The headline in Popular Mechanics magazine saluted a manufacturing triumph in Los Angeles: “Tortillas Meet the Machine Age.” It was 1950, and the El Zarape Tortilla Factory, among the first to automate the production of tortillas, had used a tortilla-making machine for three years.
Corn and flour disks poured off the conveyor belt more than 12 times faster than they could be made by hand. At first many came out “bent” or misshapen, as company President Rebecca Webb Carranza recalled decades later, and were thrown away.
For a family party in the late 1940s, Carranza cut some of the discarded tortillas into triangles and fried them. A hit with the relatives, the chips soon sold for a dime a bag at her Mexican delicatessen and factory at the corner of Jefferson Boulevard and Arlington Avenue in southwest Los Angeles.
By the 1960s, the snack the family packaged as Tort Chips and delivered up and down the coast had evolved into El Zarape’s primary business.
Carranza, who was recognized by the tortilla industry as one of the pioneers of the commercial tortilla chip, died Jan. 19 from complications of old age at a hospice in Phoenix, her family said. She was 98.
In 1994 and 1995 -- the only years the award was given -- Carranza was among the recipients of the Golden Tortilla, created to honor about 20 industry innovators, said Mario Orozco, an employee of Irving, Texas-based Azteca Milling, who thought up the celebration.
Carranza was born Rebecca Webb on Nov. 29, 1907, in Durango, Mexico. She was the only daughter of Leslie Webb, an engineer from Utah who worked for an American mining company in Mexico, and his Mexican-born wife, Eufemia Miranda.
As a young girl, Rebecca and her five brothers lived through periodic raids by Mexican bandit and revolutionary Pancho Villa and other thieves in northern Mexico.
“Pancho Villa did not like her father, because he was American,” said Mario R. Carranza, the first of her two sons. “She had pictures of her father on his horse dashing away from danger.”
When Rebecca was a pre-teenager, the mining company moved the family to El Paso, Texas. After her parents divorced, her mother brought the family to Los Angeles in the 1920s.
She met her future husband, Mario Carranza, on a blind date, and they married in 1931. She made ties for a neckwear company, and he worked in finance at O’Keefe & Merritt, an appliance maker.
On the advice of a friend who ran a successful tortilla shop in East Los Angeles, the Carranzas opened one in the early 1940s and moved into an apartment above the factory and shop.
Once tortilla chips were on the menu, Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, who played Jack Benny’s valet on radio and television, often stopped in to buy them, said Victor Luis Carranza, her other son.
After Carranza and her husband divorced in 1951, she signed the business over to him.
He soon opened a tortilla chip factory in Long Beach but closed it in 1967, partly because of competition from national companies that had discovered the sales potential of the salty chip.
Rebecca Carranza returned to East Los Angeles and worked into her 80s, first as a meat wrapper at grocery stores and then as a U.S. Census taker.
She had three more relatively brief marriages, two to the same man, Augustine Zuniga. Three years ago, she moved to Phoenix to be near her two sons.
In addition to her sons, Carranza is survived by 12 grandchildren, 19 great-grandchildren and two great-great-grandchildren.