- Michael Barnes American-Statesman Staff
Jorge Guerra, longtime owner of El Azteca restaurant and a fixture on the East Austin scene for decades, died at home on Thursday afternoon. He was 85.
“He was the rock,” his grandson, Juan Guerra, said Friday. “He was the person that everybody could count on. He was an amazing husband, father and grandfather. He always instilled faith and respect for others.”
The elder Guerra opened his family restaurant at 3 p.m. May 10, 1963. He closed it last year due to family health care costs, rising property taxes and a drop in sales during two years of street work on East Seventh Street. His wife of 61 years, Ninfa Guerra, died after a long illness March 28.
During El Azteca’s 53 years of operation, the spot was among the first of its kind to go beyond familiar Tex-Mex dishes such as enchiladas, tacos and beans. Locally, Guerra popularized, among other things, cabrito and Mexican beers such as Corona, Carta Blanca, Bohemia, Tecate, Dos Equis and Negra Modelo. He also introduced colorful calendars that celebrated Aztec culture and were shared and traded among fans nationally.
The outspoken Guerra was also a community leader who worked to fix East Austin troubles with flooding, roadwork, safety and services.
“His civic engagement and political participation in his community was always a part of El Azteca,” former Austin City Council Member Mike Martinez said in a 2016 interview. “He challenged me on numerous occasions to think about things from a different perspective. We didn’t always agree, but I surely did respect his service to our country and our community.”
“Mr. Guerra was a key leader for the people of East Austin back in the day, especially in the Zaragoza and Govalle neighborhoods,” advertising executive and community historian Lonnie Limón said in 2016. “He got things done because he was fearless and determined.”
Born in Monterrey, Nuevo León, in 1932, Guerra came to this country with a visa on Nov. 23, 1953. He had worked in his uncle’s restaurant in Reynosa, Tamaulipas, back when people crossed the Texas-Mexico border with no trouble several times a day.
As a U.S. Marine, he was stationed in Japan and South Korea. In 1955, he married Ninfa Guerra, and they had two boys and two girls. A year after opening El Azteca, they bought a house at Linden and Lyons streets where they lived for more than 50 years.
“With Jorge, you got more than good Tex-Mex; you got a piece of his mind about what was needed in East Austin — how the city and our country could be an even greater place,” U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin, said Friday. “Dedicated to his family, El Azteca, and East Austin, Jorge was a forceful advocate. He has passed but his legacy, benefiting so many, lives on.”
Family took priority over all other concerns, although that often meant all hands on deck, working from morning to midnight seven days a week. This schedule and chronic diabetes eventually took its toll on Guerra’s wife, who spent her last years in rehabilitation.
Services for Guerra haven’t yet been announced.
“Opening El Azteca was a matter of survival,” Guerra told the Statesman last year. “I don’t know how the name came to me. It had to be something that belongs to anyone who wants to respect the culture. It is a name to be honored and respected.”