Manuel Ruiz at Tortilleria La Roca, photo by Stella Warren

By Stella Guy Warren

Special to The Sopris Sun

In elementary school, my mom and I would take weekly trips to Garcia’s Market and La Fogata, on the hunt for platanos fritos con crema  —a traditional Central American dish with fried plantains. Sweaty palmed, I would approach the counter and attempt to order my food in broken Spanish. The experience was almost always as uncomfortable as it was valuable to my communication and interpersonal skills. 

Spanish classes in middle and high school grew my understanding of grammar, conjugations and pronunciation, but sometimes lacked an authentic and experience-based setting to practice. Capping off my senior year at Colorado Rocky Mountain School, I departed campus to pursue a three-week project in any area of interest. As such, I channeled my inner, sweaty-palmed, fifth-grade self and returned to these restaurants to hear their stories, ask them questions and push my conversational Spanish-speaking skills. Working through language barriers can feel uncomfortable, but this is entirely outweighed by the connection these conversations allow.

When you turn off Highway 82 and onto 133 heading into Carbondale, you’re greeted by Garcia’s Market on the right. Sitting at the crossroads of Latino and Anglo communities in Carbondale, the vibrant orange building has been a staple for as long as most locals can remember. Named after founding owners Leticia and Samuel Garcia, the business is known for its family recipes and authentically fresh food. 

Most notable are the tacos, says Franciso Rivera, the current owner: “My business runs because, well, everybody likes tacos.” This sentiment is echoed throughout other Latino-owned businesses in Carbondale.

Tortilleria La Roca has acted similarly as a culinary cornerstone for the community. Opening in 1999, La Roca and their hand-made tortillas quickly became notorious throughout the Valley. Although they are most popular for their tortillas, selling between 6,000 and 7,000 on an average day, La Roca’s display counters are also chock-full of dried chilis, Mexican candies, chips, fresh salsas, cheeses, seasoned meats and more. 

Manuel Ruiz, owner of La Roca, moved from Chihuahua, Mexico to Colorado with his family when he was five years old. Growing up in the Valley, Ruiz began to recognize a growing immigrant population from Chihuahua and other neighboring states in the Mexican Sierra. “I wanted to do something for the Latinos here,” he said. “I opened La Tortilleria — starting it out small — with the hope of providing them the jobs and products that the people in my community require.” 

Although La Roca was originally founded to serve the Latino population, it has become well-loved by composite communities. “The majority of my customers are Anglo-American,” Ruiz notes. But Carbondale’s multicultural and multilingual environment has not posed an obstacle to his business. Ruiz reassures, “There is no language barrier when we all do our best to understand each other. Everyone here is very kind and appreciative of our work, and that’s all that matters.” This reflection was reiterated across town at La Fogata, a Salvadorian restaurant that opened its doors in 2016.

Estela, and Marta Serrano outside La Fogata, photo by Stella Warren

“Most people tell us that they can’t say much,” says co-owner Estela Serrano. “I think people might get embarrassed when they feel uncomfortable trying to speak a different language, but it’s a beautiful thing when we can practice together.” 

Originally from Usulután, El Salvador, sisters Estela, and Marta Serrano moved to Carbondale in 2000. With the hope of bringing traditional family recipes to the Carbondale locale, the Serranos launched a booth at Mountain Fair, serving hand-made pupusas and ceviche. Their pupusas (a corn tortilla stuffed thick with beans, meat or cheese) were widely loved by fairgoers.

Encouraged by the community’s response, the Serranos blossomed their annual booth into a restaurant with help from family and friends. 

“Our biggest challenge was creating a menu. We knew people loved our pupusas and ceviche, but we needed to expand beyond that,” says Estela. They began to incorporate an array of family recipes, ranging from seafood and enchiladas to fried plantains and yucca. 

Aside from their esteemed pupusas, family is at the core of La Fogata’s success. “Everything we make is unique to our home in El Salvador and to our family,” Estela noted. 

Business rooted in family also rings true for other local proprietors. “Our goal has always been to bring a piece of our family to yours — from our hearts to yours,” says Desireé Curiel, co-owner of Axkawa, a family-owned Mexican restaurant in downtown Carbondale. Although they are a fairly new addition to Carbondale’s food scene, Axkawa began as Señor Taco Show, a longtime favorite for tacos and margaritas.

“Most people don’t know that Axkawa is the continuation of Señor Taco Show, not a separate enterprise. But mostly, people just don’t know how to pronounce our name,” says Desireé. “Osh-Ka-Wa,” she enunciates, explaining how the word translates to “abundance” in Nahuatl, the indigenous language of the Aztec people. She explained that in Mexico, corn is the “food of abundance” — a cultural and culinary staple. Incorporating corn into their menu was easy, but the Curiels further embodied this notion of abundance in their interior design.

Beyond a typical dine-in experience, art of corn archetypes adds a special flavor to the restaurant’s atmosphere. “Each art piece in the restaurant is the visual representation of corn,” says Desireé — the prints and paintings are designed to exhibit the pattern, texture and shapes of sacred maize. In modern America, and now the entire globe, corn is the bedrock of our diet. Corn and corn derivatives can almost always be found in all processed foods. Despite its omnipresence, we tend to forget the history of corn and its particular importance in South and Central American communities. Latino-owned businesses like Axkawa re-instill the cultural ethos of abundance into our lives and stomachs.

Whether it be through sharing food, language or culture, there are places in Carbondale that offer us all the privilege to be a part of something greater than ourselves and our respective bubbles.

“It’s a beautiful thing when we can practice together,” said Estela. “This is how it works in language exchange.” I am deeply grateful for the practice, the people and the places that allow me to overcome the discomforts my younger self felt while learning a second language.

The solution, Estela continued, is just to keep trying.

Everything about Axkawa, once Señor Taco Show, is the culmination of the Curiel family. Photo by Stella Warren

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