The story behind
Austin’s El Azteca

Founder Jorge Guerra gives up longtime Mexican restaurant's spot on East Seventh Street.

The humble building on East Seventh Street bore a plain sign: “For Lease or Sale.” It stayed on the market for two years during the early 1960s.

“A woman told fortunes there,” Jorge de Jesus Duron Guerra says. “Before that, it was, at different times, Alba’s Cafe, Rosita’s Tamales and Ruby’s Dancing Place. Originally, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers used it when they were building Bergstrom Air Force Base during World War II.”

Guerra and his young family turned the spot into El Azteca.

“We opened at 3 p.m. May 10, 1963,” Guerra, 84, says. “I have the record. $17.53 in sales.”

Before the end of this month, El Azteca is expected to close after 53 years of serving steak a la Mexicana, chicken mole, soft tacos, menudo and barbacoa de cabeza, a victim of family health care costs, rising property taxes and a drop in sales during two years of street work on East Seventh.
“I can remember the first time I went to El Azteca,” longtime Austinite Joe Sherfy says. “And it’s sad to see another family-run Mexican restaurant close here.”

Guerra, an outspoken military veteran, has tangled with local leaders for years over questions of building expansions, on-site parking, area crime and flooding. Now, he says, taxes are killing the place.

“They kept saying, ‘We want more money,’” he says. “Without improvements. And it’s the same buildings, the same land. But it’s not our property any more. As much as I love our community, the business is not a business for us now.”

The boy from Montemorelos

Jorge Guerra, right, with his father and brothers in 1937. Photo courtesy of Jorge Guerra

Guerra’s parents, Servando Duron Benavides and Antonia Guerra, raised their seven children in Montemorelos, a small city one hour’s drive from Monterrey in Nuevo León. His mother found herself widowed at an early age. Her son received a basic education before crossing the Rio Grande with a visa on Nov. 23, 1953. The immigration service shortened his surname, “Duron Guerra,” to “Guerra.”

Other family members had paved the way. His uncle, Ismael Guerra, fed railroad workers in Pennsylvania during the 1920s, then opened three restaurants before returning to Nuevo León during the Depression. His brother, Gustavo Guerra, was a World War II veteran.

Before 1953, as a young man, Guerra had worked in his uncle’s restaurants in Reynosa, Tamaulipas, where he crossed the border often on business.

“We were serving mostly people from McAllen,” he recalls. “So it had to be the best, including the best water and the best milk.”

After his official arrival in the United States, he moved to Philadelphia. The Korean War intervened. He signed up for the Selective Service, was drafted, and trained as a Marine at Parris Island, S.C.

“Before Christmas, they signed the amnesty,” Guerra says. “I was stationed in Japan and South Korea with the Air Force later, for a total of 11 years service, ending with an honorable discharge as a staff sergeant.”

He married Ninfa Galvan Reyna Guerra in 1955. They had two boys and two girls. The couple bought a modest house at Linden and Lyons streets — just a few blocks to the northwest across Boggy Creek — a year after opening El Azteca.

In the service, Guerra had learned communications and electronics, but found no ready jobs in Austin — this was well before Austin’s vaunted tech boom. As Guerra remembers, too, it was still a pretty segregated place.

“Opening El Azteca was a matter of survival,” he says. “I don’t know how the name came to me. It had to be something that belongs to anyone who wants to respect the culture. It is a name to be honored and respected.”

Customers sometimes asked: Why not “La” Azteca.

“If it was a bakery, yes, La Azteca,” he says of the feminine article, “but El Azteca is for any man or woman who was part of the tribe.”

Serving more than food

El Azteca Restaurant on Thursday, Sept.1. Jay Janner/American-Statesman

Two things gave the Guerra enterprise an extra kick: community and authenticity.

“El Azteca is an Austin institution that will be sorely missed,” says former City Council Member Mike Martinez. “But it wasn’t just the great Mexican food that Mr. Guerra served that made the place so special. It was Mr. Guerra himself. His civic engagement and political participation in his community was always a part of El Azteca. He challenged me on numerous occasions to think about things from a different perspective. We didn’t always agree, but I surely did respect him 100 percent for his service to our country and to his community.”

From the start, the Guerra patriarch got involved in matters that affected his neighbors. He was helped out by older Austin families, such as the Limóns and Estradas, who owned nearby businesses. It didn’t hurt that the head of La Fuerza newspaper liked his empanadas and traded advertising for them.

“Mr. Guerra was a key leader for the people of East Austin back in the day, especially in the Zaragoza and Govalle neighborhoods,” says advertising executive and community historian Lonnie Limón. “He got things done because he was fearless and determined.”

Crime and flooding were perennial concerns in this section of Govalle.

“It was about people feeling safe,” Guerra says. “Tillery and Lyons streets, for instance, would really flood. The trouble was convincing the city that there was a problem.”

For years, folks had used a steep ravine on Boggy Creek above Rosewood Park as an informal dump. When it rained heavily, trash raced downstream to Govalle and backed up under bridges. Engineers warned that if they widened the watercourse, other neighborhoods would flood.

“I didn’t give up,” Guerra says. “Someone was making noise.”

When a new priest, Father Joe Znotas, showed up at St. Julia Catholic Church, down the street from the Guerra house, he was warned to get out of the street when it rained.

“Hey, you are going to get flooded!” Guerra shouted at him. “He was new. He didn’t know.”

Catholic Bishop Louis Reicher was one of the first civic leaders, Guerra says, to recognize the problems. The odd-shaped former St. Julia school, now a community center, for instance, was built on stilts to prevent it from flooding.

Guerra’s lobbying took him to Congressman Jake Pickle — who excelled at constituent care — as well as to U.S. Sens. John Tower and Lloyd Bentsen, to seek federal funds. An Army officer inspecting Boggy Creek, which flooded three or four times a year back then, told him to expect something else if they took on the project.

“He said, ‘Your taxes are going to go up,’” Guerra recalls. “Well, they are already going up all the time!”

In addition, Guerra says he felt that the city’s mainstream culture did not respect the longtime heritage of Govalle. Since the 1920s and ’30s, its unassuming homes near the railroad tracks had been surrounded by gardens and empty lots.

“Instead of investing here, they slowly let it decay,” Guerra says. “But people liked our food. We grew chili poblano peppers in the gardens because there wasn’t any in the stores.”

City Council Member Ben White — whom Guerra still calls “Uncle Ben” — helped him persuade city leaders to make improvements in and around El Azteca. Slowly, the city added police protection, paved the streets and channelized the creek.

“At City Council meetings, they wouldn’t call me by my name,” Guerra says. A council member addressed him instead using an ethnic slur usually directed at people from the western Mediterranean: “You next, dago.”

“Well, I’ve got Italian, Spanish, Native, German and Anglo in me,” Guerra says. “I call them ‘parientes,’ relatives.”

Another Guerra goal: More authentic food and drink.

“We served more than just enchiladas, tacos and beans,” he says. “Cabrito wasn’t available any other place in Austin. We had to bring in our produce from San Antonio.”

When he was there in the 1970s to pick up supplies, he saw Corona beer for sale.

“Sell me two cases,” he told the distributor. “There was no Mexican beer in town. I bought my Carta Blanca, Bohemia, Tecate, Negra Modelo from San Antonio. I was the only customer for Dos Equis.”

One other memorable item for sale: Calendars decorated with extravagant images of Aztecs.

“It was at a time when Austin didn’t want to talk about Indians,” Guerra says. “And some didn’t want to speak Spanish because of the punishments. The international community came in by dozens to give them as Christmas presents. I think it increased the popularity of our culture. We belonged.”

Losing a companion

Statuettes at El Azteca Restaurant. Jay Janner/American-Statesman

Ninfa and Jorge Guerra worked as a team for decades. They founded a small corporation, bought more land, kept the business going in good times and bad, even as food trends swerved off in other directions.

“Early on, it helped us that other places downtown closed at 10 p.m. or midnight,” Jorge Guerra says. “We stayed open till 2 a.m., even 4 a.m. We’d walk home as the sun was coming out. Then had to be up at 9 a.m. to open at 11 a.m. Seven days a week.”

Then one day, Ninfa Guerra, who had developed diabetes, sat down and stared off into the distance.

“Something’s wrong with you,” her husband said. “We called an ambulance and went to the diabetic clinic, then to the hospital. She never recovered. Lost much of her memory. I wasn’t able to have my companion to back me up.”

Slowly, Jorge Guerra, who still lives at Lyons and Linden, surrounded by family pictures and mementos, turned over day-to-day operations to his descendants. But he was far from disengaged. He sought help from city leaders once again when street work in front of the eatery knocked down sales a reported 50 percent. El Azteca also lost some parking spaces to the widened East Seventh. Meanwhile, property taxes more than doubled.

“We had to keep putting money in,” Guerra says. “And my wife had to go into rehabilitation.”

That was extraordinarily costly. In the end, his wife’s care came first.

“My life has been there with my wife for so long,” he says. “My soul will be there as long as I have a soul.”

Michael Barnes writes about Austin's people, places, culture and history. Read more of his stories at mystatesman.com.