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What happened to Emelia Garza?

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Emelia Garza stands out as the only Mexican madam who — not only took a case to one of the highest courts in Texas — but actually won, according to University of Texas at Austin Professor Lilia Rosas. She teaches in the Department of Mexican American Latino/Latina/Latinx Studies, and wrote her dissertation on San Antonio’s red-light district.

Bryan Callaghan was San Antonio’s mayor during the late 1880s, and when he saw other cities across the country make money off of licensing brothels, he wanted to do the same. The city council passed an ordinance in 1889, to decriminalize sex work so they could start charging licensing fees.

But the city charter — which served as a local constitution — didn’t actually allow San Antonio officials to charge licensing fees on vice industry business like brothels, saloons or gambling halls. Still, the city did charge these fees to brothel owners and arrested those who didn’t pay.

One of those brothel owners was a madam named Emelia Garza. She pointed out that the fees were illegal.

"I think she raised important questions in her case where she did admit, she goes, ‘Yes, I do run a house of prostitution. I am a madam. No, I won't pay for this license. And no, your license is illegal. And yes, I am going to seek counsel to fight this. So basically screw you,’" Rosas said.

Garza’s case went up to the State Court of Appeals, and a decision came down fast. The court ruled in her favor, noting that the City of San Antonio’s charter didn’t allow them to charge these kinds of licensing fees.

City council members voted to refund the money they had collected. Then, they had to submit a request to state officials in order to revise their city charter. Finally, they rewrote the bawdy house ordinance to legally issue licenses and charge fees. This took about a year-and-a-half — time wasted when city officials probably thought they would have already seen a profit.

The second version of the bawdy house ordinance was passed July 20, 1891. Less than two months later — on Sept. 8 — Garza was declared insane by a jury of six men and put in jail. There isn’t a detailed explanation in the ruling of how or why Garza went “insane.” This is when history lost track of her.

The San Antonio Public Library helped uncover the rest of Garza's story.

Please reach out to us with questions or comments at redlights@tpr.org.


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Bri Kirkham can be reached at bri@tpr.org or on Twitter at @BriKirk
Kathleen Creedon can be reached at kathleen@tpr.org or on Twitter at @Kath_Creedon