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The student news site of California State University - Los Angeles

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The student news site of California State University - Los Angeles

University Times

Gone but not forgotten: The saga of my family’s tortilleria in El Sereno

Molcajete from the La Sirena tortilleria. Photo taken by Andre Rueda.

It was a few days before Christmas when my grandmother realized that she did not have nearly enough time nor the ingredients to prepare her homemade tamales.

Nearly 50 guests would be expected for the festivities on Christmas day.

By then, it was nearing 6 p.m. and darkness had fallen. I had been visiting for most of the afternoon and was preparing to head home yet could not help but eavesdrop on my grandma’s phone conversation with her sister, Rosie. My grandmother was a first-generation Angeleno and although she and her siblings spoke fluent English, they often conversed in Spanglish, which fed my overactive imagination and curiosity as a child: Were they trying to hide something?

I listened intently. My grandmother seemed flustered.

“I’ll be on my way,” she said before hanging up.

“Where? Can I go?” I pleaded.

My grandma readily agreed.

There is something so whimsical about venturing out in the evening during winter. The scent of wood-burning fireplaces and the magical hue of Christmas lights just made any excursion so much more enjoyable. As an adult, I can still say that this is a feeling that resonates with me today. 

Ecstatic for the nighttime adventure, I quickly gathered my favorite red and black plaid overcoat. As a 7-year-old, my grandmother’s Cadillac was a pleasure faire for both my younger brother and me.

So many grand escapades occurred in that white vessel and perhaps some of the most memorable were our trips to La Sirena, the family tortilleria. 

Originally founded in the mid 1920s, La Sirena was the vision of my great grandfather, Jose Quesada Ponce. A natural born businessman from Jalisco, my great grandfather made his way to Los Angeles in the mid 1910s where he married and started a family. Eventually, the Ponces settled in Echo Park, where La Sirena was conceived. Although predominantly a grocery store, the establishment offered many prepared ethnic delicacies such as Jaliscan style chile rellenos. During the late 1960s, my great grandfather was forced to sell the property in Echo Park and relocate to El Sereno.

“They were going to build a gas station and they wanted the property on Beaudry Ave. and Temple St. My father did not want to move but had no choice. He found a sizable lot in El Sereno and was able to design the property to his liking. It worked out perfectly in the end,” my aunt, Lola Sanchez, said. She was his second youngest daughter.

Under my great grandfather’s command, La Sirena flourished as both a grocery store and tortilleria for nearly two decades. In 1987, he passed away and control of the business fell into the hands of his youngest daughter, Rosie, who occupied the living quarters attached to the market and continued to operate the business with the help of my uncle and a couple family friends.

On that brisk December evening drive, I can still recall cruising in the Cadillac down Main Street to Huntington Drive. Were we on our way to the tortilleria?

The route was familiar. As an adult, I continue to frequent it but it has changed dramatically. The neon pillars near Target are gone. A mural depicting the virgin of Guadalupe is an image still entrenched in my memory, though that disappeared in recent years when the property it had adorned was sold. It was only a block away from my aunt Rosie’s home, the living quarters section of the family’s tortilleria.

That’s where we had arrived. I anxiously catapulted from the car and made my way to the wrought iron gate surrounding the entrance.

Before I could even walk through, my aunt reached out to embrace me. A large immaculately decorated Christmas tree graced her living room. The walls glowed in warm red and green light and I parked myself on the carpet beneath the tree. Despite the success of the store, finances were tight and the home was in need of considerable repair.

As my grandmother conversed with my aunt, they departed to the adjacent store where Petra, her friend who helped run the store, was waiting. Lying beneath the glistening tree, I took in the warmth of the colors and the smell of fresh masa.

“It was a safe haven for us all. It was absolutely the center of our family life. The original home on Beaudry was where it all began but El Sereno continued to serve as our family headquarters. Where we would all gather and spend so many events together,” said my cousin Chita Lopez, another granddaughter. 

I did not want to leave. Never did it occur to me then that one day the splendor would run its course and sentiments were all that were to remain.

When my great grandfather died, the family “kept the grocery store open for another year. I continued to help with its day-to-day operation,” my aunt Lola explained. “Eventually we decided to close it and continue to keep it as a tortilleria. Rosie would run it along with [her friends] Petra and Orlando.”

Sometime around 2007, our family friends moved away and my aunt could no longer run the business on her own.

La Sirena’s life saga came to a sudden, uneventful end yet.

I entered its story shortly before it closed. Despite this, my memories of those years are both vivid and some of the finest of my childhood.

 My family members and I were thankful to see the storefront living on in another form for another 10 years. Shortly after the tortilleria closed, my aunt rented out the space to a sweet woman named Paula, who transformed it into a mini swap-meet store selling an array of home goods and children’s toys. The mini swap-meet was met in favor by many neighbors and did well during its existence.

“They always carried a good selection of snacks and it was convenient for me to run and buy last-minute gifts when needed,” remarked Carolina Carmona, a former customer. Paula’s shop remained in operation until shortly before 2018, a strange year for all of us.

During that time, my aunt Rosie was hospitalized for a minor fall and during her stay in a convalescent center she developed blood clots. Fortunately, she seemed to recuperate and gained enough strength to come home.

We were preparing her for that when she left us swiftly and without any sign of regression.

With Tia Rosie’s passing, that was truly the closure of our family’s legacy. From its heyday as a mom-and-pop grocery store in Echo Park to a bustling tortilleria in El Sereno, La Sirena had met its own mortality. 

“Rosie was the matriarch of the Ponce clan. She was the life force, which kept everything together. When she died, that was when it would all begin to change,” her niece, Lisa Rueda, said.

Upon her passing, the property on Stilwell was sold and divided among all her surviving nieces and nephews. Our family held out hope that just maybe someone with a creative flair would purchase the property and restore it to its former glory, giving it a new life.

This seemed quite plausible when a well-known ceramist expressed interest in the property as a potential studio. Unfortunately, time and years of neglect had taken its toll on the physical structure and an inspection report estimated repairs of at least $100,000. A developer now seemed to be the likely future owner and that is exactly what happened. 

Five years have faded away and so much has occurred during this period. It does not seem that long ago and often, I revisit those memories. 

On a recent midsummer day, I visited the former location of our family’s tortilleria. It is an odd sight for me, a large cubic apartment building now sitting on the corner of Stilwell and Huntington. A modernist-like structure out of place among the small 1920s era homes surrounding it. 

Although I found the appearance of the building to be distasteful, I could not find myself being disgusted or anything of the sort.

The cherished memories I have as well as the countless sentiments offer me solace and make me realize how privileged I was to have been a part of La Sirena. For years, it had gladdened the appetites and hearts of both our family and local residents.

It only existed as long as it was meant to and then quietly slipped into oblivion. Glancing upon the towering structure before me made me see it all through an entirely different lens than I ever thought possible.

Change is inevitable and just as our bodies have an ending, so does a neighborhood’s landscape, character, and even, its demographics. El Sereno has witnessed considerable changes to its own infrastructure, particularly over the last several decades. What was once a predominantly working class Latino enclave has emerged into a hotspot catering to young hipsters seeking to begin their own families. Gentrification is not exclusive to El Sereno but is an ongoing trend unfolding throughout numerous L.A. County neighborhoods.

It is a complex matter, one where sides cannot be easily taken.

As I stood in front of the new apartment complex, I gazed upon it steadily and then after a couple minutes returned to my car and thought to myself, “It seems as if it was not so long ago when I was driving along in my grandmother’s Cadillac, stopping in front of this very curb. Everything else is still hauntingly the same yet the physical trace of our haven is now gone.”

As my 7-year-old self rested my head on the carpet beneath my aunt’s tree, I could see an approaching shadow entering the entryway.

“Andre, I was looking for you. It is time to leave now,” my grandmother said, as she juggled two shopping bags bulging with tamales.

I gathered myself up and hugged my aunt goodbye. Perhaps next weekend we could come back and we could stay a little bit longer.

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  • M

    Mickey VallesDec 22, 2023 at 12:32 pm

    I too among many remember,not only La Serena Tortilleria ,But also the Ponce Family . La Grande,Micaela,Don Jose Sr., Jose”Pepe, Richard, Robert,Lydia,Josephina,Lola and Rosa Ponce. They all were there when needed How I know of them is because my family and I were they’re neighbors for years. We moved in to the home where Alice Corrasco lives before us. Maria, Victoria and Golla were also remembered. There so many more forgive me for not mentioning your name. Eastside of Beaudry is Bunker Hill. Westside of Beaudry is Angelina Heights.

  • F

    France’s BurgoinDec 17, 2023 at 11:24 pm

    I remember the Sirenna very vividly, just stepping in with the aroma brought joy, Thank you for sharing and bringing back my childhood memories m.

  • S

    sonia PonceDec 17, 2023 at 9:00 am

    Omg cousin I’m crying. This is so beautiful. Can you share it or send it to me. Proud Ponce here !