National Hispanic Heritage Month: María G. “Chata” Sada, Early Rest Area Pioneer

From the first decade of the 20th century to 1936, Mexican American businesswoman María G. “Chata” Sada operated an establishment for weary travelers in a remote area of west Texas that has been part of Big Bend National Park since 1944. The establishment became widely known as “Chata’s Place,” and it was basically a combined trading post, general store, cafe, and hotel. For those driving through that region of the Lone Star State, Chata’s Place was a welcome rest area and a crucial link in the local transportation network.

Chata was born in the town of Iraxuato in the central Mexican state of Guanajuato in 1884. She received her lifelong nickname, which means “flat nose” or “cute” in Spanish, at an early age. Chata married Juan Sada in 1901 in the north Mexican state of Coahuila, which is adjacent to Texas along the Rio Grande. They subsequently made their way to Texas, settling in the small and generally isolated community of Boquillas. The couple obtained permanent visas to live in the United States and built an adobe house for themselves in Boquillas.

Chata eventually set up a store and café within their home. This marked the beginning of Chata’s Place. Over time, her establishment would also include four adobe cabins on their property that were used as lodging accommodations for travelers needing somewhere to stay overnight.

While her husband crossed the Rio Grande on a daily basis to operate a silver mine in Coahuila, Chata invested her own considerable energy and ambition into running the establishment. She even took the time to learn English in order to more effectively serve those stopping at Chata’s Place for food and rest after a long day on the road. The ever-entrepreneurial Chata also cashed checks for guests and made sure that there was cold beer readily available in a kerosene-powered refrigerator.

Chata’s Place remained in business for about three decades, and it became a must-visit stopover for many of the people who found themselves spending more time than usual in that part of the world. These people included law-enforcement officers, engineers, miners, prospectors, hunters, geologists, other scientists, and nature lovers.

Chata’s unique and greatly appreciated role in running her namesake enterprise was highlighted by Ross Maxwell, who served as the first superintendent of Big Bend National Park from 1944 to 1952. Maxwell explained, “There were not many travelers to an out-of-the-way place like Boquillas in the 1920s and 1930s. It was a difficult all-day drive from [the Texas community of] Marathon – more than 100 miles [160.9 kilometers] – and all travelers were hungry when they arrived . . . Chata could hear the laboring car motor long before the vehicle was in sight; she would then start a fire in the four-holed flat-topped wood-fired stove and begin to prepare a meal. Those who were making their first visit were agreeably surprised to get a complete meal in a neat, clean dining room, with all they could eat for 50 to 75 cents.”

Chata achieved legendary status for both her large-hearted hospitality and regal bearing while operating her establishment, and she found time for a wide range of other activities as well. A key example of this involved children. She and her husband did not have any children of their own, but they raised several who were orphaned or from broken homes. Chata also raised chickens, turkeys, and goats, and she zealously protected those animals from rattlesnakes and mountain lions. In addition, she served as a teacher and midwife for communities in the region.

After Juan Sada died in 1936, Chata closed down her establishment and moved approximately 108 miles (173.8 kilometers) away to live in the city of Del Rio, Texas, for the remainder of her life.  She continued to be revered as the one-time proprietress of Chata’s Place, however, and received an enthusiastic reception when she visited the area in 1960 for an event at Big Bend National Park. Chata died in 1973 at the age of 88.

For more information on María G. “Chata” Sada, please check out https://www.nps.gov/bibe/learn/historyculture/chatasada.htm and https://tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fsa81.

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