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La Morenita matriarch tells her life story in book
• Second edition provides new insights, photos
Guadalupe Cordoba signs
Mary Delgado and Gloria Smallwood pose for a photo with their mother, Guadalupe Cordoba (center), during a Sept. 18 signing event for her book, “La Morenita: The Story of Lupe Cordoba” at Turlock’s La Mo Cafe.

It’s been 50 years since Guadalupe Cordoba came to the Valley from Mexico and changed the region’s cuisine for the better — a journey she recalls in her book “La Morenita: The Story of Lupe Cordoba,” which tells the tale of her ascent from childhood life in a small town south of the border to nationally acclaimed restaurateur in America. 

Originally published in 1999, an updated version of “La Morenita” was released earlier this year which provides new context that had been “lost in translation” in the earlier edition, noted Cordoba’s daughter Gloria Smallwood. Also included are new and updated photos, including the portrait of the author that now graces the book’s cover. 

Cordoba recounts how she persevered through one adversity after the other and the collapse of her marriage after reaching America with three small children. From sleeping in her car to eventually opening her own restaurant and preparing hors d’oeuvres for a U.S. president, Cordoba draws on these events to offer advice to readers and encourage them in their pursuit of success. 

“I didn’t write my life story to make money, I made it because I want people to see the story and make something of their life,” Cordoba said. “Don’t quit, ever.”

Cordoba’s new edition was celebrated at a Sept. 18 book signing in Turlock, where all 100 pre-ordered copies were signed by Cordoba. Cordoba was emotional over the outpouring of support, Smallwood said.

“One customer, I’ll never forget, was crying because she was with us when we first opened the restaurant in 1972 and she’s still coming to our restaurant,” said Smallwood. “She said that it’s not just the food, but the whole concept of our hospitality and how we serve the community. I’ll never forget that.” 

Cordoba “has no words” to express the gratitude she feels when she thinks about how her family has taken over the business, which started with the first La Morenita in Turlock in October 1972. Smallwood has expanded that original endeavor with La Mo Cafe, along with her daughter Hillary Smith, in downtown Turlock, and Cordoba’s other daughter Mary Delgado owns and operates all of the El Jardin restaurants.

Another restaurant in Delhi burned in 1978. Later she opened La Morenita on Hatch Road in Ceres. She said then Congressman Gary Condit gave her one of the greatest opportunities to promote her restaurant when she was invited to cook for one of the pre-parties for President Bill Clinton’s 1993 inauguration.

“It was an unforgettable experience for myself and my three daughters,” she said. “We were featured in all the local news channels and newspapers. This publicity took the business to a new level. It was years before there were so many other restaurants cooking my recipes. So the line would wrap around the building at our little restaurant on Hatch Road in Ceres.”

Cordoba’s influence on her family and former employees she trained has resulted in over 50 restaurants throughout the area and state cooking her recipes to this day.

“You can really see the fruits of her labor here and all of the people she inspired to go out and earn a living for their family,” Smallwood said. 

“I think I got the American Dream,” Cordoba said.

Copies of “La Morenita: The Story of Lupe Cordoba” may be purchased on Amazon, at Barnes and Noble or at La Mo Cafe in downtown Turlock.