, inside of whose head and within whose body lived San Antonio’s Don Corleone, Pancho Villa, and Cesar Chavez—and toward the end, one of the Mission City’s maddest saints. He was a restaurateur, a revolutionary, a criminal, a town character, and a friend—the kind of guy who made an impact on your head, leaving a stream of multicolored detritus in his wake. He was the last spokesman for a generation of Mexican Americans whose outlook on San Antonio had been formed in the years between the Mexican Revolution and World War II. In that era, before military bases became key to the city’s economy—and before the rush of Anglos in uniform—San Antonio was a northern Monterrey. In Mario’s view Mexican Americans were not interlopers in the life of either the United States or Mexico; they were the captives of both nations.
He began life as Mauro Cantú, Jr., the son of a universally beloved small grocer who kept a store at the corner of Pecos Street and what is now Interstate 35, where San Antonio’s downtown abuts its heavily Hispanic West Side. It was perhaps symbolic that young Mauro’s Anglo grade-school teachers could not pronounce his name and that before long, he was known, both to them and to policemen, simply as Mario.
As he told the story to me, he was first arrested at the age of fourteen, when, because he wanted to learn to be a writer, he stole a typewriter from an office near the grocery store. His debut onto police blotters led to his enrollment in a program for juvenile delinquents, headed and taught by a man named Damaso Hernandez, under whose tutelage Mario became conscious of the society and the culture that he would later exploit for both profitable and political purposes.
Adolescent Mario soon noticed, for example, that people were fleeing from the central city to the suburbs. They would no longer need a corner store, Mario told his dad. Since many of them still worked downtown, he argued, former West Siders would need a lunchtime restaurant instead. As a concession to his eldest son, Mauro Senior opened a food counter at the grocery store, selling rotisserie chickens—and a San Antonio scene took its first tentative steps.
Mario’s first came to the notice of the in crowd during the late fifties. From the beginning, the restaurant served blacks, the first major San Antonio eatery to do so, says Romulo “Chacho” Munguía, a retired printer and politico. But its early notoriety did not survive into the sixties, because its moving spirit spent most of the decade behind bars, following a 1962 conviction for a heroin sale. Transferred to the federal prison at Seagoville for the last part of his sentence, Mario studied culinary arts at El Centro College in Dallas. Caterings by the restaurant thereafter featured ice sculptures on Aztec themes and the menu for which it became rightly famous.
Out of prison in 1969, Mario was soon a distinctive figure in the burgeoning movement for Chicano rights, both because he had the money to finance his ideas and because they occupied a unique space among Mexican American thinking of the time.
For Mario, a “Mexican American” was someone of Mexican ancestry who was seeking to reform an Anglo-dominated society. He called himself a Chicano, a term that he took to mean “Mexican and American” in a very revolutionary sense. Mario believed