When Carlos Zuniga arrived in Beaumont from Oxnard, California, in 1995, it was to visit his ailing father, also named Carlos. The younger Carlos thought this might be the last time he would see his father. Fortunately, his father recovered.
“(My father) goes, ‘Hey, I need your help. How about you helping me out while I get back up (on my feet)? And I eventually stay,” Zuniga said.
Zuniga’s father had arrived in Beaumont the year before and owned a small video store where people could wire money and pay to call relatives in Mexico. The elder Carlos was well known in the Latino community and had started the soccer leagues at Babe Zaharias fields.
The Mexican food in town was mainly Tex-Mex, Zuniga said, and the workers at the restaurants would visit his father’s store
“I used to tell them, ‘Hey, man, can I get some tacos, but without the yellow cheese and all the lettuce and stuff?” Zuniga said. “Throw some onions and cilantro on there. And they would always fix it.”
Zuniga had had a part-time taco stand in California and on his way to the grocery store one day, he noticed a Vietnamese market for sale on the corner of Calder Avenue and Fourth Street. With some help, the family started a video rental shop and in 1996 he opened Tacos La Bamba’s kitchen.
“I remember the health inspector came in the morning checked everything — she says, ‘You passed, you’re good to go.’ We went and bought some meat and we actually started to sell tacos that afternoon,” he said. “I remember our first afternoon, we sold about 300 tacos, because we made $300 and we’re selling dollar tacos.
“Everyone was excited because now it was a place where you can come rent movies and get food. We also had magazines, candies, the soccer shop — Mexican novelty CDs, tapes — it was a one-shot stop kind of thing where you can get everything.”
As word spread about the food, Zuniga’s adopted community began to embrace the quirky restaurant. As word spread about the cool “hole-in-the-wall” place, Zuniga turned it into a hub for culture and community outreach.
Zuniga’s Southern California background fostered his love of street art and the myriad images that give Tacos La Bamba its brightness are an extension of Zuniga’s love of community, with multiple artists contributing to murals and paintings on every wall, table and counter. It’s a love he inherited from his father who would adorn the scoresheets from the soccer leagues with funny drawings. If a team scored a lot of goals, he would draw a beaten goalkeeper with a lot of balls stacked up behind him.
One day, Zuniga noticed that a regular customer, Marcos, from Monterrey, Mexico, would frequent the shop to eat and watch the videos, which played all day, and draw. Zuniga decided to ask what he would charge to paint on the walls, and they struck a simple bargain — free food and his choice of videos on the TVs. Marcos also designed the logo. Over the years, local artists have covered or added to the murals and painted the tabletops and the counter.
Zuniga has parlayed the restaurant into a foundation for his community activism. Tacos La Bamba started First Thursdays which has expanded to a wider series of events around town each month. Zuniga has also hosted art events for children and adults — everything must be family friendly, he said. He also hosts bands of all genres to play at events.
On Oct. 8, Los Tigres Del Norte — “The Mexican Beatles” — will play at the Montagne Center on the Lamar University campus. The concert is sponsored by LU and the lists the school’s Hispanic Society, which Zuniga sponsors, as a co-promoter with Tacos La Bamba.
LU’s Hispanic Society aims to increase opportunities for Latinos to go to college and to build a support system for them, Zuniga said.
“That has always been the issue,” he said. “The sad part is, (without support) these kids would end up being doing whatever the mom or the dad would. They really want to get the education, but they just see that it was too hard, or cost too much.”
Zuniga is working with Lamar University on their Multicultural Community Festival, 2:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m., Sept. 19, in the Montagne Center Tailgate lot. The event will feature entertainment, community vendors, student groups, live music and more.
Over the years, Zuniga has organized toys for children, repairs for people in need, even raised funds for funerals. With that in mind, he recently founded Unidad, a non-profit organization which means “Unity” in Spanish.
“It’s just going to be a step up, to do what I used to do on a bigger scale and get more help,” he said.
While he carries his favorite California sports teams in his heart, Beaumont is home and Zuniga said he hates to hear people describe the town as boring.
“I always tell them, well, what are you doing about it?” he said. “Whether big or small, what are you doing about it?”
Beaumont has a diverse population and Zuniga envisions events that on a large scale that involve what he considers his entire Southeast Texas family.
It’s always it’s all about family,” he said. “I’m a strong believer of family united to be together.”
This story originally ran in the Sept. 17, 2021, Art of Living section of The Beaumont Enterprise.