Cariño Cortez was sixteen when she started working at her family’s restaurant, Mi Tierra. She learned quickly that there were many more aspects to running the iconic business than she thought. Jorge, her father, made sure that she understood not only La Familia Cortez Restaurants, but the communities they touch.
“He would take us to chamber meetings,” she explains, “He would take us to City Council B sessions. He’d take us to different businesses to meet entrepreneurs and artists. So that we would get a pulse of what was happening in the city.”
Cariño was astounded by the amount of community involvement. “We had no idea that there were so many other things going on. He was raising money for the Alameda, he was helping with Milam Park.” And that dedication continues today: “We’re involved in Zona Cultural, which is preserving our Latino heritage, as well as public art and various projects Downtown.”
Cariño Cortez (left) and Jorge Cortez (middle) share childhood stories with friends at Gran Tamalada on December 10, 2017. Michael Cirlos / Centro San Antonio
Continuing her education with a bachelor’s degree in Accounting Management, Cariño then studied at the Culinary Institute of America in New York. After opening restaurants in cities all over the U.S., she returned to San Antonio to help her family open their newest concept, Viva Villa Taquería.
“We wanted something a little different, a little unique,” she says of the restaurant, which focuses on regional Mexican fare and Tapas. Viva Villa is a recent addition to Market Square, nestled in a corner near Mi Tierra and La Margarita. “I feel like it’s a little sister. It’s still growing so the other restaurant’s help out a bit.”
Just as Viva Villa grows, so does one of Market Square’s newest annual events.
Author and Ph.D Ellen Riojas Clark, passes out tamales during Gran Tamalada at Market Square. Michael Cirlos / Centro San Antonio
The square came alive with musica, comida, y familia last weekend at La Gran Tamalada. This holiday tradition is a collaboration between the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center and La Familia Cortez. Dr. Ellen Riojas Clark and Dr. Carmen Tafolla began the event ten years ago at the Guadalupe, with the intent of preserving and sharing their traditions.
When Cariño returned to San Antonio four years ago, Clark and Tafolla asked her to bring her culinary expertise to the table and help out with the event. And when the pair retired a couple of years ago, Cariño brought the Tamalada (which was now too big for the space at the Guadalupe) to Market Square. The Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center remains a key part of the programming, and during the event a regular shuttle transports attendees from the Guadalupe to Market Square.
Cariño’s family has become a part of the event itself. “We love to share our traditions with the community and our team members,” she says. At one point during the program, she and her siblings, her father and even her four month old daughter, Camilla, made tamales and told stories in front of curious onlookers. “I have memories of our tamaladas as a kid and the special tamales our grandma would make.” The gathering crowd felt like they were a part of these memories as the family reminisced and joked with each other.
Over 500 people attended this year's Gran Tamalada at Market Square. Michael Cirlos / Centro San Antonio
“The Gran Tamalada has become one of our favorite family traditions,” she continues, “We’ve grown it over the last two years to over five hundred people.” The tamalada is one of many holiday traditions in a place famous for its holiday spirit. Or as Cariño puts it: “You can’t walk into Mi Tierra without bumping into a Christmas tree.”
Cariño explains why the holidays in our city are unique, saying, “In San Antonio it’s very familial and everybody comes out and has the holiday spirit.” She enjoys the lights, food, and decorations Downtown during the holidays. “We go all out. We really do.”
Community events, like La Gran Tamalada, are especially important during the holidays to Cariño and her family. “Our business is bigger than inside the walls of this restaurant,” she says, “it’s in the community.”