Celia Diaz: Matriarch of Familia Diaz, community booster dies at 81
By Peggy Kelly
Santa Paula News
Published: February 08, 2013
There wasn’t a challenge that Celia Diaz didn’t meet head-on - from raising a family while growing a successful business to helping to preserve history and provide public art. But she did have one fear: “I’ve always wanted to fly like a bird,” said Celia, “so I’ve always been afraid of heights” and the strong temptation it evoked to step off the ledge and soar.
Celia, who celebrated her 80th birthday by paragliding over the mountains of Santa Barbara, passed away February 5, 2013. She was 81 years old.
A native of Santa Paula, Celia Leon was born July 3, 1931 and spent part of her early childhood on Rancho Sespe. The family moved back to the city when she was about 8 years old and it was in elementary school that she first spied Tony Diaz. “He didn’t know it or acknowledge it,” Celia said in her 1994 Santa Paula Women of History interview, “but I was his girl from that time on!”
Angela Dominguez said her friend, who worked summers in a packinghouse, was a whiz in Santa Paula High School’s Homemakers of America food and sewing classes. “In our senior year you could win an award” for a complicated sewing project, and Angela said Celia set her mind on winning the grand prize, a sewing machine. To no one’s surprise, Celia went home with the sewing machine.
After graduating in 1949, she and Tony married and together they embarked on an adventure in life, business and community spirit.
In 1952, Tony started to help his parents in their cantina, Las Quince Letras, offering food daily and creating a café. The day Tony’s mother Pepa asked Celia if she would make tamales unleashed what became a fine food machine, acclaimed for decades for the tamales Celia always would make from scratch.
Even when Familia Diaz grew to have 150 seats in a new restaurant located at the corner of 10th Street and Harvard Boulevard, Celia was still in the kitchen. She would grind her own masa, cook and season her own meat, then fold all the tamales by hand; Celia’s fame as a chef led her to teaching how to make the traditional tamales and a cookbook published when she was 74.
“Celia had a special tamale spreader that was like a shovel!” said Angela. “And she could make those tamales fast!”
Through the years, the Diazes had five children: Sandi, Mike, Dan, Norma and Joel, and later the family added grandchildren and great-grandchildren. “The best moments in my life,” Celia would say, “have been as the mother hen with all my baby chicks and rooster by my side.”
As the children grew and gradually took over management of the restaurant, Tony and Celia, always-generous supporters of many causes, were able to devote more time to the causes they enjoyed. Celia became involved in the Santa Paula Historical Society, and President Mary Alice Henderson said she was “an excellent board member... she served for almost 30 years in various capacities and on various committees.”
Always interested in history, Mary Alice said, “One of the places where she really shone was the society had the Main Street Museum” exhibits. Celia partnered with Angela on exhibits, often centered on Mexican culture and always, said Mary Alice, “stunning and popular window displays. Celia was just a delightful person” who didn’t speak often, but when she did her suggestions were followed. “Celia will be missed terribly,” and will leave a “huge vacancy on the board she was an integral part of,” as well as society activities Mary Alice said Celia was so involved with.
There was much involvement in Celia’s life: the Knights of Columbus, Boys & Girls Clubs of Santa Clara Valley, the Santa Paula Theater Center Board, and the Chamber of Commerce. The Murals of Santa Paula Project was a particular favorite, and she and Tony worked on the committees making the murals a reality as well as offered financial support.
Always modest about her accolades, Celia was among the first women honored in 1994 by the Santa Paula Women’s History Project among other recognitions she received, including others shared with Tony.
Angela said Casa del Mexicano and the Mexican American Civic Organization benefited from the Diazes' support.
Celia’s curiosity and interest in new and exciting things led to travel to more than 40 countries. She started teaching cooking classes at age 70, and at 75 she graduated from Westlake Culinary Institute.
Angela said even with all her experiences and interests, Celia was more of the quiet one. But “We laughed, we were always laughing,” making jokes in English and Spanish.
Celia was very determined in her quest to present history: “She always did a lot of research for the Main Street Museum, and one year we did a display on Women’s Suffrage” that Angela said required Celia to display a steely backbone when they were having trouble with research access at another museum.
Normally, “Celia was very reserved, although we had good party times!” and Angela said she and Celia were not above once climbing the garden fence at the California Oil Museum to reach a interior entrance when the front doors were accidentally locked.
Celia “loved Santa Paula, that’s why she never left, that’s why she and Tony always donated to good causes, wherever and or whenever needed. She was very generous,” as her parents had been, “and she could be extra generous because she and Tony had worked very hard.
“She was beautiful, had a beautiful personality. She never complained,” even during her final illness.
Celia, added Angela, “was a devoted wife, mother and grandmother and great-grandmother. She was very kind, very considerate was always there. She was really something and I - many - are going to miss her dearly. “Santa Paula is richer,” said Angela, “because of Celia... and with Tony she had a good partner in business and in life.”
“I had so much fun flying like a bird!” Celia said following her 80th birthday paragliding adventure. “I wanted to do that all my life, I have flown all my life in my dreams. And I thought why not on my birthday? Why not experience it? There is so much to experience!”
A Rosary in Celia’s honor will be held on Tuesday, February 12, at St. Sebastian Church, at 10:30 a.m., followed by a mass at 11 a.m. A Celebration of Celia’s Life will be held immediately following at the Santa Paula Community Center, 530 W. Main Street.