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Will LA flatten an iconic Boyle Heights tortilla factory?


There was a tired pride in Fernando Ruiz’s voice as he led me on a tour of his family’s flour tortilla factory, La Gloria Foods in Boyle Heights.

We started at the back, where a massive sieve threw flour inside a machine that spat out perfectly formed balls of dough. Two workers introduced the orbs into a pneumatic press which crushed them into flat discs. These raw tortillas slid on a seven-tier conveyor belt that passed through an oven. The cooked results traveled the length of the factory, to the men and women who stuffed them into bags decorated with the festive La Gloria logo.

On a good day, these machines can produce 10,000 dozen packages – 120,000 tortillas. This is in addition to the nearly half a million corn tortillas that La Gloria makes daily at a separate facility less than a mile away that also houses its corporate headquarters and a small store.

“Before, we could do more,” said Ruiz, the company’s production manager. He spoke over a symphony of whirlwinds and mechanical groans. “Before the pandemic, we were making tortillas almost 24 hours a day. At the moment, we are just at four o’clock. “

Workers make flour tortillas at La Gloria Mexican Foods.

(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

Will LA flatten an iconic Boyle Heights tortilla factory?

Flour tortillas stuffed in bags decorated with the festive La Gloria logo.

(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

He was looking at his aunt and boss, La Gloria, President Maria Vera, as well as another aunt and two cousins. Ruiz’s mother was on the way. The family has welcomed thousands of visitors since Vera’s father and mother Manuel and Antonia Behar bought the original La Gloria in 1954 just down the street and made all the tortillas themselves.

But even the masks that Ruiz and his relatives wore could not hide their melancholy. They gathered to witness what could be one of the last factory tours. La Gloria is in danger of closure – but the culprit is not the economic ravages of COVID-19, they say. It’s the Los Angeles Department of Public Works.

For six years, La Gloria has waged a fierce battle with the agency over the fate of its flour tortilla machines. The city acquired the Quonset Hut that houses them via a prominent estate in 2015 as part of a long-planned roundabout at Cinco Puntos, the historic intersection where Boyle Heights turns into East Los Angeles. La Gloria received $ 2.2 million for the building and was also entitled to moving expenses under California law.

La Gloria asked for $ 4.2 million, citing the complexity of dismantling and transporting the flour tortilla lines, as well as a large-scale rewiring and redevelopment of the remaining factory to accommodate the machines. The Department of Public Works responded with $ 3.1 million, then $ 2.5 million, before suggesting it could move everything for just $ 246,000. A retired judge oversaw mediation that led to a 2019 deal that said the city would give La Gloria $ 1.88 million, plus pay for new tortilla machines or the relocation of old ones at the end of the day. a tendering process.

But the dispute continued and the next round is on Wednesday during a Zoom hearing before the ministry’s Relocation Appeal Board. The city will come up with a new figure for La Gloria’s moving costs.

Zero.

A staff report recommended the amount because it claimed La Gloria broke federal law by being “uncooperative” in refusing to “allow reasonable inspections” to determine the correct relocation costs, claims the company denies.

Through Mary Nemick, director of communications for the Department of Public Works, the city of Los Angeles declined to comment.

La Gloria learned of the staff report about a week ago. Flour tortillas represent 50% of his income. Without any moving costs, the company says, it’s not just its ability to make flour tortillas that is affected – the corn tortilla business would disappear as well.

Will LA flatten an iconic Boyle Heights tortilla factory?

Benny Carmona works inside the corn factory at La Gloria Mexican Foods.

(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

“It’s not as easy as getting a bunch of U-Hauls and loading them all up,” said Ruiz, 46.

Now I know what you’re all thinking: $ 4 million to move machines that make tortillas? You could have hit me with a frozen burrito when I first heard this amount. I mean can’t you just hire an army of tías at a tenth of the cost?

But here’s the thing: you can’t if you want to make La Gloria scale tortillas.

The sieve looks like a refrigerator that has just undergone a growth spurt. The conveyor belt is the length of a yacht. The oven that bakes the tortillas is about the size of a teenage Stegosaurus. All the parts together make a Rube Goldberg machine seem as complex as turning a quarter of it.

The Los Angeles Department of Public Works knows this – why would they initially offer La Gloria $ 3.1 million in relocation costs? Seeing the offer go from seven digits to none seems personal.

“The city must think that we are a bunch of stupid Mexicans,” said Cynthia Vera, a first-grade teacher who is Maria’s daughter and who helps with public relations. She is particularly enraged by a 2015 internal staff email sent by a city engineer about the moving expenses claimed by La Gloria. In it, the author joked, “Looks like they might have misplaced a decimal point. Where are they moving in … Beverly Hills? “

Maria Vera has worked at La Gloria since she was a little girl who translated everything from mail to insurance policies for her Spanish speaking parents. Now 73, she remembers how city workers and her father walked her through applications for permits to get the flour tortilla factory up and running while she was still student at Belvedere Elementary School.

“When we first formed La Gloria, the city helped us,” she says quietly but in a neutral tone. “Now the city wants to get rid of it. “

My tour of La Gloria ended at an old apartment complex next to the corn tortilla factory. This is where Vera and her two sisters grew up, where her father lived until his death in 1990 at age 81, getting up every day at 2 a.m. to begin production.

Will LA flatten an iconic Boyle Heights tortilla factory?

The founders of La Gloria Mexican Foods, Manuel and Antonia Behar.

(Family photo)

Today the apartment complex consists of the offices of La Gloria. Eleven family members work full time, while the fourth generation does heavy work during their summer vacation to remind where the family is from.

“My dad would always tell me, ‘Don’t let the workers see you sitting down because that would tell them you’re lazy,’ Vera said, looking at a framed photo of her parents in the original Gloria.

Manuel Behar arrived in Los Angeles in 1954 after opening tortillerias in Mexico City, Tijuana and Texas. He had always wanted to come to Los Angeles, and he had found a city with an insatiable appetite for tortillas.

With his wife, Mexican immigrants created an institution in Boyle Heights. Ronald Reagan and former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa were clients. Behar’s innovations in tortilla production earned him a posthumous place in the Tortilla Industry Assn Hall of Fame. In 2009 for creating “one of the first mass tortilla production companies in the country,” according to his plaque.

“The city doesn’t realize how much history is here,” said Cynthia Vera. “They think we can just start over. But it’s our family. Losing him is not an option for my mother. “

Will LA flatten an iconic Boyle Heights tortilla factory?

The three daughters of La Gloria founders Manuel and Antonia Behar, left to right, are Sylvia Ruiz, 70, Maria Vasquez, 71, and Maria Vera, 72, inside the corn factory.

(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

Maria Vera owns La Gloria with her two sisters, Maria Vazquez and Sylvia Ruiz. They never thought of selling.

“I didn’t want all of my father’s efforts to go anywhere,” she says. “He gave everything.

Vera hopes the Public Works Appeal Board rejects the nada in relocation costs that the City of Los Angeles will argue that La Gloria deserves. But the family is worried, as they have already lost out to the city.

In 2007, Metro laid tracks for its extension of the Gold Line through the Eastside directly opposite the La Gloria headquarters during the holiday season, the company’s busiest time. Walk-in activity has never been the same as customer parking is now essentially made up of three spaces next to pallets at headquarters. Large rigs can no longer fit into the facility, which means La Gloria has to offload their supplies elsewhere.

“We’ve been doing this for decades,” Vera said. In his hands was a manila paper folder with more photos of his parents and their early days business. “For the city, it’s very easy to take that off, but they don’t know the sweat, the life and the work here. At this point, we feel hopeless.

Will LA flatten an iconic Boyle Heights tortilla factory?

A mid-1960s photograph of the La Gloria corn factory on First Street.

(Family photo)





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