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Posted on: June 8, 2022

Grandma Was a Bootlegger: Rising Above Economic Segregation in Silver City

Chihuahua Hill

I got my chance to learn about bootlegging in Chihuahua Hill while interviewing a woman named Mary who divulged to me in a hushed whisper, “My grandma was a bootlegger.”

by Javier Marrufo


Raised by my grandparents, I had always heard the stories of the poverty they lived through. Mexican Americans consistently occupied lesser positions, received lower pay than their Anglo counterparts, and many were outright discouraged to seek betterment through education. Many people worked multiple side jobs just to get by. Whispers of bootlegging laced the casual conversations of my elders, but I never asked about it outright. 


I got my chance to learn about bootlegging in Chihuahua Hill while interviewing a woman named Mary who divulged to me in a hushed whisper, “My grandma was a bootlegger.” 


Mary regaled me with the stories of her Grandma Josefa, who illegally bought and sold alcohol from her house, hiding the contraband in a galvanized steel trash can bought from Schadel’s Bakery. The tin can retained cold better than the common tin bins of the time. She told me how she helped her grandma, hauling ice from the ice plant on Bullard Street, or finding bottles to reuse in the Big Ditch. 

“I would go to the arroyo, to the depot, to look for wine bottles. I would find some and I would come and wash them for my grandma real good, soaking with water with a hose and everything, put them in the sun. Then I would help her pour with a pitcher. Then they were ready for my Grandma to sell for $1.50” They were fun stories. I learned that aside from bootlegging, Mary’s grandma owned rental property; another source of income. 


Mary is proud of her Grandma who made money where she could, remarking with a grin, “My Grandma was a hustler.” 


A few months and a dozen oral histories later, I learned that bootlegging was a common practice in Silver City. Throughout the early 20th Century, “blue laws” prohibited the sale of alcohol on Sundays, frustrating citizens and alcohol serving establishments alike. The area was ripe for business, and many took advantage. Everyone I interviewed seemed to know someone in the bootleg game. I found myself expressing, “It seems like everybody’s Grandma was a bootlegger.” 


After making that comment to an interviewee named Fred, I was reacquainted with a familiar name as he cheerily recounted, “There was quite a few bootleggers here, one of them was my Grandma. She lived on the Southside of town, and her name was Josefa Salazar.” It turns out Mary and Fred are first cousins. 


I’m not sure if I had any preconceived notions about bootleggers, but Fred’s account gave me a vivid picture. Grandma Josefa struck a deal with the owner of La Alianza, part social club, part-time bar and dance hall, located at the foot of Chihuahua Hill. Josefa supplied alcohol to La Alianza, dedicating a room of her house as a recreation area for her clientele. A Sunday beer could be enjoyed over a game of cards, and the miracle cure of menudo was available to anyone nursing a hangover. In time, the business expanded as she casually paid anyone who would deliver product for the weekend sales. Grandchildren were always happy to help, hoping to earn some candy money. It was lucrative for the times. According to Fred, beer ran about $2 for three quarts. 


These small transactions supplemented other income and often meant the difference between going to sleep hungry or not. 


Josefa put her money to good use. “My Grandma, a lot of people claimed that she was rich. I don’t know how rich she was, but I can tell you one thing. She had a lot of property,” Fred told me with an air of sentimentality. She rented most of her properties, multi-room apartments and old adobe houses. Her renters often consisted of viejitos, widows, and divorcees. She would take them in, feed them from time to time, and provide affordable living. Other properties were reserved for her family. Fred proudly lives in one of her properties to this day, nearly 70 years later. 


Josefa Salazar was a Mexican-American businesswoman living in the informally segregated Silver City of the early 20th Century. Her story isn’t uncommon. Although strictly residential today, Chihuahua Hill of the thirties, forties and fifties was full of small, family businesses, most run by women. Restaurants and grocery stores usually operated out of family homes, in converted front rooms, or freshly built additions. Restauranteurs, grocers, and bootleggers were often one in the same. 


I asked if these casual bootleggers were ever troubled by the law. Fred told me how the barrio looked out for their own. “Even the cops knew, but I think a lot of them did them the favor and didn’t prosecute them because that’s the way they were making their living, you know.” Warnings traveled from house to house when “federales,” government agents from Santa Fe, lurked up and down the pitted dirt streets of Chihuahua Hill looking for a potential bust. 


Fred and I talked for a few hours. He concluded the interview by saying, “I’m not ashamed, she was a bootlegger. She made her living. She had to. They had to. They had to do what they had to do to make a living, because there was only the mines.” 


These were the same mines whose segregated wages led to the famed Empire Zinc Strike in the early 1950s. I understood the position Josefa was in. She was a single woman, a mother, and a grandmother. She lived in a world where economic lines were drawn along racial or gender divisions. Josefa, like so many others, did what she could with what she was given. She provided for her family and tried to help others where she could. 


Bootlegging lasted only as long as the blue laws. Stores and restaurants typically lasted until the deaths of their owners. The arrival of brand stores like J.C. Penny’s or K-mart provided the final nail in the coffin for most family-owned businesses on Chihuahua Hill. The decades have past, and most are now memories of those old enough to remember. By doing these interviews, it is plain to see the respect that people still have for those people who provided for their community any way they could. Josefa Salazar lived and died long before I was born, but I’m grateful that I’ve learned her story. 


Josefa’s story is one of countless that have materialized through interviews over the course of the Chihuahua Hill History Project.
 That is the importance of this project. Everyone has mothers, fathers, grandparents, or siblings, whose actions comprise the most precious memories of our lives, whose guidance has contributed to the physical, emotional, and cultural well-being of their community. The project seeks to shine a light on them. 




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