‘La Bamba’ At 30: Director Luis Valdez, Esai Morales Talk About Film that Redefined Latino Roles

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Luis Valdez with Lou Diamond Phillips playing Ritchie Valens in “La Bamba.” (Courtesy Columbia Pictures)

The 1950’s in America: Families would gather around the television every night, and young people sang and danced to the rock and roll of Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry. For a short time, there was also a teen sensation from Pacoima, California, who made teen girls go wild.

His name was Ritchie Valens, and he was only 16 when his songs, “La Bamba” and “Donna” became Billboard hits. A year later, in 1959, his life came to an abrupt end in a plane crash, along with fellow rock stars Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper.

Few knew then that the singer’s real name was Richard Valenzuela and that he was Mexican American. At first, even award-winning Chicano writer and director Luis Valdez thought he was Italian, like other known singers of the time, Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin.

However, little did Valdez know then that in 1987 he’d be bringing the talented Valens back to life by writing the screenplay and directing the iconic film based on his short life. “La Bamba,” which made it to the top 5 in the box office on opening weekend and was nominated for a Golden Globe, turned 30 on July 24. In many ways, the movie redefined Latino roles in Hollywood and showed that a Latino teen who became a rock and roll star was as American as anyone else.

“It was significant, even more so then,” Valdez told NBC News, about the importance of a Chicano writer in the 1980s writing about a fellow Mexican American who became a music legend. “Latinos were traditionally cast as the villain roles, and I was able to tell the story of a rock and roll pioneer.”

Before entering the film industry, Valdez was already establishing himself as “the father of Chicano theater.” He won many accolades for his play about racism in 1940’s Los Angeles, “Zoot Suit,” and he founded El Teatro Campesino in 1965 in San Juan Bautista, California. Originally, it was meant as a cultural distraction for the tired, overworked farmworkers of Cesar Chavez’ United Farm Workers. However, it has since expanded to bring the arts to many communities, and all ages, for the past 50 years – ultimately earning him the prestigious Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2016.

“One of the first things about writing is, you write about what you know,” Valdez said. “Ritchie was born in 1941, and I was born a year before that. We traveled very similar paths. Once I got to know his family, and where he lived, and where he grew up, I could see vast similarities.”

In the summer of 1958, Valdez said he remembers seeing Valens at 16 working in the crops picking apricots.

“It was only a couple of miles from where I lived,” said Valdez, who also grew up as a farmworker. “All of that rang very true to me…He was a diamond in the rough. He was his own composer. He learned how to play guitar from his uncles…I think all Latinos acknowledged the fact that he verified our presence in the world with the same tastes and interests.”

When Valdez was in college, he said he remembers vividly going to parties with his friend who would play guitar, and Valdez would sing, “La Bamba,” a Mexican folk song later adapted for rock and roll by Valens. The same song would have a strong significance later in Valdez’ life as well.

Valdez’s inspiration to make the movie took place 1979, decades after Valens’ death. Valdez was now a respected playwright, and it was the opening night of “Zoot Suit” on Broadway. Valdez, the first Chicano director to have a play presented on Broadway, said he and his brother were looking out of the theater onto the street, discussing what the next project should be.

“We were sitting up there pretty full of ourselves,” Valdez said, laughing heartily at the memory. “We heard mariachi, all of a sudden, in the heart of New York City – on the street. They were playing outside of my brother’s dressing room. The mariachi was sent by the president of Mexico for our opening night.”

The song that happened to be playing was, “La Bamba.”

“My brother and I looked at each other and and said [in unison], ‘La Bamba!’,” recalled Valdez. “As a matter of fact, “La Bamba” became our obsession for the next five years.”

Valdez and his brother started making contacts and looking for the late Valens’ relatives, the Valenzuelas, in Los Angeles. They ended up finding Valens’ brother, Bob Morales, at a bar in their local San Juan Bautista, up north. Through Bob, they met Valens’ mother, sisters, extended family, and even his high school girlfriend and song’s namesake, Donna.

“I have to give the credit to Bob,” said Valdez, about the film’s authenticity.

“When I interviewed him, I told him to be honest,” recalled Valdez. “He said, ‘I was a drunk and a womanizer and all of that — just tell the truth.’ So I did.”

Valdez credits the long-lasting success of the film to the talent of the cast, which were mostly Latino and not well-known at the time.

Lou Diamond Phillips played Valens.

“He was very shy. But once on camera, he was right on,” remembered Valdez. “He was so sensitive, and the camera loved him – he couldn’t play the guitar, but he could lip sync. We put him on training for the guitar before we started the movie.”

Together with the late Elizabeth Peña, who played Bob’s girlfriend, and Rosanna DeSoto, who played Ritchie’s mom, Valdez is still pleased with his cast three decades later.

 Screenplay writer and director Luis Valdez. Columbia Pictures

Actor Esai Morales, who is now busy playing a lead role in the Netflix series, “Ozark,” and running for president of the SAG/AFTRA union, played Valens’ brother Bob, a memorable character whom he understood.

“I realized I had a lot more in common with Bob that resonated – I too grew up without the presence of my biological father, and I’ve always felt like an overlooked talent,” Morales said. “I think that explains a lot of the pain of Bob’s character — it’s always about Ritchie.”

“I view Bob and Ritchie as two parts of the same force,” said Morales. “I view Ritchie as the treble and the melody, and Bob as the bottom, the depths.”

Morales was only 23 when he scored the role of Bob. At the time, he knew it could be a very special project with a potential to be a classic. Three decades later, he is very proud of the movie’s significance.

“I feel honored and blessed to have been part of a truly representative and historic piece where we as Latinos are portrayed in a more complete light and manner that Hollywood usually affords us,” Morales said. “We are not the side dish, we are not the problem. We are the American dreamers embodied by Ritchie.”

The film’s two main actors, Phillips and Morales, are not Mexican American; Morales is Puerto Rican and from the Bronx, and Lou Diamond Phillips is of mixed – mostly Filipino – ancestry. But the struggles of life as a minority in America was a shared experience that transcended the actors’ different cultural origins.

“We were a real family. We were real close,” Morales recalled. “I owe a lot of my performance and what I was able to absorb from Bob – that Chicano pride nod — he gave me that. It’s something that I don’t think I’d be able to come up with on my own.”

Morales is still broken-hearted at the loss of his co-star Elizabeth Peña, who passed away three years ago, at the age 55.

“I still miss her,” said Morales, after an emotional pause. “She added another dimension. She gave the female energy of the film.” Peña and Morales were classmates in New York’s prestigious High School of Performing Arts, and he had a crush on her since he was 14; his role in “La Bamba” was a dream come true in more ways than one.

“I got to make out with her,” said Morales. “She had a way with words and was quick to laugh and make a joke. We just loved making each other laugh. I didn’t know we’d have such a short time with her.”

Morales wants to see more roles like these for Latinos in Hollywood, which is part of the reason he has thrown himself in the ring to be president of SAG/AFTRA, the union that represents actors, announcers and broadcast journalists, among others.

“We [Latinos] have so many good stories but so little support,” he said. “I think the time has come that our community demands to see more of who we are – so we can get to know each other better,” said Morales. “We tell certain stories over and over again, yet other stories are completely neglected, and I’d like to see a balance of the Latino American experience. We are also American and just as American as others. If you don’t know your history, you don’t know your value.”

For Valdez, it was a privilege to be able to tell this part of the Latino American experience which shaped an entire generation in the U.S.

“To take the 1950’s of my youth and turn it into a movie – the whole process of making art is it allows you to look at your life from the highest perspective.” said Valdez. “You’re able to see that you’re absolutely connected to everyone else. It helps you to deal with your past resentments, and I was able to look at my migrant farmworker life with affection…It’s backed up by a lot of heart. That’s what determines the success or failure of a film.”

Originally published on NBCNews.com.

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Mexican-American Monk Shares His Faith Through Chart-Topping Album

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Basil Nixen, center, a native of Arizona, is the choir master of the Monks of Norcia, who have a chart-topping album of Gregorian chants. (Photo/De Montfort Music/ Universal Music)

Basil Nixen always felt a special closeness to God and now the Arizona native who became a monk is sharing that closeness with the rest of the world through a top-selling album of Gregorian chants.

Nixen took an eternal vow to live in a 10th century monastery in Norcia, Italy. At 35, he is one of the 18 monks at the monastery who live relatively solitary and secluded lives, devoted to prayer and music.

But the monks of Norcia (with an average age of 33) also have found a personal connection with the secular world. In 2012, they started a craft brewery at the monastery, Birra Nursia, which has gained worldwide fame and is their primary source of income.

They have also made their debut album of Gregorian chants called “Benedicta,” which has topped Billboard’s Classical Album list for the past nine weeks.

Nixen is the choir master of The Monks of Norcia. He was also musical director for their album and wrote the one original composition on the album, “Nos qui Christi iugum” (We who have received Christ’s yoke).

Before entering the monastery, Nixen spent two years studying music at Arizona State University’s School of Music. He was only 20 when he chose the monastic route.

“I had already wanted to become a priest, but while I was studying for the priesthood, I wanted to understand more about the liturgy of the Church,” he says. “I grew to learn the chants, and this had to be the most important moment of my life. I found a community in Norcia where they lived this daily form of prayer, and this was a very big moment for me where I learned I could live my life through Gregorian chants.”

He believes his Mexican heritage played a key role for him wanting to go into the priesthood from a very young age.

“Both of my parents come from Mexico – they came from traditional Mexican families,” says Nixen. “Being Catholic was part of their heritage and identity – they passed that down to me.”

The life of a monk is no easy task. Nixen says a typical day begins at 3:30 a.m. and ends around 9 pm.

“Some might wake up earlier,” he says. “Our first prayer is at 4 o’clock … It’s the longest and most difficult prayer of the day, but it really gets the body and the mind flowing.”

He adds that it’s a crucial element in monastic life to gather throughout the day. Including the Mass, they gather eight times to pray through chanting.

“In between those prayers, we work,” says Nixen. “In addition to the brewery, a lot of work goes into receiving guests and pilgrims. We also have a monastic store that we operate, and the normal runnings of the monastery – cooking – which I oversee as cooking master, liturgical work goes into prayer service, and then the managing finances and communications – our lives our very full.”

As far as diet, he says they follow the rule of St. Benedict who asked that they abstain from eating meat. Additionally, for half of the year (from September until Easter) they have only one primary meal in the afternoon, instead of two, as the rest of the year.

“This small expression of discipline helps us devote ourselves to God,” explains Nixen. “Our diet consists of fish, eggs, legumes, beans. We are living in Italy, so we have pasta almost every day. We are also an international community, so we might have a strong Asian meal. I come from a Mexican family, so we might have a Mexican meal.”

Nixen, who just celebrated his seventh year of perpetual vows, says he’s noticed quite a few changes since he’s joined the monastery.

“Before, the distance from your family was a much bigger sacrifice,” he says. “Now I can have Skype contact … However, it’s still important that you have separation from the world and separation of family and friends … It’s arranged by our superiors how often [you can contact the outside world].”

Additionally, the number of Latino Catholics have decreased. According to the latest Pew Research Center report, 55 percent of Latinos are Catholic in the U.S., down from 67 percent in 2010. However, Nixen does not show concern.

“I think the best thing that the church can do is be herself and be the living truth as given to us by Christ,” says Nixen. “The more authentically she does this, the more people will be drawn to it. Authenticity is key.”

It was authenticity after all which led to the success of “Benedicta.”

“These chants were written in a climate of prayer – an expression of somebody’s prayer and relationship with God – that’s the reason for its beauty,” he says. “You perceive some of the peace that was part of the experience. The music itself is written through an authentic experience with God.”

Originally published on NBCNews.com.

The Tejano Sculptor Behind The Life-Size Statue Of Texas Coach Gil Steinke

 

Armando Hinojosa with his statue of Coach Gil Steinke (Photo/Doug Smith)

Armando Hinojosa with his statue of Coach Gil Steinke (Photo/Doug Smith)

Amando Hinojosa is a former art teacher from Laredo, Texas, well-known for his beautiful bronze sculptures across the nation.

Over his 40-year sculpting career, his intricately detailed work can be seen decorating Sea World, Boy Scouts of America, and different hotels and court houses around the country. In 2012, his Tejano Monument was unveiled in Austin – the largest monument at any state capitol in the nation. It is comprised of 11 life-size bronze sculptures and represents the Hispanic influence on the formation of Texas.

RELATED: Sculptor to unveil Tejano Monument after a decade

On Saturday his latest project was unveiled at the football stadium of Texas A&M University-Kingsville: a life-size, 6-foot statue of its legendary football coach, Gil Steinke. Steinke led the Javelina football team from 1954 to 1977, and played for Texas A&I University, as it was known until 1993, from 1938 to 1941.

“He was the first college football coach to recruit Blacks and Hispanics,” said Hinojosa in an interview with NBC News, when asked why this particular project makes him so proud. “He won six national champions…and got more players in the NFL Hall of Fame than any other coach.”

Hinojosa, who is an alum of the University when it was called A&I, said that a life-size statue costs about $30,000 to make. According to a University news release, the Texas A&I Alumni Association donated the statue to the school, and the University paid $70,000 to prepare the foundation.

“Twenty years ago, we changed our name from A&I, but we still have an alumni group for A&I,” said A&M University-Kingsville President Steven Tallant. “That group raised the money and selected Armando to do the sculpture, and they donated the sculpture to us.”

Hinojosa has two more statues on the Kingsville campus, including one of their mascot, javelinas, called “Leader of the Pack.”

(Photo/Doug Smith)

Hinojosa explained he is a proud Tejano. His father – also an artist– came from Mexico and married his mother, an American citizen, who was a direct descendant of the founder of Laredo, Don Tomas Sanchez. His family resided in Texas as early as 1755.

The energetic 70-year-old artist said he’s looking forward to his next project. The Cotulla Convention Center in South Texas has already booked him to make a life-size sculpture of the city’s founder, Joseph Cotulla.

“I gotta move on,” he said. “I gotta work for the future now. I’m ready for something new.”

Originally published on September 6, 2014 on NBCNews.com.

Latina veteran honored as “Champion of Change” for work on clean energy

Elizabeth Perez Halperin while serving in the U.S. Navy. (Courtesy Elizabeth Perez Halperin)

Elizabeth Perez Halperin while serving in the U.S. Navy. (Courtesy Elizabeth Perez Halperin)

After being in charge of refueling aircraft in the U.S. Navy for eight years, Elizabeth “Liz” Perez-Halperin says she got interested in reducing the nation’s dependency on oil as well as its energy consumption. In 2010, the Wounded Warrior veteran founded GC Green Incorporated — a company providing job training to veterans in the renewable energy industry, teaching them entrepreneurship skills, and providing clean technology industry job placement assistance.

On Tuesday, Perez-Halperin was one of 12 national heroes honored at The White House as “Champions of Change.” The event celebrated veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan who are doing extraordinary work to advance clean energy and increase climate resilience and preparedness in their communities. The U.S. Secretary of Energy, Dr. Ernest Moniz, thanked the honorees for their service — past and present.

 “I got a call in September from a gentlemen from The White House letting me know I was selected. It was just that ‘wow’ feeling,” she says, upon hearing of the award. “It’s a time of reflection for me for my time of service and to my dad’s time in the military – all of my hard work and my dad coming to the States for a better life – it’s all happening right now.”

Perez-Halperin explains that her dad, who passed away in 1995, joined the military as a young man after immigrating from Mexico to seek a better life for his family.

“My dad is a huge influence in my life — he taught me not to complain — instead to find a solution,” she explains. “Even in the government today you see a lot of complaining, but I want to find solutions and find people to collaborate.”

RELATED: Hiring Our Heroes: An entrepreneur strives to hire veterans

The 34-year-old says – her voice shaky with emotion – that losing a close friend was one of the inspirations for building a training facility to support veterans on their own clean technology ventures. Her friend Nicole Palmer died during an attack on a Navy vessel in 2000.

“I’d like to name it after her,” says Perez-Halperin about the new center, which is located in San Diego, California, 20 minutes from Camp Pendleton. The facility will help keep veterans employed with salaries starting at $25 to 50 per hour.

“That’s our goal…I’d like to continue working on projects that will protect our nation.”

Perez-Halperin says clean energy is important to her, because people don’t realize is there is national security at stake as well, as groups and countries will increasingly fight for their share of scarce resources.

“Water conservation is huge,” says Perez-Halperin, who has been teaching about this topic at San Diego State University for the past three years.

“I strongly feel there’s evidence that our sources for water are depleting. It’s going to be our next oil. Once our water’s polluted, it’s gone.”

Perez-Halperin says she’d like to continue to grow GC Green by collaborating with the U.S. Department of Veteran’s Affairs on specialized programs.

“I’d like to open a holistic center for veterans returning from war,” says Perez-Halperin, who is also a fan of meditation as opposed to medication. “I’m also a wounded warrior, and it’s something that I do personally — it keeps me grounded.”

Perez-Halperin has accomplished much on the battlefield and now on the home front, but she says her biggest accomplishment is being able to bring her 12-year-old daughter to The White House.

“Now she has the opportunity to see why I am working so hard. That means a lot to me —  to be an example for her, like my dad was for me,” says Perez. “I want to be that example too for other veteran women.”

“Outside of the uniform, there’s so much more work we can do.”

Originally published in NBCLatino.com.

Arizona’s newly appointed first poet laureate talks life on the border

Alberto Rios, Arizona’s newly appointed first poet laureate. (Photo/Tom Story/Arizona State University)

Alberto Rios, Arizona’s newly appointed first poet laureate. (Photo/Tom Story/Arizona State University)

Renowned poet and professor Alberto Rios has recently been selected by Governor Jan Brewer and Arizona’s Commission on the Arts as the state’s first poet laureate.

“It’s been a wild ride so far,” says Rios about his life, ever since he got a call from the Governor’s office last week informing him of his new appointment. “It was a special feeling…I grew up in Arizona — on the border — so to be a kid from Nogales, in a state that has so many issues regarding language, and so many things — it’s a pretty good story.”

Rios, has published a total of 10 poetry books, three story books and a memoir called “Capirotada.” His memoir about his youth along the Mexico-Arizona border won the Latino Literacy Hall of Fame Award, and he has also received many other recognitions for his work, including the Walt Whitman Award in Poetry. As English professor at his alma mater, Arizona State University, he reached the highest faculty rank when he was named Regent in 1989, and his work is often taught in college curricula.

“Being a professor, I have a lot to say about who we are, and why are we here,” says Rios, 61. “If it’s so bad, why don’t we all leave, but there’s lots of reasons why we don’t.”

Arizona became the 43rd state to establish a poet laureate, last year, in honor of its centennial year of statehood. The purpose of this position, according to Governor Brewer, is to “commemorate Arizona literary artists whose work and service best represent Arizona’s values, independence and unique Western history and culture.”

Probably few know Arizona’s history and culture better than bicultural Rios – son of a Mexican father and an English mother. Recounting his parents’ love story, he says his father ran away from his home in Chiapas, at age 14 to join the U.S. Army. Eventually, he got a GED and became a staff sergeant and ended up in England, during World War II, where he met his future bride. When he got discharged, he was given no choice but to return to the U.S., and Rios’ mom followed him. They ended up in Nogales.

“Growing up, I had cultures in my house that I wouldn’t trade for anything,” says Rios explaining how they gave him two ways of looking at things and helped him become a writer. “I grew up with an open border.”

And speaking about the “real” border, he remembers the Arizona-Mexico border being more of an imaginary line than it is today.

“You didn’t need papers — the guards were reading newspapers — it wasn’t a big deal to cross the border,” says Rios, also explaining that he had kids in his class who paid tuition and crossed the border every day to go to school in the U.S. “Every holiday, whether Mexican or American, there was a parade.”

Rios says he also remembers, as if it were yesterday, when everything changed.

“It was November 22, 1963 — when President John F. Kennedy was shot,” says Rios, who was in the 5th grade. “One of the first things the country did was close the borders.”

He says phone calls started coming in from parents in Mexico saying they couldn’t pick up their kids.

“I’ll never forget this,” says Rios. “One of the kids who got a phone call started to cry. Then other kids started crying…They had kids on one side of the border and parents on the other side of the border crying. It wasn’t until 4 or 5 in the morning they let the kids go through…For me, I think that’s when the border became something else.”

He says slowly the idyllic, bicultural world he knew became something else. The drug trade started, and people could no longer travel back and forth as easily.

“The border is an uneasy place — it’s more tense, it’s more mean,” says Rios, whose wife is a retired librarian and whose son is an immigration rights attorney.

As poet laureate, he wants to do his part to bring beauty back to the border.

“I absolutely want to talk about these issues – work I’ve been doing my entire life. I’ve always traveled all over the state visiting schools and libraries telling the stories of people’s lives and what this all means,” says Rios. “I try to bring the human side to it all.”

Arizona’s new poet laureate is also working on a public art project and is in the midst of publishing a new poetry book.

“It’s about the southwest,” says Rios. “You have to start somewhere.”

Originally published on NBCLatino.com.

25 years of El Vez, the Chicano Elvis

El Vez, aka Robert Lopez (Photo/Randall Michelson)

El Vez, aka Robert Lopez (Photo/Randall Michelson)

August 16, 1977 was the day the world lost its hip shaking, soulful singer with slicked black hair, sideburns and a quivering lip — Elvis Presley. But for the past 25 years, Robert Lopez — otherwise known as “El Vez” — has been resurrecting the rock and roll icon with a Mexican-American flair and sharing his songs worldwide with a political twist.

Since 1988, Lopez has been touring the U.S. and Europe singing Elvis songs, except he changed the lyrics to tell a different story and titles to “Viva la Raza,” instead of “Viva Las Vegas,” and “En el Barrio,” replacing “In the Ghetto.”

At 52, he is still touring and making new fans. He also added yoga to his schedule — as he says that’s the secret to maintaining himself “Elvis size.”

“I’ve been on the road every week since April — San Francisco, Los Angeles, Arizona, Texas, the East Coast, Chicago, Italy, Spain, Virginia, Australia, and San Diego this weekend,” says Lopez.

In 2011, he was made part of the “American Sabor: Latinos in U.S. Popular Music” exhibit at The Smithsonian for taking the “Elvis-impersonation phenomenon and reinventing it into a cross-cultural live performance combining a love of Elvis with an impressive knowledge of popular music and a pro-Latino political agenda.” One of his gold suits is displayed in between of the memorabilia of the iconic Ritchie Valens and Celia Cruz.

“To be named at the same thing as Ritchie Valens,” says Lopez about one of his biggest inspirations, “I felt really proud.”

Lopez’ career impersonating “The King” started while working as a curator at an art gallery, La Luz De Jesús, on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles.

“I curated a theme on Elvis Presley,” says Lopez. “I hired an Elvis impersonator, and he wasn’t very good. I started showing him what he should be doing, and I thought ‘I could be the Mexican Elvis.’”

Lopez says he was such a hit with the hardcore Elvis fans passing by the art gallery, they urged him to go to Elvis Tribute Week in Memphis. There, he competed in an Elvis impersonator contest, made it to the finals and the rest is history.

“I was listening to Elvis since I was a baby,” says the Chicano performer, who currently resides in Seattle and has a restaurant named after him in Philadelphia and one coming this fall to New York City. “When I was 16, I was moved by punk rock, but Elvis was the punk rock of ‘56…I knew I wasn’t a regular Elvis impersonator, I think my punk rock attitude made me feel I could do this and do it my way.”

One of the biggest hits, of his more than 20 albums — “Immigration Time” — talks about immigration to the tune of Elvis’ “Suspicious Minds.”

“It was the hot topic in ‘88, and it’s a sad thing that 25 years later nothing has changed,” says Lopez. “It just shows you that things don’t change, but no reason to stop trying. I go through different phases with my material — I reinterpret it — it’s gone through angrier versions and lighter versions…”

He says he likes to sing as a way to give tribute to Elvis but also to Latino culture.

“It is funny and it is political all at the same time in one song,” says Lopez. “I’ve always been doing music, but I’ve always loved the idea of parody. The best parody is when you really love the subject.”

Originally published on NBCLatino.com.

Mexican-American woman vintner tells family secrets to success

Amelia Ceja (Courtesy Ceja Vineyards)

Amelia Ceja (Courtesy Ceja Vineyards)

The Ceja Vineyards in Napa, Calif. have continuously flourished since Amelia Ceja took charge of the family wine production company in 1999 as the first Mexican-American woman vintner.She says the way they’ve been able to penetrate a really difficult market is the Latino way – with warmth, great food, great wine, and most recently, with social media.

The family-owned business has grown to produce about 10,000 cases of wine a year, and to owning more property in Napa and Sonoma. But it’s not all just about the wine. Ceja also opened a wine tasting salon, lounge and art gallery in downtown Napa. Visitors can enjoy wine and cheese while listening to Latin funk, salsa and appreciating the local art.

Ceja says she works around the clock to introduce people to her wines, and she is currently reaching out as far as China for distribution.

“We appeal to every demographic group because of the way we bring people in,” she says. “We have gone from vineyard workers to an award-winning business. If we’re not on hugging terms, we didn’t do our job.”

Ceja runs her business like a home; everyone is family. She wants her customers to feel at home and appreciate wine and food. If you’re not in Napa, you can share in the experience through videos on her blog, where she pairs Mexican food with wine.

“What I missed the most was the food,” says Ceja about her earliest memories of coming to the U.S. “The food here in the ‘60’s was atrocious. I took my thermos, because I wanted to eat warm food at school. I got my love of food from my grandmother.”

The Ceja Family (Courtesy Ceja Vineyards)

The Ceja Family (Courtesy Ceja Vineyards)

Her son Ariel now owns the restaurant Bistro Sabor, which serves many of the families recipes paired with Ceja wine. Her other son, Navek, studied digital arts and shoots most of their videos, more than 136 currently on YouTube with more than 180,000 views.

“My daughter, Dalia also loves to cook,” says Ceja. “We’re launching another site called Salud Napa which means cheers and health. I’m very interested in the diabetes and obesity epidemic in the Hispanic community. It’s very important to me that everything I prepare is healthy and nutritious.”

Ceja, who has been honored as “Business Woman of the Year” by the Sacramento Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and “The most outstanding female leader, innovator and visionary in the wine field in the North Bay” by North Bay Business Journal, says what she is most proud of is having three highly-successful children. She says they have been crucial asset to the company.

“It wasn’t because we urged them, but they all went away to college, and they all came back, and now indirectly they are working with us,” says Ceja. “It really enriches our brand because it is very important to take Ceja to the next level. They are contributing really great content and ideas in which to grow.”

Her daughter, Dalia, the director of sales and marketing of the family business, wants to pursue an executive MBA in the near future. Dalia followed in her mother’s footsteps and now maintains her own blog, while also continuing to write on the company’s blog several times a week.

Ceja is always moving. This month, she will travel to Michigan to be a keynote speaker at the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce. On February 22, she will be featured in the independent documentary Dreamland as one of 12 Californians who have made pioneering imprints on the state. The documentary will air on PBS.

Ceja says it’s been a lot easier for her kids than when she arrived in California from Jalisco,Mexico in the 1960’s. At 12 years old, she helped her migrant farm worker father pick grapes.However, her children don’t take anything for granted.

“They also follow our tradition of giving back,” says Ceja of her three children. “And that really comes from my parents.”

“I hope if they have children, they will transfer that. We have to leave this earth better than how we found it. Both our people and our planet. We’re building a legacy.”

And just in time for the Super Bowl, try this award-winning recipe for carne con chile that she prepares here for us.

As Ceja says, “Salud!”

Originally published on NBCLatino.com.