It’s the Tortillas, Stupid

Lest anyone think the title of this guest column is intended as a general admonition, be assured it’s not. It was, in fact, what I said to myself the other day as I clapped my forehead and realized a personal “ah ha” moment.

For the past few months, I’ve been following the news in the papers and reading about the new changes in store for the downtown and other districts of San Jose. I’ve been trying to also stay abreast of First Act’s leadership by regularly checking their web site and I’ve been reading other sources—Jane Jacobs, Daniel Pink, community blogs—and also talking with people in the green building movement like Bill and Athena Steen, who folks will have a chance to meet at the mariachi festival.

Then, the other day I was listening to the radio when Bruce Springsteen came on singing “My Hometown.”  And I asked myself, what makes a father say to his son, “Take a good look around. This is your hometown.” 

What makes a town “your hometown?”

I live in the East Bay hills, near Mt. Diablo.  I’ve lived there since I came to the Bay Area twenty years ago, except for a brief stint in San Francisco. I’ve also lived in New York, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, Palo Alto and Cambridge, MA.  And the only places where I feel like I’m home, where I feel connected and rooted, are my actual hometown of Tucson, Arizona and here in San Jose. 

What makes a city a community? And what makes a community a village that can reach out to strangers who arrive there and make them feel so at home that passions rise easily over residential and commercial neighborhoods alike?

To try to answer this question, I started remembering what I love about my first hometown. When I was a kid, my family moved between two communities: our home in Tucson and my grandmother’s home in Nogales, which is on the Mexico–U.S. border. Every month, my mom would drive to Nogales to buy many of our family staples—bread, tortillas, sugar, tamales, pan dulce (Mexican pastry) and the occasional bottle of vanilla.  In those days, you did not buy tortillas at the grocery store. You made them yourself or you had to go to South Tucson or to Nogales to buy them. 

The tortilla store we went to in Nogales was across the line on the Mexican side. It was a little storefront with a counter that had stacks of steaming tortillas on it and behind the counter was a comal (a stone or iron griddle over a hearth), where the tortilla ladies would be standing, next to a giant pile of dough, making tortillas. I remember the radio would always be playing in the background, and I remember their hands were incredibly efficient, thwapping the dough back and forth, tossing discs on the comal and then flicking them off of the griddle and on to one of the stacks on the counter.  Back then, there was no such thing as 57 varieties of tortillas—no spinach (thank God) or tomato or wheat or zero-trans-fat tortillas.  There were only two kinds: corn and flour. And as any tortilla connoisseur will tell you, they were made the proper way, with lard. And if you were lucky, one of the tortilla ladies would flick a hot one off the griddle right at you and you would catch it, and toss it around because it was very hot, and finally it would be cool enough, but still warm, to eat. And off we would go to the next place, munching our tortillas and asking mom if we could have a second.

The place where we went to buy vanilla was a vintage Mexican version of Beverages and More called the B-52.  At the B-52 you could buy large bottles of vanilla and any kind of beer, tequila, and Mexican soda pop.  There was a neon sign of a B-52 airplane just over the door and the place looked like it had not been re-decorated since, well, since when B-52’s were the plane du jour.  It had a World War II look to it—a tile floor, lazy ceiling fans, and a seating area with hacienda-style leather seats and tables and large potted palms. Bogie and Bacall would have been at home there, chatting up the proprietor, buying their spirits or vanilla and hanging out at the B-52. And most of Nogales felt that way as well.

The tortilla store and the B-52 were places that made Nogales a “destination venue” before the term was coined by marketing executives.  They were authentic. They contributed to the civic culture because they were gathering spots where people could meet and sit and be (and munch).  They smelled good. They looked special and unique. They were special and unique.

San Jose has lots of places like that, in every part of the city.  I had the good fortune to discover many of them when I first arrived: the tortillas, freshly made at Casa Vicky’s, the Rose Garden, Henry’s Hi-Life, Tacos Al Carbon, History Park, the clock tower at the Museum of Art, the Mercury News offices, Naglee Park, the Mayfair community garden (and all of San Jose’s community gardens) and the California Theatre. The list could go on and on.

San Jose makes me feel I’m home. And the reason why, as I realized the other day, is because this place values those things which make a community: gathering spots where old timers and newcomers come to savor life in the moment; where flowers emerge, resuscitated through community action; where history lives, tended as a rare flower; where festivals celebrate heritage and music; where magic and storytelling beckon an audience with the siren call of a Wurlitzer; and where the flavor of a freshly made tortilla matches the memory of childhood. 
Marcela Davison Avilés is the CEO of the Mexican Heritage Corporation and producer of the San Jose Mariachi Festival which begins on September 7.


  1. I have always been puzzled by the this phenomenon. People in leadership positions in San Jose who don’t live in San Jose, but make decisions that the rest of us live by. Alot of honchos that decide about downtown for example, don’t even live near downtown, or answer to interests that are far removed from downtown, much less San Jose. Tom Mc excluded. I think San Jose would be a better city, especially downtown, if our “leaders” actually lived here to see what we have to see every day, so when we say there is a homeless problem, or downtown is gone wild, you see yourself, and not have to hire a consultant to read a report, or be behind a police car to get a filtered view. Live San Jose, be San Jose.

  2. I am confused. How can San Jose make you feel like you are at home when you live in the East Bay hills near Mt. Diablo? Too many times I have read about people in leadership positions in our community yet they choose to live elsewhere.  Why?  Is San Jose OK for working but not living? If you really want to be part of the San Jose community you need to live here 24×7, not running away to the East Bay Hills every night and weekend.

  3. S-Weezy # 2:  Councilmembers must live in their districts under the city code.  That’s just one problem caused by district elections.  Each councilmember believes she/he represents only her/his district, not the City Of San Ohaze.  Prime recent example—the banter back and forth between Pete Constant & Sam Liccardo last Tuesday re location of a board & care home, as I recall.  Sam was upset that Pete was making a point about something in “his district”.  Wrong attitude, Sam.

  4. Marcela,
      It is with pleasure that I welcome your fresh sprit to our Village. Why you stayed on after what has been thrust upon you is a testiment to your belief that we are worth your dedication.
      I will not fill this post with negatives of those that abused their charge. What I will do is represent the energy that made us all different and connected.
      Many years ago, I went in search for the common bond.
    What connected us all as friends and collective sprits?
    I found the answer in a used book store in the Haight in San Francisco.
    There before my eyes was a book with a Syrian woman cooking a very large tortilla.
      Certainly an Ah Ha moment. It was the tortilla that was the common ingrediant that we all had in common.
      I set about to create a book on the universal making of tortillas in all ethnic communities. The only ingrediant neccessary was LOVE
      La Oferta review published many of my Tortilla tales which came from folks of notable positions with in our Village of San Jose de Guadalupe, they shared their youth in GrandMa’s kitchen and learned about the unconditionality of love in a Mexican Family kitchen.
      One day I will publish this collection of joyous recollection in Mom, or Grand ma’s kitchen. Some were simply out on the trail, or in a tent in some long forgotten dusty field. But always the Love that filled the mind as the smells of the cooking fires filled us with memories.
      My Tortilla Tale “Los Hermanos Del Comal”
    Is about 8 boys waiting for that first tortilla made by our Mother and oldest sister, with the love of Family every day of our lives.
      Now, When I go Goose Hunting on the Lower Klamath WildLife Refuge, I have learned to mix the lard,flouer, and salt to make tortillas that are rolled out by my macho friends dressed in Camo gear and acting like the kids we were as children. We pack them with so much, and still they hold together. I may have invented a new sorce of rubber. The sprit lives on.
      Like us no Tortillas are the same. They as us are all different. Yet it is Love that makes the home made tortilla the sprit of the human race.
      Thanks for inspriring the memories!

    The Village Black Smith

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