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The end of an era: Rosa’s Tacos says goodbye

While the Village Venture Arts and Crafts Faire continues to thrive, one flavorful part of the annual event will be missing this time around.

For the first time in 34 years, guests won’t be able to line up at the corner of First Street and Harvard Avenue for Rosa’s Tacos.

The 2015 Village Venture was the last hurrah for the family-run enterprise. Angie Pipins—a lifelong Claremont resident and retired nurse—has helmed the booth since her mother, Rosa’s Tacos founder Rosa Garcia Torrez, died in 1997.

She’d worked side-by-side with her mom for years, but Ms. Pipins didn’t think twice about whether to keep the booth going after Ms. Torrez’ death. “We just wanted to carry the tradition on from my mom,” she said. “We always followed her recipe.”

Rosa’s Tacos dealt exclusively in tacos. Beef, cooked with Ms. Torrez’ secret recipe, was ladled into crisp shells and topped with lettuce, cheese and homemade salsa.  The salsa recipe came courtesy of Ms. Pipins’ brother-in-law Gilbert Navarro, who until his death two years ago served as one of the booth’s primary cooks.

As far as quantity, Ms. Torrez began a tradition the family continued after she was gone. “She would make a thousand tacos and then she walked out and went home,” Ms. Pipins said. 

The family held fast to that quota. They always made sure there were plenty of tacos for friends and family, though, and that required an ever-increasing effort.

“The Village Venture was getting bigger and we were selling more and more,” Ms. Pipins said. “It got to the point where we would get there at 5 o’clock in the morning and stay all day. People would say, ‘Rosa’s Tacos is the only reason I come back here.’ Customers would order 15 to 20 tacos at a time.”

The crew had little time to walk around the Venture, given the brisk business. Still, Ms. Pipins always managed to get a taste of the affair. “We would barter with the other food vendors. We’d say, ‘Give us your samples and we’ll give you tacos,” she said. “It was fun, and we got to know a lot of the other vendors.”

Despite the stand’s popularity, no one considered making the business a full-time affair.

Rosa’s Tacos started as a twice-yearly event, with the tacos flowing every July 4 as well as at Village Venture. When city rules for Claremont’s Independence Day Celebration became restrictive and Rosa’s Tacos was relegated to an out-of-the way spot at Memorial Park, the family decided to save the big push for the Venture.

Ms. Torrez saw providing tasty and affordable food, a culinary celebration of Mexican culture, as a way to give back to the city she loved.

She had moved to Claremont in 1917 at age 5 when her father got a job working for Pomona College. Young Rosa and her siblings attended Sycamore, then called Claremont Grammar School. The Mexican students were taught separately in the auditorium until they learned English, and punished if they spoke Spanish at school.

Ms. Torrez related the prejudice she and her peers encountered to late Claremont historian Judy Wright, who devoted an entire chapter to Rosa in her 2007 book Claremont Women: 1897-1950.

The white kids dominated the playground and made fun of the Mexican children’s clothes, braids and food. To avoid being teased about the potato and bean tacos her mother made for her, Ms. Torrez would join her classmates in running across the street to the grounds of the Odd Fellows Hall. Hidden in the bushes, they could eat their lunch in peace.

“They used to make fun of my tacos. Now they want to buy them,” Ms. Torrez would later joke.

Rosa attended Claremont High School until she was 16 and then took a job as a waitress at Padua Hills Theater.  In 1930, she married Jose “Joe” Torrez, who worked as field foreman for Claremont’s College Heights Orange and Lemon Association.

The couple raised nine children in one of a dozen bungalows built by the citrus company to house its workers, in a neighborhood west of Indian Hill Boulevard and north of the railroad.

Ms. Pipins and her friends, known as the West Side Kids, had a rivalry with the East Barrio Kids, the Mexican-American children living in the El Barrio Park area. Years later, her mother would receive the posthumous honor of having a Claremont park, Rosa Torrez Park, named after her.

The neighborhood competition was all in fun. Most kids had relatives in the “rival” neighborhood and they all convened at The Church of the Sacred Heart, a chapel residents built in 1939.

Next to the church was a bar called La Curva. Across the street was a little shop, The Chisme—located on the northeast corner of First Street and Bonita Avenue—where you could buy sodas and snacks. Ms. Pipins said the shop’s name, which means “gossip” in Spanish, fit the talkative proprietor and her daughters “to a T.”

Behind the former city yard was an old dirt field. Now the site of the Claremont Police Station, it served as the sandlot where the Mexican-American kids played baseball.

The Torrez boys played baseball in school and Mr. Torrez coached a summer youth league. He also served as manager/coach for The Juveniles, a Mexican-American League baseball team. Many of the players worked at the packing house.

Ms. Torrez had three great passions: cooking, community activism and baseball, not necessarily in that order. Retired Claremont realtor Frank Hungerford played with the Torrez boys in the summer league.

 

Decades later, the family-run enterprise is being shuttered partly because of a loss of helping hands. It’s been “just the oldies and goodies” serving up tacos in recent years. Members of the younger generation, busy with college and other pursuits, don’t want to run the booth, Ms. Pipins said. 

Another contributing factor is it’s grown more complicated to keep “the little taco stand that could” going.

“Originally, we had a table, a stove and none of this regulation stuff,” Ms. Pipins said. Now, food vendors face higher booth fees, more stringent health department regulations and pricey liability insurance.

Still, she said it’s been a wonderful run.

“We want to thank everyone in Claremont, and everyone in the community, who has come to see us for years and years,” Ms. Pipins said.

—Sarah Torribio

storribio@claremont-courier.com

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