Anton and Louis: the Proto Brothers of the Southwestern Borderlands

Nogales, AZ, near the US/Mexico Border


Published in The National Herald, April 23-29, 2016 Issue
Authored by Steve Frangos, TNH Staff Writer


We are excited to announce that The National Herald has given Hellenic Genealogy Geek the right to reprint articles that may be of interest to our group. 


CHICAGO- Anton and Louis Proto remain key figures in the development of the early Arizona/Mexico borderlands. While these two Greek immigrant brothers initially only sought to establish their own livelihoods, they simultaneously helped to literally create the economy of this expansive area.

Serving as what can only be called cultural go-betweens, the brothers were incredibly agile in their decade-long movements back and forth across cultures and political borders.

Great wealth and bitter tragedy were both reaped by this family. Even a brief account of their lives can demonstrate how much more there is to learn about Greek experiences in North America than we can now find in standard historical accounts.

Antonio was born of Greek parentage in Beria, Macedonia (modern-day Veria) in 1844 and came to the United States in 1873. He became a naturalized citizen on August 19, 1875 in San Francisco. Louis was also born in Beria on December 24, 1854. He is said to have arrived in New York in 1879 and from there went to St. Louis, San Francisco and Santa Cruz. Other accounts report that the two Proto brothers arrived in New York City together in 1878.

In this version of the Proto Brothers’ arrival they came bearing sponges which they immediately sold at great profit. The brothers then traveled to Colon, Panama where they worked for a time as translators an occupation for which they were eminently well fitted, being conversant with several languages. Then, the various accounts on the Proto Brothers flow together again.

In 1879, we learn that the Protoses are living in San Francisco where they owned a restaurant. In 1882, they moved to Tucson which was then a part of the Arizona Territory. And here we have a moment in Greek-American history yet to be fully understood. With their arrival in Tucson in 1882 it is impossible not to believe that these two men did not seek out Alexander Wilkins (1827-1905), the town barber and fellow Greek immigrant. For the moment all we have is speculation on this event. But that it must have occurred seems assured.

After a short stay in Tucson, the ever-enterprising Proto Brothers purchased businesses in Tombstone and Sonora, Mexico engaging in general merchandise. In 1884, they moved to Nogales, AZ opening a bakery on Morley Avenue in an 8’x 10’ adobe room crowded with merchandise and sacks of flour, beans and green coffee stacked to the ceiling. If this does not sound like your usual bakery, it must be understood that in 1884 transportation of any kind of goods and most certainly the distribution of food was not what it is today. You bought food and provisions when they became available. This hard fact accounts for the newspaper notices of when basic items like  manufacturers, and then sells them to retailers. Jobbing houses can deal in any commodity destined for the retail into a general merchandise store. All these efforts transformed into a general merchandise store. While the brothers were aided in their growing business by three of their nephews Spiro, Anton, and Manuel, published accounts do not report when these three young men came to join their uncles.

As the Proto Brothers were to discover, they had just settled into a region known to locals on both side of the border as Ambos Nogales (e.g. both Nogales). Ambos is the common name massive by any standards. In time, the brothers expanded their ranch into one quarter of a million acres. Aside from their mercantile businesses on both sides of the border the Proto brother’s interests soon included cattle, horses, timber sales, mining, oil exploration and other ventures.

The Proto Brothers married into local Mexican families who had long held vast ranches in the Ambos region. Tensions between these families led to the assassination of Louis Proto in early 1909. Reports of the assassination were front-page news for nearly three years on both sides of the border. While the five assassins were eventually caught and the principal murderer shot by firing squad, the tensions along the U.S./Mexico border were such at this specific moment in time that Proto’s death almost led to war.

Certainly, part of the jealousy and hate directed toward the Proto family was based in part on the fact that the brothers always took an active interest in public affairs. In terms of the Arizona side of the border, Anton Proto was president of the Nogales Protective Association, four terms on the city council and in 1894, he was elected mayor of Nogales serving one term and so became first Greek mayor of that city and so became the very first Greek-born mayor of any city in the United States.

Another milestone in the Proto family’s presence in the Ambos region took place on May 1914, when this family established the Arizona Gas and Electric Company which served both sides of the border (Border Vidette May 2, 1914). 

On January 5, 1924, the 25th Infantry in full military dress matched in half step to a funeral dirge leading the citizens of Nogales to the cemetery to pay Anton Proto their last respects. 

If you visit Nogales, AZ anytime soon you can take a walk down Proto Drive. Self-made millionaires, these two brothers and their extended family literally helped to build both the Arizona city of Nogales and enriched territories and businesses in nearby Mexico. What was once written concerning Anton Proto could well serve for both of the Proto Brothers: “[H]is has been an active, varied and eventful life, the activities of which have been broad and forceful in scope and the final triumph of which has placed him in the front ranks of the leading business men of the Southwest.”