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Home is where the tamales are — Family lost its cows, gained a business

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By Bill Glines
San Jose Mercury News

If you want to believe Vincente Zuñiga, it all started with Pancho Villa and 27 cows.

Zuñiga says the legendary Mexican bandit “appropriated” the cows from the family ranch in the Sierra foothills in the state of Chihuahua. Aurelio Zuñiga took it as something of a sign and fled to the United States with his wife, Maria, and seven children.

More than 60 years later, one of those children — Vincente, now 72 — said, “Papa decided it was time to leave. Mama packed what she could and we took the train to the United States.”

If if hadn’t been for those stolen cows, however, the Zuñigas may never have found their true calling: producing tamales the way they have been made in Mexico for generations.

When the family first came to California, they worked as migrant laborers on farms around Madera, Fresno and Gilroy. By 1933, they had moved to Hollister and within four years had saved enough money to rent a small cafe.

Later, the cafe — called the Progresso Tamale Parlor — was moved to the old Goodfellows Hotel, which was built sometime in the 1880s. The family, which bought the two-story building, renovated the hostelry and made it into a cafe, with the upstairs used for storage.

At first, the tamales were the featured attraction at the cafe but the dish became so popular that in 1947, production had to be moved to a concrete building the family built on a 12-acre farm off Wright Road in northwest Hollister.

By the late 1950s, the Zuñigas were turning out 500 tamales a day and working a seven-day week to accomodate restaurants and grocery stores as far away as San Francisco, Carmel and Santa Cruz.

The far-flung delivery route was later reduced and nowadays the factory output of 300 a day is divided between the downtown cafe and a number of small area stores and restaurants. The lower number also allows the Zuñigas to keep production within the family.

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