A “cantina” is a bar or saloon. Tex-Mex restaurants often use the name “cantina.” The “cantina” (for “saloon") had been popular in Mexico and in Texas by the 1890s.
Throughout Texas today, “cantinas” are often frequented by Mexican men, who are served by “cantineras” (barmaids). The cantina is not infrequently a place of prostitution.
Cantina is a word that can refer to various places and establishments. It is similar in etymology to “canteen”, and is derived from the Italian word for a wine cellar, winery, or vault. It is probably derived ultimately from the Late Latin canto, meaning “corner”.
Cantinas are found in many towns of Italy. The cantina, being fresh and humid, is also used to store meat products such as salame.
The term cantina entered the French language circa 1710 as cantine. It was used originally to refer to the shop of a sutler. From 1744, cantine acquired the meaning also of a “small tin for water or liquor, carried by soldiers on the march.” The English language also uses the term “canteen” to refer to this type of flask.
Cantinas in the Spanish-Speaking World
It entered the Spanish language unchanged in spelling as cantina during the second half of the 16th century. Cantina was one of the foreign words that entered in from Renaissance Italy. During the 16th century, the Spanish Empire included large holdings in Italy. Luis de Bávia wrote in his Tercera y Cuarta Parte de la Historia Pontifical y Católica (1621): “Perdiéndose en las cantinas y lugares baxos [sic] gran número de mercaderías...” ("Losing itself in the cantinas and places of ill repute a large quantity of merchandise...").
The cantina features in one of the sonnets of Francisco de Quevedo (1580-1645). This is a quatrain from that sonnet:
Esta cantina revestida en faz;
esta vendimia en hábito soez;
este pellejo, que, con media nuez,
queda con una cuba taz a taz.
This wine-cellar covered with a face;
this wine-harvest [clad] in filthy habit;
this wine-skin, which, with just a sip,
is happy to exchange it for a [whole] vat.
In the 1890s, cantina entered American English from the Spanish language in the Southwest United States with the meaning of “bar, saloon.” The word cantina in the USA today is generally taken to mean simply a tavern with a Southwestern or Mexican motif that serves traditional alcoholic Mexican drinks.
In Spain today, the cantina refers to a bar located in a train station or any establishment located at or near a workplace where food and drinks are served.
In rural Mexico, cantina traditionally refers to a kind of bar that is normally frequented only by males for the purpose of imbibing alcohol and partaking of botanas (appetizers). They can often be distinguished by signs that expressly prohibit entrance to women (mujeres) and children (menores de edad), as opposed to a club, salon de bailar (dance hall), or salon de mariachi (typified by the Salon Tenampa, at the Plaza Garibaldi in Mexico City) which are intended for socializing between the sexes. Some of the traditional restrictions on entry to cantinas are beginning to fade away. However, in many areas it is still viewed as scandalous for proper ladies to be seen visiting a genuine cantina.
Main Entry: can·ti·na
Etymology: American Spanish, from Spanish, canteen, from Italian, wine cellar — more at canteen
1Southwest : a pouch or bag at the pommel of a saddle
2Southwest : a small barroom : saloon
(Oxford English Dictionary)
[Sp. and It.]
a. A (Spanish) canteen (sense 1, 1b).
b. A bar-room, a saloon (in Central and South America and south-west U.S.).
c. An (Italian) wineshop.
1892 Dialect Notes I. v. 245 Cantina: bar-room; of frequent use [in Texas]. Often found on signs of Mexican bar-rooms.
1925 HEMINGWAY In our Time (1926) xi. 143 At the cantina near the bridge they trusted him for three more grappas.
1939 G. GREENE Lawless Roads i. 36 Life..went on behind the swing doors of the cantinas and billiard saloons.
25 March 1888, San Antonio (TX) Daily Express, “In Neighboring Isles” (Cuba), pg. 7, col. 2:
Beneath the rows of boxes, behind the barreras, are a large number of apartments—the cantina or public restaurant; ...
25 April 1892, San Antonio (TX) Daily Light, pg. 8, col. 1:
They stopped the car, got off, and went to a cantina (saloon) and Thompson set them up.
13 October 1896, San Antonio (TX) Daily Light, “Mexico City Letter,” pg. 3, col. 2:
In most of the cantinas (saloons), you got a small glass (ordinary drink) of wine or brandy for 5 cents, though the swell saloons will charge you 12 and even 15 cents for the same article.
2 April 1897, The Landmark (Statesville, NC), pg. 4, col. 5:
It ought to be known to the intending traveler to Mexico that the place where these things are to be bought is the cantina (canteens), which differs in no material particular from the American rum-mill.
A New Dictionary of Americanisms
by Sylva Clapin, et al.
L. Weiss & Co.
Cantina (Sp.). A frequent word, in Texas, for a bar-room.
A Texas Matchmaker
by Andy Adams
Boston, MA: Houghton, Mifflin and Company
Before the horses arrived, those of us who had any money left spent it in the cantina, not wishing to carry it home, where it would be useless.
Tall Talk from Texas
by Boyce House
San Antonio, TX: The Naylor Company
A tourist on his first visit to Texas went across the Rio Grande and, after looking at the signs on the places of business in the Mexican town, remarked:
“This fellow Cantina seems to own nearly everything over here.”
("Cantina" is Spanish for “saloon.")
Learning Capitalist Culture: Deep in the Heart of Tejas
by Douglas E. Foley
Philadelhpia, PA; University of Pennsylvania Press
Anglos tend to portray the Mexicano community as having too many cantinas (bars) and a problem with drunkenness. (...) Mexicanos often cited drinking in cantinas and the lure of “cantineras” (prostitutes) as the cause of an increasing number of female-run households.
Gateway to the National Library of Medicine
Effective HIV and health intervention for “Cantineras” (barmaids).
Hammill H, Mora A.
Abstr Search Tools 1999 Natl HIV Prev Conf Natl HIV Prev Conf 1999 Atlanta Ga. 1999 Aug 29-Sep 1; (abstract no. 590).
Baylor College of Medicine, Houston, TX. Fax: (713) 626- 2848. E-mail:
ISSUE: Design and implementation of effective HIV/STD Outreach and Intervention to at-risk Hispanic women who work as “Cantineras” (barmaids) in Houston, Texas. Large numbers of Hispanic women, primarily immigrants, work in an environment putting themselves at risk for HIV and STD. These women do not access public health care for fear of deportation or other reasons. To be effective, HIV/STD education must be delivered in their own language and environment.
SETTING: Neighborhood “cantinas” or beer joints across the greater Houston area which employ “cantineras.” Owners of cantinas make available on the premises a private area for one-on-one education, followed by HIV testing and gynecological exams. Services provided free of charge to women over the age of eighteen.
PROJECT: Outreach Workers “scout” for cantinas in selected areas. Once cantinas are identified, a visit is made to the bartender who in most cases is the cantina owner. AVES requests permission from the owner to offer HIV education and gynecological care to the cantineras. Once trust is established, the service is explained to the women who either accept or decline. A 2- hour education session is scheduled to take place before the cantineras’ shift starts. (...)
Houston (TX) Press
Addicted to Love
Romance resides at the bottom of a bottle in local cantinas
By Keith Plocek
Published: June 30, 2005
Rita is a cantinera. She works at a bar on Broadway and gets paid to drink. Her job has nothing to do with a scientific study, and she surely didn’t find it on the back page of an alternative weekly. Male customers come into the cantina and buy themselves $2 beers. If they want the pleasure of Rita’s company, they have to buy her a pony beer (eight ounces) for seven bucks. She splits the difference with the house, often taking in more than $100 a night.
“A cantinera can make $200 to $300 a night,” says Lizzie Gutierrez, a social scientist who immersed herself in cantina culture in the mid- to late 1990s. “How can you talk to them about getting a different job?”
During her research, Gutierrez met hundreds of local cantineras. “They came here with the American dream and they were lied to,” she says, sipping a Frappuccino in Starbucks on Montrose. She has bright green eyes and looks far younger than 57, even though she’s been chain-smoking for years. “I remember this cantinera in particular; she was a nurse in her country and she came here because they lied to her.”
According to Gutierrez, your typical cantinera hails from Central America or southern Mexico. Traveling alone, she makes it across the Rio Grande with the help of a coyote, to whom she’s then indebted. Then the coyote tells her he’s going to take her to a house and help her find a job. “That house,” says Gutierrez, “is a cantina.” And so begins the cycle.
Texas (Lone Star State Dictionary) • (0) Comments • Thursday, December 27, 2007 • Permalink