In San Antonio, tamales are a beloved holiday tradition. This December, Roberto Borrego Jr. and his family will also be celebrating eight decades of family tradition at Adelita Tamales & Tortilla Factory.
Since 1938, generations of Borregos have built up a business that keeps customers coming back to their factory and sales room at 1130 Fresno Drive.
“Every time I go in, I feel like I’m in a tortilleria in Mexico,” said second-generation customer Mary Fisher. “There’s a certain smell of lime and crushed corn … They still use the old-time method, which makes their tortillas better than any others I know locally.”
Borrego, 88, was born to the business. His father, Roberto Sr., and mother, Beatriz, came to San Antonio fleeing the Mexican Revolution. Roberto Sr. went to work as a salesman for Ralph Velasco’s La Vencedora tortilla factory in 1925, and in 1938 he and Beatriz were ready to start their own business – El Popo Tortilla Factory at Houston and Leona streets. Borrego Jr. was 8.
“It was the Depression and our sales were $5 a day. Our workers made $3.50 a week. Nobody had any money, but everybody seemed happy,” he recalled.
His first job was delivering tortillas to homes in the Prospect Hill neighborhood near Our Lady of the Lake University. He was a Boy Scout (future U.S. Rep. Henry B. Gonzalez was the scoutmaster who helped him get a merit badge). And, like his father and grandfather before him, he loved winning trophies racing homing pigeons.
Borrego graduated from Fox Tech High School as an engineering draftsman, but his aptitude for electronics led him to the Air Force, where he was stationed at Roswell, New Mexico, working on B-29 engines.
Meanwhile, El Popo kept growing. By the early 1950s it was distributing corn and flour tortillas, taco and chalupa shells and nacho chips to supermarkets. Other iconic businesses were also getting off the ground, and many supported one another.
“The El Popo plant was close to where David Pace (of Pace Picante) got started,” he said. “He would come in and ask my mother, ‘Mama Beatrizita, would you make me some special nachos? I want to make some hot sauce.’”
El Popo finally closed in 1985. By then, Borrego had started Adelita, opening a little “molino” — mill — during Christmas 1980. One of his earliest customers was catering legend Rosemary Kowalski.
“I bought tortillas from him since the day he started,” Kowalski said. “It’s a great family business.” The legacy continues. Grandson Anthony Borrego, 31, now manages the business with Borrego Jr. Educated at TMI Episcopal and then the University of Houston’s Hilton College of Hotel and Restaurant Management, he first planned to go into country-club management, but the family tradition drew him home.
“I graduated on Dec. 21 of 2012, right in the peak tamale season, and on Dec. 22 at 5 a.m. I was right here,” he said.
Today, Adelita is a big business. It supplies the tortillas and taco shells to the Conservation Society of San Antonio for Fiesta’s Night In Old San Antonio. Other contracts include tortilla chips for the AT&T Center.
“People just don’t realize that tortillas are such a big industry,” the elder Borrego said. Today, the Tortilla Industry Association, headquartered in Virginia, holds annual conventions in Las Vegas and Europe, drawing companies from around the world.
“In the U.S. alone, we estimate the tortilla industry generates about $17 billion a year,” said TIA CEO Jim Kabbani, who praised the Borregos.
In addition to tortillas, Adelita produces tamales, and this time of year they’re ramping up for the holidays. The factory also makes buñuelos, taco and chalupa shells, chips and fresh masa.
In the storefront, customers watching the production also can buy barbacoa, menudo, carnitas and tripas.
Borrego said he will someday turn the company over to his grandson, just not yet. Trim and energetic, he still spends a lot of time in the office.
“People ask me how I stay in good shape,” he said. “I tell them I’ve eaten tortillas every day of my life.”