Meet Diana Magaña, the face that launched a million tortillas

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Stacks of Diana's Tortillas. Photo by Gustavo Arellano/KCRW

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The year was 1988 and we were watching the Miss USA beauty pageant on our one TV in our living room. It was the culmination of a long journey for the Magaña girl. Diana Magaña, Gardena royalty – literally, our city’s princess, queen, and car-riding parade staple – was Miss California vying for the top pageant position in the country!

Growing up, hers was a family we followed loosely but was also impossible to miss. Living just a block and a half away from Diana’s – her family’s mercadito, tortillería and take-out restaurant – you couldn’t help but follow them; her in particular if you were a young girl like me. Her three-year-old face was on the sign I walked past coming home from school and on the tortilla packets I picked up for my mom when we ran out.

Gardena, whose official tagline includes something along the lines of The Freeway City, is often overlooked and feels quite transitory. It’s a city from whence any journey can begin. The 405, the 110, the 91 — with only one or two more connections, those freeways can take you north to Canada, south to Mexico, or east to the very beginnings of the country Diana wanted to represent. And now, the oldest daughter of the Magañas was putting our city on the map. It deserved to be. And she deserved to be the one to do it. Even then, at about 15, I knew Diana was the Russian doll of perfect representation. A smart, hardworking young lady, from a hardworking family, from a hardworking place.

*If you’re looking for Southern California’s best tortillas, check out KCRW’s Ultimate Tortilleria Guide

One whose residents were, and continue to be, the most diverse I’ve ever seen and lived among. From super-recent immigrants to legacy Japanese strawberry farming families, it had (and continues to have) every color, creed and ethnicity you can think of, plus their food. What we had in common was that we were comfortable in our differences, friendly, and proud of our work ethic – Gardena is jam-packed with great mom-and-pop shops that any foodie worth their name should explore.

And the mom-and-pop shop above them all was Diana’s, started by her parents Samuel and Hortensia Magaña in 1969. The Mexican immigrants from the state of Durango lived in the store in the early years along with a young Diana, but quickly found success. By 1973, they opened a tortilla factory in Maywood. By the time I was growing up, their delicious corn and flour tortillas were found in supermarkets and mercaditos across Southern California.

Today, Diana’s Mexican Food Products is a $35 million company with five restaurants, two tortilla plants, a tamale factory, an industrial bakery and a huge presence in Japan

But I digress. When I was even younger than when my family watched her on TV, Diana and her family’s business that bore her name made my freeway-locked city feel like a small town. I was never one for dance classes, beauty pageants, or club involvement (I couldn’t tell if I really wasn’t or had trained myself not to want what we couldn’t afford), but she was. In my young, fuzzy memories, if there was a ballet folklorico class, Diana or her sister were in it. A city pageant, yes. A service organization gathering, fundraising of some sort, or town event, all yes. In my memory, it seemed as though her family, with their involvement and business, single-handedly maintained the small-town-hoopla momentum necessary in the secret sauce of civic pride. 

The admirable thing is that the Magañas did it in a genuine, sincere way. As beautiful as she was in her various tiaras and sequins in those years, Diana was never a mean girl (she always had a smile for the kids in awe of her). She was never not of the people of Gardena. She was a testament to her family and their values (Samuel Magaña passed away this week at 88), but also, a testament to our town. 

We had our rough patches and our hard times, but boy, did we sparkle and shine with her and her family that night. I don’t remember now if she did or didn’t win, but it doesn’t matter. She wins Gardena to this day. And every time someone buys a packet of Diana’s tortillas with her beaming childhood photo on it, Gardena wins over the world.