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Living the American dream

Eben Harrell

Editor’s note: This is the final installment in a series of five stories looking at different aspects of Latino life in the valley.Nerio Ruiz was one of the first people he knows to move from Mexico to the Roaring Fork Valley. It was 1977, he was 6 years old, and he came to Aspen and America with his three brothers at the urging of his parents, laborers already in America determined to see a better life for their sons.Now 34 years old, Ruiz flashes a bashful, childish smile when asked if he considers himself an immigrant success story. It’s been five years since he and his brothers found the money and the courage to go into business on their own. Five years since they left the service industries, stereotypes and expectations of immigrant workers to open The Tortilleria, a tortilla factory and Mexican grocery store on Highway 133 in Carbondale.”It’s just a little store,” Ruiz says in flawless English. “But I’m proud of it.”For all the debate over the assimilation of Mexican immigrants, there is one element of their culture that America has warmly embraced – the food. In Carbondale, The Tortilleria is next to the Carniceria, a separate Mexican butcher. And yet another ethnic market in the town – Theresa’s – is doing good business on Main Street.Ruiz’s biggest business is in the wholesale delivery of tortillas to various Mexican restaurants in Aspen. On a good day, he’ll sell nearly 500 packages of corn and 600 packages of flour tortillas. That’s nearly 20,000 tortillas. If you buy them in the store, they stay fresh for exactly 15 days, according to Ruiz. They are served warm and packaged in bags of 24 for corn tortillas and 12 for flour. “Anglos like the flour tortillas, but the Latinos like the corn,” Ruiz says. “The flour tortillas are sweeter.”Ruiz is a short, friendly man, with the jolly, carefree countenance of a baker. Only his hands, spotted with burns, show what hard work producing 20,000 tortillas a day can be. The operation is run in the back of Ruiz’ one-room store. He and his brothers work next to the heat of the ovens, 12 hours a day, seven days a week. It’s a rarity to miss a 12-hour shift. “It’s been a long five years for us,” Ruiz says. “But the work has paid off.”Like many immigrant operations, it’s a family business. Ruiz’s parents work in the store. They don’t speak English, so they rarely interact with Anglo customers, but they help where they can – recipes, cleaning, the occasional stern offering of advice and support. Ruiz’s children are too young to work just yet, but they’ll eventually earn their stripes, just like the rest of the family.”It’s become a family tradition to work at the store,” Ruiz says. “I don’t think I want my sons to take over the business. But if we do sell, it will be to a family member.”In its first year of operation, the Tortilleria did more than $1 million in business, a magical figure inconceivable to Ruiz’s parents when they arrived 30 years ago. Ruiz said the reason for its success is not complicated; in Carbondale particularly, a town where the majority of elementary school students are now Latino, there’s a large number of new immigrants searching for remnants of the old. In the previously anglocentric Roaring Fork Valley, that equaled large demand and a small supply. And though his business sees its largest profits through wholesale to Anglo-run restaurants, Ruiz remains loyal to local Latinos. Along with the traditional Mexican bread, pastries and spices he sells behind the counter, the shelves of Ruiz’s shop are stacked with Mexican groceries. It’s a mural of bright colors; Churritos, Cronchis, Taquis potato chips; Pelonazo, Picolero, Tamarindo candy. Even Mexican Coca-Cola – “it makes you burp more,” Ruiz says.Hints of the home country are most evident in the essentials; Mayonnaise called El Mexicana Mayonessa, the same mayo as American brands, but carrying the familiar Mexican labeling. The American manufacturing of Mexican brands has become a large industry. A Mexican cheese factory in Brush, Colo., is purportedly the largest cheese manufacturer in the United States.”For so many people here everything is new,” Ruiz says. “They come to the store to buy what they know from Mexico.”Ruiz boasts of several American converts; his walk-in business is around 40 percent Anglo. Their influence can be seen on a menu featuring vegetarian and chicken alternatives to traditional pork dishes such as tamales – “You wouldn’t find that in Mexico,” Ruiz says. Old Snowmass resident Rhonda Gerbaz sends her husband to the Tortilleria every time business takes him through Carbondale. He picks up a few bags of tortillas – flour, of course – and the occasional sack of spices. Rhonda makes breakfast burritos with the tortillas and refuses to cook with anything else. “They are just fresher,” she says.With profits from the Tortilleria, two of the Ruiz brothers opened a Mexican restaurant in Rifle in 2001. It’s so far been a success, popular among both Anglos and Latinos. But the Tortilleria will always be the family hub.”This is where we worked hard to realize our dream,” Ruiz says.Eben Harrell’s e-mail address is eharrell@aspentimes.com


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