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A family tradition becomes an OLA culinary hotspot

For Hector Gonzalez and his family, the annual Our Lady of the Assumption Fiesta in Claremont is more than carnival games and cotton candy. It’s a family tradition that takes them back several generations, hundreds of gallons of salsa and tens of thousands of homemade tacos.

The longtime Claremont family has been the benefactors behind the popular taco booth, the fiesta’s favorite culinary hotspot, since before the OLA church was in place and before the fiesta included whizzing games and loop-the-loops. Mr. Gonzalez, the booth’s current ringleader, keeps that tradition alive, celebrating his 30th year running the booth last weekend.

“It’s rewarding,” Mr. Gonzalez said. “When you work hard and then you look back and see that you are making a lot of people happy, it feels really good.”

The preparations and taco making itself is a lot of work, he doesn’t deny it. Each year a team of parishioners gathers to help the Gonzalez clan cook more than 400 pounds of ground beef and potatoes, included as part of the family recipe. He spends almost the entire day before the fiesta handcrafting 21 gallons of salsa.

But year after year Mr. Gonzalez keeps the tradition going. Before the modern-day OLA fiestas, the original Catholic community in Claremont sponsored celebrations called jamaicas in the 1930s and 1940s with music, dancing, games, and great food at the former Sacred Heart Chapel in the historic Arbol Verde neighborhood.

The carnival fare Mr. Gonzalez makes now conjure up old, cherished memories for him and his family as they recall the tacos Mr. Gonzalez’s mother and aunt would cook at those original church celebrations.

“It was a lot of work, but it was also a lot of fun,” said Hector’s older brother Crispin Gonzalez of the taco-making at those childhood jamaicas and fiestas. He recalled helping at the booth and taking part in lots of music and dancing, and the laughter shared at the fiesta “jail” and kissing booth. “The music was nice and the breeze in the afternoon was nice. It was just a lovely time to be.”

The tradition continued even after the transition from the Sacred Heart jamaica to a new spot on Foothill Boulevard in 1947 and then to the current location. Though the family took a brief hiatus in years following, Mr. Gonzalez reclaimed the family tradition after returning home to Claremont from the Vietnam War in 1982. Now, every Mother’s Day weekend he is back manning the booth with help from his relatives. It’s so much a part of his family dynamic that his nieces “tell their age by how many fiestas they’ve been at,” Mr. Gonzalez joked.

Along with the rewarding parts of the job that bring the family together, he admitted some of the more distinct memories include a few of the disasters. In his first year running the booth in 1982, Mr. Gonzalez recalled being given a small fryer to cook the taco shells, similar to what is used for french fries. Despite repeated attempts, he and his brother could not get it to work. Instead, his sister was forced to fill a big cast iron skillet halfway full of oil, frying 6 tacos at a time.

“Meanwhile, the line was out of sight...we got through it somehow,” he laughed, “and that stupid fryer never did work. Next fiesta I got something else.”

Though the recipe has changed slightly over the years, the tacos are nearly the same as those his mother served at the old jamaicas, a recipe handed down generation to generation from the family’s roots in Lagos de Moreno, a city of Jalisco, Mexico. As he continues to head the booth, Mr. Gonzalez credits his mother for his adaptation and further culinary endeavors.

“She taught me everything I know,” Mr. Gonzalez said. “She was a wonderful cook.”

But his cousin Filbert Gonzalez, who also helps run the booth, credits his cousin’s own distinct sense of culinary expertise.

“He’s got his little secrets on how he makes his,” Filbert said. “Every year [the tacos] get better and better.”

Despite the booth mishaps along the way, the family dynamic remains strong. With every Fiesta comes the chance to enjoy a cherished tradition.

“Family is important,” Filbert said of the way the family gather together every year to help Hector to spend time as a family. “That’s the way we grew up. Family helps each other out.”

—Beth Hartnett

news@claremont-courier.com

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