She served tacos and love from neighborhood institution. Tacos Delta matriarch Maria Esther Valdivia dies at 74

"She would never say no to the beach," said Elizabeth Rodriguez of her mother Maria Esther Valdivia. Above, a makeshift memorial at Tacos Delta. (Nathan Solis / Los Angeles Times)


--Maria Esther Valdivia, one of L.A.’s taco matriarchs, died last week due to injuries sustained after she was hit by a car while using a crosswalk. The co-founder of Silver Lake institution Tacos Delta was 74.

In the days since Valdivia's death, generations of fans have stopped by to support the restaurant, which has seemed to endure the whims of a neighborhood more commonly associated with gentrification and constant change. Longtime customers on Tuesday gathered to reminisce about a familiar face described as infinitely generous and loving.

"She was like a mother figure, like a grandmother who just loved," said one customer, Jose Sanchez, near a growing memorial of flowers and keepsakes on the taqueria's outoor patio. "It's so unfair what happened."

On May 22, Valdivia was crossing Scott Avenue at Glendale Boulevard in Echo Park, within the bounds of a crosswalk, at roughly 1:45 p.m. when she was struck by a 1999 Mercedes-Benz E320, according to the Los Angeles Police Department. The driver “did not display any impairment,” exited the vehicle and attempted to help Valdivia, police said.

Valdivia was transported to a hospital but died due to her injuries on May 25.

The native of Jalisco, Mexico, co-founded the taco stand with her mother-in-law and her husband in 1981. Service was established at a window, where diners could grab their food to-go or sit on a covered patio for an array of tacos, breakfast burritos, long-simmered soups, pitch-perfect chilaquiles and combination plates.

In the decades that followed, the family weathered shifts in the neighborhood demographics, as real estate prices soared in Silver Lake and neighboring Echo Park, and also through the recent pandemic, which saw many restaurants shutter.

News of Valvidia's death spread throughout the weekend in the Silver Lake community. On Tuesday, guests arrived to mourn, bring flowers and candles, cry and remember Valdivia with stories that even her own family was unaware of.

Carla Barboza called herself a regular at the colorfully painted taqueria and described the place as a neighborhood institution. "It's heartbreaking to hear that she died," Barboza said. "They are such a lovely family. And they survived all the changes that have happened in the neighborhood."
Family continues working

All four of Valdivia's children were at work at the taqueria on Tuesday. Valdivia's sons, Sergio Jr. and Osvaldo Valdivia, continued to take orders out of the window facing Sunset Boulevard. Husband Sergio Valdivia also showed up to work in his wife's honor.

"We feel closer to her here," said daughter Elizabeth Rodriguez.

According to her family, Valdivia gave to charitable organizations and instilled in them an ethos of compassion, respect and aid without doubting or questioning why. Over the years, Valdivia gave out food and money to homeless people.

“The community has been amazing,” said daughter Irma Gonzalez. “That's our second family — all our customers are our family and they've been supporting us through this. We're learning so much about her giving nature from people who are paying their respects.

"She grew up poor. She knew what it meant to go to sleep hungry," said daughter Elizabeth Rodriguez said.

"Her favorite saying was, 'When I die I'm not taking anything with me,'" Gonzalez said. "That's why she was so giving, always making sure that people could take away something from their time here."

Sanchez, the customer, drove with George Enciso from Long Beach to the taqueria with a bouquet of flowers. The couple used to live around the corner from the restaurant and always found Valdivia working with a smile. They were often greeted with a hug from the matronly owner.

"It's hard to believe she's gone," Enciso said.

They talked with her about Puerto Vallarta and going to the beach.

Valdivia was planning to take a trip to her hometown in Jalisco, Mexico, her daughters said, and then visit Puerto Vallarta. Their mother was set to fly on the day she passed; her packed bags sat ready in the house.

"She would never say no to the beach," Rodriguez said.

Maria Esther Valdivia is survived by her husband, four children, 14 grandchildren and one great-grandson.

Det. Calvin Dehesa of the LAPD said the department has video footage of the accident from a neighboring business. As is customary in fatal traffic accidents, L.A. County District Atty. George Gasc√≥n will review the case to determine negligence and whether to refer it to the city attorney. Dehesa called the accident “a really sad, sad case, and unfortunate.”

The entire family was still in shock, said daughter Gonzalez, but vowed to continued to operate the taqueria together.

Even though Valdivia was retired, she continued to come to work, always on the bus and always walking the rest of the way.

"She could not stay at home," Sergio Valdivia said Tuesday. "She would have gone crazy."