A tortillería in the middle of summer is no joke.
My interview with Robert Borrego Jr., owner of Adelita Tamales and Tortilla Factory in San Antonio took place on what must have been one of the hottest days last July. As I noticed the sweat starting to form on the nape of my neck, I realized I had never had occasion to spend more than a few minutes in a tortillería—or about the time it takes to pop in and pick up a dozen or so fresh tortillas. But in that moment, I was reminded that this is, in fact, a factory. No, Adelita’s is not the steely, mass-production facility the word “factory” usually conjures (later, I learned that the heat and humidity are a vital component of masa preparation).
As I strolled through the sunlit space, with huge fans whirring and the factory floor in clear view behind the register, I noticed that history is on display everywhere. The yellow-painted concrete walls frame a collage of black and white photos and vintage advertisements. By the front door, a glass case displays a collection of the business’ memorabilia, including tostada and taco shell bags from the 1950s.
A rule a thumb I live by: if an establishment has family photos on the wall, the food is going to be good. Why? Because where there is family, there is heart.
Suddenly, the joyful, 90-year-old Robert Borrego Jr. walked in with his grandson, Robert Anthony Borrego IV, at his side. Both were dressed in sky blue button-downs with Adelita embroidered over their hearts. I was about to learn the Adelita story.
In 2022, I was selected to participate in the Texas Historical Commission’s Preservation Scholars program. Through this summer internship, I had the opportunity to work with the Texas Treasure Business Award program, which honors Texas businesses that have been in continuous operation for over 50 years. As my chosen project, I was thrilled to spend my summer searching for eligible tortillerías and taquerías and to help address the absence of such businesses on the list of past awardees.
Adelita’s place in Texas history is undeniable. Its legacy begins with Robert Borrego Sr. who, in 1925, was the first tortilla salesman in San Antonio. In 1938, at the tail end of the Great Depression, Borrego Sr. and his wife opened their own tortillería, El Popo. It was in this tortillería that Robert Borrego Jr. spent his childhood. Memories of rolling small balls of dough for his mother to hand press, or of his mother giving hot, buttered tortillas to customers’ children, are still vivid in his mind. Eventually, El Popo supplied tortillas to every school district in San Antonio and was the first to supply fresh tortillas to the city’s military commissaries. In 1987, after returning from the Air Force, Borrego Jr. took over the family business and renamed it Adelita Tamale and Tortilla Factory.
Anthony Borrego IV, who now manages Adelita with his grandfather, led our tour of the factory. Through the window, he pointed to the towering grain silos just outside as we walked past huge containers of corn soaking in lyme. He demonstrated how to use the modern molino that grinds the juicy kernels into a snow of soft masa, and I was surprised to discover that this molino still uses the traditional volcanic rock to grind the corn. Deep in the craters that form its porous surface is the same history and tradition that surrounds the Adelita factory. After 80 years in operation, what is at the core of making good tortillas remains the same: tradition and corazón (heart).
As a Mexican American and Latino Studies major at The University of Texas at Austin and a proud Chicana, including the history of tortillerías in the state historical record means a lot to both me and to Borrego Sr. He remembers when tacos were merely what the poor students brought to school when they couldn’t afford cafeteria food. He also remembers being denied entry to the Sunken Garden Theatre and other places in the city simply for being Mexican. “From that [humble] beginning, look at where we are now,” he said proudly, and I think he was including me in that statement.
On our way out, the last question I asked Anthony seems almost silly, considering the legacy I had just witnessed. I asked him where he sees the Adelita factory in 20 years. He smiles.
“We’ll be here,” he says, “making tortillas and tamales.”
This year, the Texas Historical Commission will induct over 30 historic tortillerías and taquerías into the Texas Treasure Business Award program thanks to Natividad’s project.