Some fathers get a tie or a beer kit for Father’s Day.
Perfecto León got a restaurant.
For 23 years, León sold homemade tamales from a grocery cart in front of a south-side Safeway store.
He made enough money to support his wife and five kids in a three-bedroom mobile home and send his five kids to college; the youngest, De la Rosa, 28, is set to graduate from the University of Arizona next spring with a bachelor’s in education.
That’s why in 2009, León’s two sons plunked down $40,000 cash to open Perfecto’s Mexican Restaurant at 5404 S. 12th Ave.
It was their way of saying thanks.
“I was thinking that it was a good idea that instead of just selling the tamales on the street, we’d put them here, and I know he’s a good cook,” León’s eldest son José, 42, said one morning last week, sitting in the dining room as a handful of customers began streaming in early for lunch.
“It was always one of his dreams to have a place of his own,” added José’s sister, Angelica Ramseyer, 38.
Perfecto’s other dream: an education for his children.
There was never a question that the children of Cruz and Perfecto León would attend college.
“It’s necessary. When they graduated high school, I said, ‘You have to go,’” said Perfecto León, his Mexican accent still thick after nearly 30 years of living in Arizona.
Perfecto himself never made it to high school. He dropped out in the fifth grade and went to work in a restaurant in his native Nogales, Sonora, to help support six siblings.
He worked in restaurants throughout his teens and 20s, got married and started his own family, which grew to include two sons and three daughters. In 1990 when his middle child Abel, then 8 years old, got sick, the whole family uprooted and moved to Tucson for better medical care. After Abel had improved, they stayed put on the south side and settled into a very simple life centered on one thing: family.
Perfecto and Cruz, who became citizens two years ago, decided to sell tamales so that they could be home for their children. Perfecto drove them to school — at one point he was dropping off and picking up at two high schools and an elementary school — while Cruz was the homework taskmaster, making sure it was a priority over all else.
The whole family pitched in every week to make the green corn and red chile tamales; the kids shucked the corn and separated the husks and kernels while Mom prepared the savory red chile beef and sweet, earthy green corn fillings.
“We didn’t eat the tamales very much,” Ramseyer recalled. “We’d eat the leftover meat but not the tamales themselves.”
Perfecto was in charge of distribution, which meant loading up a shopping cart with hundreds of tamales and selling them in front of Safeway four hours a day, four days a week. He was called “The Tamale Man” and he sold between 150 and 200 dozen tamales a week — significantly more during the holidays. On most days, a line of customers would greet him when he arrived.
He sold tamales for $6 a dozen — he later raised the price to $14 — and his wife Cruz kept a tight fist on the family finances. Perfecto said his wife made sure they stuck to a budget that had little wiggle room for extras or even savings.
When José graduated from Sunnyside High School a few years after moving to Tucson, Perfecto and Cruz did the math and realized that they could afford to send him to Pima Community College.
“He said, ‘You do college, I’ll pay for it,’ ” Ramseyer said. “He wanted us to have what he didn’t have.”
Tuition in the 1990s cost a fraction of what it does today, Perfecto said, which is what made it possible.
When Ramseyer graduated from Cholla High School a few years later, she followed José to Pima with the same pledge from her parents: School is the No. 1 priority. Aside from helping with the tamal business, the kids didn’t work while they were in school.
After Pima, José went on to UA, where he earned an engineering degree. Ramseyer followed and earned a degree in criminal justice. She toyed with the idea of continuing on to law school — an idea that Perfecto said he would have found a way to pay for — but decided she was happy working as a paralegal.
Each child that followed went to Pima for their first two years, then UA, and Perfecto drove each of them to school every day.
“He would drive this little car and he would make such a big deal when he was picking us up,” Ramseyer said, eliciting laughs from José and De la Rosa. “He would honk a half mile away. He made it so fun for us. Everybody would know our dad was here to pick us up.”
De la Rosa earned three associate degrees from Pima before transferring to the UA. When she registered for college after high school, she had no idea what she wanted to study. She ended up in education, following in the footsteps of sister Ana Midgette, 35, who is a school teacher in Oklahoma. Abel earned a UA business degree and later a diploma in ministerial training from Oklahoma’s Rhema Bible College. De la Rosa said that in addition to his full-time business career, her brother plans to open a church later this year.
It was Abel who found the restaurant on South 12th Avenue in 2009. He and José had dreamed aloud about repaying their father with a place of his own and Abel decided to check out restaurants for sale on Craigslist. That’s where he found it.
All of the siblings pledged to help out.
“It was a lot of work in the beginning,” José said.
De la Rosa works full time during the summer; Ramseyer works Sundays, the busiest day at the restaurant thanks to an after-church buffet that features Perfecto’s popular tamales. Abel handles the bookkeeping while José manages the business end.
Perfecto spends a few hours a day in the kitchen, making the house birria, red chile and other family favorites. When he’s done, he’s the restaurant’s ambassador, strolling the dining room and visiting customers, many of them who followed “The Tamale Man” from Safeway to South 12th.
“I work less now,” Perfecto said, crossing his arms over his chest and smiling so big that it seemed to swallow his face.
The whole family still pitches in to make the tamales, and now they get some help from Perfecto and Cruz’s seven grandchildren, who range in age from De la Rosa’s 8-month-old son to José’s 17-year-old son.
On that day last week, Joann and Juan Gutierrez, who had bought tamales from Perfecto for a dozen years, took a booth by the door just before 11 a.m. They ordered steaming bowls of red menudo as cars pulled into the parking lot and people started to make their way inside.
They love everything on the menu, Joann Gutierrez said, but it is still the tamales that bring them across the south side from West Irvington Road and South Campbell Avenue.
“My sister was the one who introduced us to ‘The Tamale Man,’” Joann Gutierrez said. “Every Christmas we would buy the tamales. We would call my sister and make sure he was there and we would drive from Irvington and Campbell all the way to Valencia and Cardinal. The green corn tamales are the bomb.”
In July, the Guitierrezes won’t have to travel so far. José, who once worked for Texas Instruments and helped design components for the first generation of the iPhone, will open the family’s second location, Perfecto’s Express, in a long closed Sonic Drive In at 155 E. Irvington Road. It will feature a streamlined version of the menu and, of course, Perfecto’s tamales.
When he talks about the second location, Perfecto can’t help but reminisce about the days when he sold tamales out of a shopping cart. José said his dad sometimes itches to go back to selling on the street, even if it’s just occasionally.
He still can’t quite answer the question of how he managed to make enough money selling tamales to send his kids to college. They made it happen is all he can say.
And while De la Rosa said she and her siblings can’t answer the question either, she thinks there was some divine intervention.
“My parents have a big trust in God,” she said. “They believe that if you have faith, God will multiply your riches.”