November 2008

Breakfast of Campeónes

How the Lopez Family made chorizo mainstream

Kamren
Curiel

The Lopez family Photo by Frank W Ockenfels 3

Chorizo, the spicy sausage mix that is a fixture in Mexican-American breakfasts, has come a long way in the past seven decades—in Los Angeles and beyond.

The baseball-cap-wearing, bat-wielding pig of the Carmelita Chorizo logo is nowadays more likely to be found in a Latino family’s refrigerator than Farmer John’s pitchfork, and that is a testament to the work ethic—and love of baseball—of Carmelita’s founder, Mario Lopez, who started the company 74 years ago.

“A lot of people didn’t know what chorizo was,” says 74-year-old Mario Lopez Jr., as old as his dad’s livelihood and with an East L.A. twang that reminds me of my grandfather’s. “They’re starting to discover it. I was in Alaska and saw it in a store. You see it in burgers, spaghetti and pizza now.”

That the tangy Mexican sausage is no longer just a Latino staple is a vindication of the founder’s never-ending work ethic for his children and grandchildren.

“In 1934, my dad was making chorizo at a plant, but when the war started, they couldn’t get any meat,” he says. So after World War II, Mario Sr. opened his own chorizo business on Carmelita Avenue in 1948—hence the name. The factory stayed in East L.A. until 1962, when it moved to its current location in Monterey Park.

There, in a humble office space decorated with old photos and newspaper clippings, Mario Jr. works with his brothers and co-owners Carlos Lopez, 68; Frank Lopez, 63; and sons Mario Lopez III, 52, and Larry Lopez, 47. Frank still writes up his shipping forms at an old typewriter. They use references like “the Plunge” (the old pool they used to enjoy at Evergreen Park) and “Brooklyn” (renamed Cesar E. Chavez Avenue in 1994) to refer to their old stomping ground. They have seen the neighborhood of rolling hills change from cows, drive-ins, Russian bath houses and the old Canter’s Delicatessen (now on Fairfax) to a decidedly more urban terrain.

“His dream was family, baseball and business,” Frank says of his dad, who immigrated to L.A. from Chihuahua, Mexico, in the 1920s. Settling in East L.A., Mario Sr. had, at most, a fourth grade education but worked hard and played ball harder. The Cleveland Indians recruited him at 16, but his family wouldn’t let him go pro.

Instead, he formed a team called the Carmelita Chorizeros, with his factory workers. They would become known as the New York Yankees of barrio baseball.

“We played ball, went to school or made chorizo,” says Mario Jr. “We had plenty of opportunity to hang out with the boneheads, but my dad wouldn’t have it.”

The Chorizeros are said to have won 19 city championships. At a time when Mexican Americans were struggling to assimilate, Mario Sr. was running a club that helped them find common ground.

Carmelita’s baseball days are mostly over. The owners, who have moved on to golf, still sponsor local Little Leagues but say today’s kids are more interested in computers and cell phones than in baseball.

Carmelita’s chorizo days are just hitting their stride, though. Where many packers, including Farmer John, once scoffed at chorizo, almost all now package it, and it can be found in grocery chains nationwide, including Costco, Albertsons, Safeway and Ralphs.

Sadly, Mario Sr. didn’t live to see his favorite Mexican breakfast dish make it to mainstream menus, as he passed away in 1966 at only 57.

Today, the original chorizo recipe—cheek meat and a blend of spices that include real New Mexico chiles—is still mixed on the premises. Despite the slumping economy—oddly, food is one of the first things people cut back on—the owners are optimistic about the future. Family businesses usually fall apart around the third generation, but Carmelita Chorizo endures, putting the children through college, with some becoming doctors and lawyers and others following in their fathers’ footsteps.

“Our nieces, nephews, sons, daughters—they all worked here and were able to go to school,” Frank says. “They did everything from washing floors to cleaning kettles. That’s what I’m most proud of. We’ve made a good living carrying on the dream.”

Although technology has allowed Carmelita to turn out its product more quickly—chorizo used to be manually mixed in a tank with a shovel and pitchfork—the future is largely dependent on the next generation.

“Who would have thought tortillas would outsell bread or salsa would outsell ketchup?” asks Mario Jr. “Chorizo makes beans 100 times better.” We can only hope his kids’ kids feel the same.