A dream realized
BY MARTIN ESPINOZA
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
About a month ago, Carmen Duran and her family proudly debuted their brand new, stainless steel, custom-made-in-Los Angeles tamale cart on Highway 12, next to Bob’s Fruit Truck in Rincon Valley.
It was a modest milestone after selling almost a quarter of a million homemade tamales over the past three decades.
A week later, the Mexican immigrant family bought Bob’s Fruit Truck, a neighborhood institution that has been at 4358 Sonoma Highway — “that place near the hardware store” — for almost as long as Duran has been making and selling tamales.
Those who regularly travel Highway 12 have seen the sign, in fluorescent red, proclaiming “Hot Tamales $1.50” affixed to the tamale “steamer,” a shiny contraption that’s a cross between a hotdog stand and a roasted peanuts cart. What is not so evident are the years of back-breaking work that led to this scene along Sonoma Highway.
This is a story about how a buck-fifty tamale can buy a small piece of the American Dream in the middle of a recession, with all of its nail-biting risks, possible failures and hopeful triumphs. It’s a story of a humble North Coast immigrant family trying to fulfill deferred dreams one step at a time.
“This steamer is helping me get ahead, helping me accomplish something I never thought I could,” said Duran, speaking in Spanish. “It was because of the cart that we ended up getting the produce stand. My son said let’s do this. You’ve always wanted to do this, so let’s do it.”
Locals who for years have been picking up organic apples, oranges and carrots at Bob’s, have noticed the tamale cart and the new sign declaring it “Under new management.”
The faces behind the cash register are also new: Duran, 59, and her oldest son, Jose Guadalupe Duran, 39, as well as Duran’s other children and grandchildren, working the stand and the cart.
Carmen Duran’s improbable journey to the side of Highway 12 started in 1972 when she left Chamacuaro, in the central Mexican state of Guanajuato, and came across the border with her husband and then 1-year-old Jose.
They came illegally, and by 1975 Duran’s husband, Ruben Duran Rodriguez, decided not to return to the United States after being deported twice. Duran followed him back to Mexico, leaving her youngest in the care of their grandparents in Ukiah.
The split was short-lived. They crossed the border again in the early 1980s, reuniting the family. And in 1986, Duran, her husband and Jose became legal permanent residents through the 1986 federal amnesty law. It was the opportunity of a lifetime, but it cost Duran’s first dream.
The money she had been planning to use on a down payment to buy a house in Ukiah, $9,000, was instead used to hire an attorney to process immigration papers and to pay a fine for Ruben having entered the country illegally.
Those days before amnesty were filled with long hours of work for Carmen Duran, packing pears from 7 a.m. to 12 p.m., breaking for 30 minutes, then beginning a 12:30-to-11 p.m. shift as a hand weaver at Carousel Carpet Mills. After the birth of her youngest son, Rogger Duran changed shifts at the carpet mill, working from 6 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Then it was a trip home to feed the family before heading back out for a 4 p.m.-to-1 a.m. shift at Burger King.
Memories of those endless hours of work come easily to the mother and grandmother, who Wednesday was sitting behind the counter at Bob’s Fruit Truck — her Fruit Truck — dressed in fleece and folding her arms to keep warm.
“That’s why I say to them, I’m too tired to work. It’s your turn now,” she said in Spanish, referring to her children.
For almost 30 years, selling tamales by the hundreds was a way of making extra cash. She started out selling them door-to-door in Ukiah, or taking them directly to farm workers in the pear orchards and vineyards. The matriarch’s daughter, Carmen, 36, remembers having to sit in the back of a truck, in search of new customers.
“We would go house-to-house, knocking on doors,” she said. “People would ask, ‘What are tamales?’ And we had to explain to them … they would look at how we were dressed and they would look at what we were driving and say, ‘You’re carrying them in that?’”
Carmen Duran’s husband died of lung disease five years ago at the age of 59. He had spent most of his life in the United States working for a Willits company that makes lumber products such as wood pallets, containers and boxes.
Years before his death Carmen had wanted to open a restaurant, but her husband never wanted to take the risk and was too afraid of leaving his job making pallets.
It was a decade ago that Jose actually came up with the idea of buying a tamale cart. After years of working as a retail manager for chain stores like OfficeMax, Bed Bath & Beyond and Kragen Auto, Jose decided to devote all his time to helping his mother make and sell tamales, hour by hour, each hand-wrapped.
“You can feel it in your back,” Carmen Duran says today.
With her savings, as well as the financial help of her children, Carmen Duran and the family were able to finally custom-order a tamale cart from a manufacturer in Los Angeles. The cart, which cost more than $10,000, was hand-built to Jose’s specifications, he said.
“All the parts are custom made, down to the frame,” he said. “It’s almost like a piece of art.”
Carmen Duran, who lives with Jose, Rogger and son Ruben, 29, across town on Dutton Avenue, said she wanted to sell her tamales somewhere other than in Roseland, which is brimming with taco trucks and tamale vendors.
A spot next to Bob’s Fruit Truck seemed ideal and familiar, said Jose, whose ex-wife lives in Rincon Valley and whose children attend school in the area.
They set up shop next to Bob’s on Nov. 1.
After five days, Larry Tristano, the owner of Bob’s Fruit Truck, asked Jose if he wanted to place the tamale truck in front of the fruit stand. The next day, Tristano, who owns Triple T Ranch and Farm, an organic farm in Santa Rosa, approached Jose with a different question.
“I noticed he was doing pretty good,” said Tristano. “I told him, ‘Why don’t you just buy the fruit stand?’”
Tristano had purchased the produce stand three years ago from Bob Coburn, who set up roadside operation without a permit in 1983.
In the spring of 2001, the Santa Rosa planning department recommended that Bob’s move from the spot, because it violated permitted uses under the city’s zoning laws and general plan.
A flood of public support for the produce stand swayed the city planning commission, which later voted unanimously to allow Bob’s to stay on the property.
Tristano, who has been growing organic produce at Triple T since 1983, said he wants to focus on his farm, which is “doing very, very good.”
That prompted the conversation with Highway 12′s newest arrivals. Tristano offered to sell.
Within days, “a sweet deal got even sweeter,” Jose said.
Brian Ike, a local resident who lives a about a half mile up the highway, was surprised to hear the produce stand had changed hands. He said he’s been coming by the produce stand for seven years.
“I always stop here to pick up fruits and vegetables. They have everything organic,” said Ike, after getting eight tamales for himself and four other teens with him. “And I like the tamales as an addition, the kids love them,” he said.
Jose Duran said he knows he’s taking a big chance with the fruit stand.
“I told my mom, ‘I think I just made a mistake. I think I just bought a business,’” he said. “But my mom said, ‘Isn’t that what you always wanted to do?’”
For now, there’s no need for a work schedule. The family is here every day.
“My son, my daughters are ringing. To me it’s something that’s brought a lot of heart. It brings us together as a family, to say, ‘You know what? We can do this, morning day and night. We can do this.”