Culture That little something extra

'Dále shine' has encouraged generations of Mexican-Americans to give it their all

San Antonio's "Shoe Shine King," Antonio Cruz, gets a polish from a young employee. (Courtesy photos)

Until a few years ago, a man who took pride in his boots or fine shoes could have them spit- and mirror-shined at 130 Houston Street in a classic and very narrow shop called Max's Shoe Shine Parlor. The shoe shiners, some of the "old school" pachuco persuasion, wore smocks with rags over their shoulders and would wait outside the shop on the sidewalk, eyeing the shoes of passersby, chanting a subtle, "shoe shine." The phrase was not so much a question as a lunch-hour accusation, a challenge to one's pride. After all, would they have bothered to ask if you didn't need a shine?

The Mexican-American man who wanted a little extra sparkle would lift himself up to a high seat along the wall, place his ready-to-be-resurrected shoes on the metal stands, and, reaching for a well-used newspaper section, declare, "Dále shine." The shoe shiner would snap his rag in response, aware that he would probably receive a good tip when the tips of the shoes were transformed into mirrors in which the customer could see himself.

Somewhere along the line, since its probable creation in the early to mid-20th century, dále shine took on another meaning, one invested with energy, encouragement, and empowerment for Mexican-Americans.

A 1938 photo of Sam Penner, who is credited with inventing the "tangerine" Stacy Adams shown on the cover, waiting on Mexican movie star Rueben Reyes.

"First of all, se dice 'dále chine' as far as I'm concerned," instructs Patricia Castillo, executive director of the P.E.A.C.E. Initiative. "Being from the West Side and listening to the "weetyweety" from all my gente, using the "ch" sound where the "sh" sound goes, was quite common and I was so relieved when we decided to make it a source of pride instead of vergüenza 'cause our gente couldn't make the "sh" sound so easily. Es todo." But is that really todo? Is that the extent of dále shine's reach?

"You hear it used all over the country in migrant camps by pachuco guys," said MacArthur Fellow and union organizer Baldemar Velasquez, exiting a recent Lanier High School student assembly in honor of Cesar Chavez. "I've heard it used in Ohio. I think it means 'to approve of something.'"

According to Joe Lopez, Chicano artist and owner of Gallista Gallery, "You can't really describe dále shine directly, you can only describe around it. We used to say 'dále shine' if we were about to get into a fight or to get up the courage to ask a girl to dance at places like Arthur Murray's downtown. Even our mothers and grandmothers have used it."

Center: A 1963, Commerce Street view of the original Penner's clothing store, which burned to the ground in 1978 and was rebuilt that same year.

Cesar Chavez march organizer Jaime Martinez recalls the time he was asked to give his first speech. "When I was first nominated to be the chief steward of my union, way back in 1968, the president of my union asked me if I wanted to make a statement. I hesitated. Then a worker yelled out in my union hall, 'Dále shine, Jaime!' That moment signified to me to move forward NOW. And I did!" He adds, "That phrase can be the difference between standing still or moving forward in your dreams."

"At the heart of it, the phrase means to give it your best no matter the situation ... even playing to two people at Taco Land," says Manuel Castillo, executive director of San Anto Cultural Arts. "It's about using all your resources to be the classiest, most fly looking dude on the block, with character and grace."

Whether you call it Spanglish, code-switching, dicho, or as poet Eduardo Garza describes it, "an encouragement of the bilingualism and understanding of life through two different languages," dále shine continues to mean many things to many people. "We're Chicanos and that crosses all borders, whether barrio or state line," says local artist and muralist Alex Rubio, but the phrase seems particularly at home in San Antonio.

"It's very Tex-Mex and very San Antonio," says Dr. Carmen Tafolla, a nationally renowned poet and writer and an early Chicano movement activist who grew up on San Antonio's West Side. She describes dále shine as "an attitude that reflects some of our culture's high value on aesthetics. I think about the phrase 'Te avientas' (you throw yourself) which is also this 200 percent kind of effort: Jump in there, pull out the best inspiration you have inside, and make it more than just 'pretty,' make it shine like a diamond. Regardless of your lack of money, resources, prestige, advantages, or anything else you think you might lack, you can still create something new and brilliant, by being exactly who you are: half-English, half-Spanish, absolutely genuinely unique and natural."

"When I tell someone to "dále shine," it also means that when they succeed, exceed their limit, or accomplish what they are out to do, we all shine."

— Patricia Castillo

The history of dále shine is tied to that of the pachucos. In the 1930s and '40s, a pachuco would have been a zoot-suit-clad youth made famous by the recently deceased pachuco balladier Lalo Guerrero, a native of Arizona. Now mostly a rare breed, pachucos retain a stylish, proud, and defiant barrio aesthetic expressed in bandanas, flannel shirts over white muscle shirts, khaki pants, thin belts, the obligatory Stacy Adams shoes, and a sense of humor - real vacilones by nature. You might see pachuco remnants in a retired Kelly Air Force Base worker sporting a stylish hat and the telltale Stacys, standing around at a family barbecue like they used to stand "around the corner" in the old days.

In 1950s and '60s San Antonio, "the look" was mostly bought at Penner's men's clothing store, which still thrives on Commerce Street near the old Spanish Governor's Palace. In the Chicano slang language called calo, it was the place to buy your tapita (hat), La Lisa (shirt), tramados (pants), and calcos (shoes). "Well, they gave you credit at Penner's. You would get your Stacys at Penner's, then you went over to get your hat at Paris Hatters," recalls Lopez.

According to Matt Penner, his grandfather Sam created the "tangerine" shoes that became a local San Antonio phenomenon. Eagerly opening shoe boxes in the back room, Penner explained how the elder Penner, who was fluent in Spanish and calo, custom-ordered the bright orange shoes from Mexico. "Back then, it was like buying a brand new car for our Mexican customers," recalls Penner. "They cherished them and would sometimes keep them for eight to 10 years."

Chicanos, Mexican-Americans, and even Hispanics, as they have for generations, are still encouraging each other to dále shine - at just the right time. Recently, the phrase "Dále Shine al Westside" has been appearing around town on yellow bumper stickers as part of the Esperanza Peace & Justice Center's neighborhood pride campaign.

"Dále shine is a phrase like 'It's cool,' a phrase that has different meanings," says Esperanza Director Graciela Sanchez. "All we did in this neighborhood that has historically been put down is decide to illuminate it and make it positive. A community of people thought about it and talked about it and 'Dále Shine al Westside' just came out. I've already seen the magic that happens when you 'shine it.'"

For Sanchez the phrase recalls the pride of West Siders who stayed put in their neighborhood when others were moving to new suburbs, and counteracts the stigma of the old Mexican-American barrios. It's time, the bumper stickers say, for the West Side to polish its faded brilliance. As Patricia Castillo says, "When I tell someone to "dále chine," it also means that when they succeed, exceed their limit, or accomplish what they are out to do, we all chine."

By Santiago Garcia

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