Juan and Diane Valera of Austin, Texas
Peru and Mexico were two centers of the Spanish Empire and, before that, of native Empires. The two have a long relationship that dates from before Europeans appeared on their shores and is measured, if nothing else, in sharing foods which originated in the other: chocolate, corn, chiles, tomatoes, and more.
When Peru set out to develop and promote its cuisine, it took a model from what Mexican food had already accomplished in places like the US. Indeed, salsa, whose roots are in Mexico, is more popular now than the US native, ketchup. Still, in the process, one finds surprises that remind how much the two are joined.
While writing about “breakfast tacos” and Austin, the capital of Texas, I stumbled on one such joining. I was reading about the doyenne of tamales and more in the city on the Colorado, the granddaughter of a Mexican immigrant who fled the revolution and set up a cafe there near Austin City hall in the 20s, almost a hundred years ago. During that century, her family continued in the restaurant business, offering one version of another of Mexican food to a Texas clientele even as styles, tastes, and demands changed. That is not the story here, though. Instead, I was pleasantly surprised when an article mentioned that her husband was from Peru.
Their children run Austin’s successful and traditional Tamale House East under the name of Inka Cinco Productions. The Inca Five, the Valera brothers and sisters own and run one of the city’s Mexican restaurants.
They get their last name from their father, Juan Valera as he is known in Austin, or Juan Valera Lema to use his full name (with both his last names).
Now in his seventies, Velera was born in Peru; his family originated in Peru’s north, in Pacasmayo, Pueblo Nuevo in La Libertad. He came to Austin at a time of transition in Peru. The Peruvian military had removed Fernando Belaunde Terry (who also had an Austin connection) from the country’s presidency and installed a military government. The generals began taking land from those who had built estates in an agrarian reform and created from these a series of cooperatives that frustrated many of the country’s rural communities. It is likely Valera had some relationship with this process since it is reported he worked for the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry before coming to Texas and taking degrees, all the way to the Ph.D., in its universities.
While Valera’s wife, Diana Vasquez, continued in her family’s business as a restauranteur, Valera began a career with the City of Austin where he worked in the Office of Environmental Resource Management, Parks and Recreation, and the Division of Natural Resources before moving to the Texas State Department of Transportation as an Environmental Protection Specialist.
Valera has published online about the art of bullfighting and on the role of the Andalusian horse in it. Besides this interest, Valera has also offered classes in Austin on Peruvian cuisine and created a one-day, pop-up restaurant within his family’s Tamale House East where he served a classic Creole Peruvian meal that included ceviche, papa la huancaina, ají de gallina, arroz con pollo, lomo saltado, and flan.
Juan Valera-Lema is but one Peruvian who connected Peruvian food with Mexican. He illustrates the complexity of how Peruvian food has boomed. The story is not just of celebrity chefs, but also of people who came to the US and promoted their version of the national cuisine and culture.