Everyone knows Ramona’s Mexican food products, especially their frozen burritos which have been available for years in supermarkets and convenience stores all over California. If you grew up in this area, there’s almost no chance you haven’t heated up and eaten a Ramona’s burrito at some time or another.
What you may not know too much about is the amazing life story of Romana Acosta Bañuelos, founder of Ramona’s, which started as a tortilla factory back in 1940. Romana was born in Arizona in 1925 (she turned 90 last month), but due to anti-immigrant backlash and the great depression, was forcibly “re-patriated” to Mexico in the early 1930’s by the U.S. Government. Back in Mexico, young Romana learned the basics of Northern Mexican cuisine, including the baking of tortillas and other staples.
Roughly 10 years later she returned to the United States at age 18, a single mother of two young boys. She settled in Los Angeles, and after a few years of working as a dishwasher and making tortillas at home to sell to neighbors, was able to save enough money to open a tortilla factory close to the 101 Freeway near Echo Park.
In 1947 the business was incorporated, and an Echo Park storefront opened up which started to sell tortillas and other food items to the neighborhood and beyond. The name “Ramona” was chosen as it was more familiar to most people than Romana, although legend says that a sign-painter’s mistake instigated the new name. Either way, Ramona’s was here to stay and Romana even named her daughter Ramona. The business thrived, became the well-known brand it is today, and 70 years later is still going strong and still run by the Bañuelos family.
Even with all her success, Romana wasn’t finished. In 1963 the family was doing well financially but Romana noticed that due to social issues, racism, and systematic prejudices in the banking system, it was difficult for Latino entrepreneurs in Los Angeles to get the help from banks they needed to be successful. She banded together with a group of L.A. businessmen and founded the Pan American National Bank. Bañuelos eventually became the chair of the Board of Directors in 1969.
Her high profile in the business and banking worlds caught the eye of President Richard M. Nixon, who nominated her to be Secretary of the Treasury of the United States of America. A politicized INS raid of the Ramona’s factory briefly threatened to derail the nomination, but Nixon stuck with her and she sailed through her hearings on Capitol Hill. She served as Secretary of the Treasury for one term, and then returned home to Los Angeles where she continued to run the bank and the food company for many years.
The legacy of Mrs. Bañuelos is now being preserved and expanded by her grandchildren and other family members, who are extremely proud of their matriarch’s many accomplishments. Her true story that started in Arizona, forcibly moved to Mexico, triumph in Los Angeles, and recognition in Washington is one every young Angeleño should know.
Photos: At the very top is Romana in the 1940’s when she first opened her factory. In the middle is Mrs. Bañuelos last year at age 89 and taken by her grandson, who runs the company now.