Camerino Gonzalez Valle, the founder of Chicago chain Taqueria Los Comales Mexican Restaurants, died of cancer last Wednesday at his home in suburban Orland Park, according to his daughter. He was 81.
Gonzalez launched the iconic taco brand in the early 1970s out of the back of a van and went on to build a Mexican culinary empire. At its height, there were 25 Taqueria Los Comales restaurants, many operated by extended family members. There are now 16 across the Chicago area, Milwaukee, and San Antonio, Texas.
The original Los Comales restaurant was founded in 1973 near Kedzie Avenue and 26th Street in Little Village, though it relocated several times around the area. Gonzalez’s Mexico City-style tacos, in particular his Al Pastor with grilled onions and an adobo marinade, quickly accumulated a following when he began selling them with his first wife in the early 1970s out of a van parked outside the Aragon Ballroom in Uptown.
The oldest of seven children, Gonzalez was born in San Jóse de Gracia in the Mexican state of Jalisco. He moved with his family to Mexico City as a young teenager and at 15 years old he crossed the border into the U.S. The experience was a harrowing one — he came alone and never shared painful details with his family, says his daughter Christina Gonzalez.
After arriving in California, Gonzalez would work as an agricultural laborer under the federal government’s Bracero Program, the largest “guest worker” initiative in American history. He eventually came to Chicago while driving semi-trailer trucks, and went on to drive cabs, work in meatpacking plants, and tend bar.
When his brother Miguel and other relatives began to immigrate years later, he lent time and resources to help ease their path. “Dad made sure that coming over wasn’t as hard or as daunting and traumatic as it was for him,” Christina says.
As more of the family arrived in Chicago, they allowed the chain to grow, working for the restaurant, filling management roles, and eventually opening their own branches. Other entrepreneurial ventures included a fruit export business in Chiapas, Mexico, and a commissary producing branded paper goods for the restaurants.
Gonzalez’s efforts to support other immigrants became a pattern throughout his life. He was one of the first taqueria owners in Chicago to hire women to cook on the plancha. Managing the large cast-iron griddle was a job typically reserved for men, his daughter says, but Gonzalez saw immigrant women — usually relegated to limited weekend hours washing dishes — as an untapped labor source who wanted regular work to help their families. “He empowered the women who worked for him,” Christina says. “Here he is bringing in these women who are doing it all and making him proud.”
Gonzalez was known for fielding phone calls for people seeking assistance in navigating the immigration process, especially during the 1980s, when the Regan Administration made any immigrant who’d entered the U.S. before 1982 eligible for amnesty. Gonzalez supplied around 1,200 former employees with the evidence of their work history to assist in the amnesty process. “He would get phone calls from people say, ‘Hey, my son is a senator’s aide’ or ‘my kid works at capitol all because you basically help me get these papers,’ his daughter says. “He afforded that proof they all needed.”
Reflecting on her father’s life, Christina hopes he is remembered for his dedication to caring for those around him. “I would love for his legacy — his passion for life, his generosity, his willingness to help people — would move on through the generations, to all of our children and all the employees,” she says.
In addition to his daughter Christina and brother Miguel, Gonzalez’s survivors include his son Lawrence, his wife Patricia, sister Martha, stepsons Nicholas Acevedo, Richard Acevedo, Fernando Franco, Jose Franco, and Miguel Franco, and eight grandchildren. Visitation is from 3 p.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday at Lawn Funeral Home in Tinley Park, with a funeral Mass at 11 a.m. Friday at St. Michael Church in Orland Park.