When the first real food you eat as a baby is fideo, you know your Mexican blood runs deep.
Since birth, Andrew Luis Avila, 12, and his sister Ana Margarita Avila, 8, have been fed pieces of their Latino heritage through Spanish-language bingo, Mexican holiday traditions and their first bites of pasta spiced with tomato and chili.
On Wednesday evening, the lessons in heritage continued to flow as the two children celebrated Costa Mesa’s first official National Hispanic Heritage Month event at their grandmother’s restaurant, Avila’s El Ranchito.
“The main inspiration was my grandchildren,” said María Elena Avila, owner of the Costa Mesa restaurant and community hub. “To be able to talk about the beauty in our culture … it gives us an opportunity to just express that.”
“It’s good that she keeps the tradition going a long time,” Ana said with a smile.
National Hispanic Heritage Month runs from Sept. 15 — the anniversary of independence for Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua — to Oct. 15. Though Costa Mesa is more than a third Latino, according to the U.S. Census, Wednesday marked the city’s first known event celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month.
Avila’s secondary inspiration for hosting the celebration, in collaboration with the Costa Mesa Chamber of Commerce, was the unprecedented Latino representation on the City Council. For the first time in the city’s history, Costa Mesa has three elected leaders of Hispanic descent: Andrea Marr, Arlis Reynolds and Manuel Chavez.
“With this new energy on the City Council, I had to pull out of semi-retirement,” Avila said with a laugh.
Red, white and green balloons bobbled in the breeze outside the restaurant while a mariachi band played indoors. Festive streamers in the colors of the Mexican flag danced above a crowd of people who crammed into the bar area for tequila and taquitos.
During a short presentation, Marr, Reynolds and Chavez pointed out specific community members for their contributions to Costa Mesa.
Chavez recognized Andy Godinez, 37, an employee in the city’s code enforcement division and a native of Costa Mesa’s predominantly Hispanic Westside neighborhood.
“I’m really proud to see us get together,” Godinez said, looking over the gathering of community leaders, families and Costa Mesa residents. “I feel like it’s been a long time coming.”
For a lesson in Latino heritage, one need look no further than Avila’s El Ranchito. The Placentia Avenue restaurant, founded by family matriarch Margarita “Mama” Avila, has long been a cornerstone of Costa Mesa’s Latino community.
Passing Mexican culture from generation to generation has been a tradition of the Avila family. Since Mama Avila’s death in February, keeping up traditions has been even more important.
“The rich heritage that we have is something to be so proud of, and we want to continue that with our children,” said Lisa Avila Broussard, María Elena’s daughter and the mother of Andrew and Ana. “I constantly taught them from the day they were born to be proud of being Mexican.”
Every Monday, the family gathers for Mama Avila’s famous chicken soup. On special occasions, the Avila family, which altogether numbers about 45, hires a mariachi band for the party.
“We care a lot about each other, and nobody leaves anybody behind,” Andrew said. “We are all family.”
On Wednesday evening, as the sun dipped low and a golden glow settled over Avila’s El Ranchito, the mariachi players disappeared from the restaurant. They could be found filling the back doorway to the kitchen, serenading four cooks laboring over the food.