Mario Cantú Papers, 1957-1998
Mario Cantú was a well-known restaurant owner and civil rights activist in San Antonio, Texas. He was born Mauro Casiano Cantú, Jr. on April 2, 1937 in the San Antonio apartment of his parents, Mauro Cantú and Lucrecia Casiano. Cantú, the oldest of four children, was first called “Mario” by his schoolteachers. As a child, he helped out at the family business, a small 24-hour grocery store on the West Side called the M. Cantu Super Mercado. After graduating from Tech High School, Cantú married his first wife at age 19 and worked at the family grocery full time. Several years later he convinced his father to turn the store into a restaurant. Mario’s Restaurant became one of San Antonio’s most popular Mexican-food establishments.
In the early years of the restaurant business Cantú became involved in selling drugs, an action he later attributed to family difficulties. After a 1963 heroin run to Monterrey, Mexico, he was arrested and sentenced to six years in prison at Terra Haute, Indiana. While in prison, Cantú met several Puerto Rican nationalist political prisoners, and it was their influence and spirit that first made him interested in becoming a Chicano activist. In 1969 he returned to San Antonio and began organizing “Semana de la Raza” activities surrounding the Diez y Seis de Septiembre Mexican Independence Day. He also formed a committee to examine police brutality against Chicanos and founded Tu-Casa, an organization that helped undocumented migrant workers from Mexico to gain legal status in the U.S. He got involved in La Raza Unida Party and also worked to inform Americans about torture and injustice toward Mexican political prisoners.
During this time, Cantú met and married his second wife, Irma Medellin, and his son Lucio Genaro Cantú was born. Mauro, Sr. died in 1975 and Mario took over the family restaurant business, which had become a gathering spot for San Antonio’s politically active Mexican Americans. In 1976 the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) raided the restaurant and arrested Cantú for employing illegal aliens. He became the first American ever convicted of this offense and was sentenced to five years probation. During the trial, he formed the Mario Cantú Defense Committee to seek the support of those who felt that he was being wrongly persecuted.
Cantú then turned his sights to Mexico in his fight for civil rights justice. He became close friends with Florencio “Güero” Medrano Mederos, a guerrilla organizer and chief figure in the Partido Proletario Unido de America (PPUA). The party’s function was to arm peasants so that they could seize land back from the Mexican government. Cantú made several trips to Mexico to meet with Medrano and the PPUA. In October 1978 he traveled to Oaxaca to assist with a peasant land take-over and acted as a liaison between journalist Dick J. Reavis, NBC News (who was to film the event), and the PPUA. Soon after, Cantú was summoned to appear before the court to explain this probation violation. Instead of appearing in court, he chose self-exile and spent the next year in Europe. Cantú traveled between France, Germany, and Spain, where he spoke out against injustices toward the people of Mexico. He returned to San Antonio in late 1979, faced a probation revocation hearing, and served the rest of his sentence in a correctional halfway house.
After completion of his sentence, Cantú planned to abandon his political activism and focus on his restaurant business (although in 1984 he did join the hunger strike of Leonard Peltier and others to protest unjust and inhumane prison conditions). He and his brother Hector owned several other restaurants in San Antonio. In 1985 Cantú brought Tex-Mex food to Paris when he and third wife, Teresa Gonzales, opened Papa Maya. This successful café was awarded Best Foreign Food Restaurant by France's prestigious Comité Internationale d’Action Gastronomique et Touristique. For a time in the mid-1990s he moved to New Jersey to open Adelita’s, a restaurant he ran with his daughter and son-in-law. Cantú also continued to organize community events and involve himself in various business ventures in San Antonio. Mario Cantú passed away November 9, 2000 in San Antonio at the age of 63.
The collection is comprised of the personal papers of restaurant owner and Chicano civil rights activist Mario Cantú. Materials date from 1957 to 1998 and measure 1.5 linear feet and 1 oversize box. The collection is arranged into seven series: Personal and Biographical, Correspondence, Written Works, United States of America vs. Mario Cantú, Activities and Organizations, Collected Materials, and Oversize Materials.
The first series, Personal and Biographical , consists of clippings, printed materials, photographs, journal articles about Cantú, and records of Cantú and his family. Included in this series are sheet music of the song “El Corrido de Mario Cantú” by Juan Peña and reports on Cantú from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the San Antonio Police Department.
Series two, Correspondence , contains various letters of Mario Cantú, as well as legal correspondence pertaining to his divorce from second wife, Irma Medellin.
In Written Works , the third series, there is a copy of “A Message to the American People,” in which Cantú wrote “An Open Letter to the Catholic Church.” The letter was published in the San Antonio newspaper The Westsider (formerly Chicano Times ). Also in this series are numerous politically inspired “Calaveras” written by Cantú.
The fourth series, United States of America vs. Mario Cantú , is comprised of materials that relate to Cantú’s 1976 arrest for employing illegal aliens and the trial and other events that followed. The items include clippings, photographs, printed materials, legal documents, and correspondence. Incorporated in this series are materials that pertain to the Mario Cantú Defense Committee.
The bulk of the collection exists in series five, Activities and Organizations , and it is divided into ten subseries. Types of materials in this series include clippings, printed materials, correspondence, legal documents, photographs, and reports. Information relating to Cantú’s restaurants and other business ventures can be found here, as well as materials about political and civil rights organizations with which he was involved (i.e. Partido Proletario Unido de America, San Antonio Refuse Collectors Association, and Prisoners Defense Committee). There are materials documenting a 1976 visit to San Antonio by Mexican President Luis Echeverría, against whom Cantú led a public protest. A noteworthy item in the subseries Community Events is a program from the film opening of “The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez,” a 1982 movie based on the book “With His Pistol in His Hand” by Dr. Américo Paredes. Mario’s Restaurant was a sponsor of this important San Antonio world premiere. Also, a large newsprint announcement for the film (signed by actors Edward James Olmos and Bruce McGill), exists in Oversize Materials.
Collected Materials , the sixth series, contains printed materials, political cartoons, clippings, photographs, and journals that Mario Cantú had saved between 1964 and 1997. There are diverse materials, as well as collected items specifically pertaining to Mexico/U.S. relations, police brutality to Mexican-Americans, and the appointment of Matt Garcia as Director of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. The folder on Matt Garcia also contains clippings about Morris Jaffe and Frank Sepulveda, influential San Antonio associates of his.
Finally, series seven is made up of Oversize Materials housed in 1 large box. Besides the movie announcement for "The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez," this series includes various large publications and printed materials that belonged to Mario Cantú.
Standard copyright restrictions apply.
Cite as: Mario Cantú Papers, Benson Latin American Collection, the University of Texas at Austin Libraries.
Box and Folder Inventory