Local Flavor: Chope’s Culture

October 20, 2016 raguirre

Chope

This iconic hotspot is much more than just great food.

Written by Daniel Gonzales

As anyone who’s been there can attest, a visit to Chope’s on Old Highway 28 will change your life—or at the very least your views on good Mexican food. This restaurant is a true glimpse into a Hispanic New Mexican home. The building was originally erected in 1880. The Benavides family bought it in 1892, and opened their iconic restaurant in 1915. While things have naturally changed in a hundred years, there has been one constant at Chope’s: familia.

A night out to Chope’s feels like going to a family dinner. Very rarely do you find a public building, outside of a religious center, that has affected so many social, political, and even emotional needs for the surrounding community. There is a presence of love when you walk into the Benavides’s home, and you can taste it in every bite of food.

The ride out to Chope’s alone is worth the drive, with a tunnel of pecan trees guiding the way down the old scenic highway. I was already a student at NMSU when my older brothers and college roommate first “initiated” me. They took me to Chope’s and bought me my first (legal) “large” beer, and it soon became a weekly ritual for us to make the drive out and toss back a few while enjoying the homemade rellenos and enchiladas. Eventually everybody moved on, but every time we came home we would meet back at Chope’s.

In our youth and inexperience, we thought we were the only ones who knew about things; that we were the first to discover this hidden gem. But as I grew older, I started seeing how many people recognized my yellow “Stuff It” shirt. Chope’s, unlike any other restaurant I know, has so many fans, so many people who gravitate back to it because of what the restaurant represents, and the culture the Benavides family has created.

Chope
Ivonne Loya has been proudly making Chope’s rellenos for 15 years

In 1915, Margarito and Longina Benavides opened up their home, kitchen, and Longina’s recipe book to the neighborhood. The lantern outside of their home would light up when a fresh batch of enchiladas was ready, and the local farm workers would line up with plate and fork in hand to receive the handmade tortillas smothered in red chile. Longina was a pioneer in New Mexican cuisine. She only used local ingredients, and since the corn in our region is grainier than in other parts of the world, the tortillas were more difficult to roll up. Thus, she served what we recognize today as the quintessential symbol of Southern New Mexican cuisine, flat or stacked, enchiladas.

In many traditional Hispanic families, the matriarchs run the home, while the men handle work and business. It just so happened that the business was in Longina’s home, and she ran it like a locomotive. In 1919, Congress passed the Volstead Act ushering in the era of Prohibition in America. Longina saw this as an opportunity to increase business for her restaurant, and began obtaining liquor from nearby Juarez, Mexico to sell to her guests. The restaurant’s popularity increased tremendously through the 1920s and 30s. In 1934, the restaurant obtained one of the first liquor licenses issued in the state of New Mexico. Now able to sell booze without any clandestine activity, they also opened a bar complete with jukebox and slot machine.

Chope
Pictured from left: Margie Martinez, Amelia Rivas, and Cecilia Yanez.
“The Benavides women have always been the engine that made Chope’s run as a successful restaurant.”

“The Benavides women have always been the engine that made Chope’s run as a successful restaurant,” says Sarah Stanley, who wrote her M.A. thesis on Chope’s cultural impact on our community. She spent many hours and days with the family, observing how the business ran, helping prepare food (her favorite dish is the red enchiladas), and going to family functions. This past April, she also led a cooking demonstration at the Branigan Cultural Center as part of their community Crop & Cuisine lecture series.

“Whether it was Longina’s ingenuity or Guadalupe’s recipes and business savvy, and her daughters’ hard work and commitment to keeping tradition going, the generations of women at Chope’s really have made the greatest impact on the business,” Sarah adds.

Guadalupe Rivera married Jose “Chope” Benavides in 1937, and began helping Longina in the kitchen. She brought her own style and recipes to the table. The menu expanded to include more options, as well as the choice between red and green chile. Both Longina and Guadalupe insisted on local fresh ingredients, a tradition, which along with their recipes, has not changed to this day.

During WWII, Chope’s took on yet another culturally significant role. Through the Bracero Program, Mexican nationals were permitted to live and work in the United States due to the shortage of American agricultural workers during the war. The work was tough, and the workers were not always paid the wages promised to them. “The fact that Chope’s aided in the Bracero Program is one of the most significant things the family has done for this community,” says anthropologist Norma Hartell. “The Braceros were not always welcomed with open arms, nor were they always paid or treated fairly, in a time when America’s food supply was dependent on them. The Benavides family realized this, and welcomed them in.” (Norma’s favorite dish is the #5: green chile enchilada, gordita, and relleno.)

Chope
“Not many restaurants in the world, let alone the country, have been literally family owned and operated in the same building for over a hundred years, by the same family.”

Chope’s was dependent on the work of the Braceros to get their fresh, local ingredients. In turn, they offered the workers a special “lunch plate” available for bartered produce if cash was not available. This program lasted until 1964, but the agricultural community is still a large part of Chope’s customer base.

More than just a restaurant, Chope’s is a gathering place for social groups from Mesquite, Mesilla, Las Cruces, and other surrounding towns. Politicians from all over the state meet up here, as do the Rotary Club, the Knights of Columbus, and the Lions Club. Chope Benavides was a leader in the community. He was also a volunteer fireman, and eventually became La Mesa Fire Chief in 1958. He was awarded many times over the years for his public service.

For all these reasons, and many more, Norma and Beth O’Leary, a recent retiree from the NMSU Department of Anthropology, pioneered the successfully granted applications for Chope’s to be added to the National Register of Historic Places and the State Register of Cultural Properties. “Not many restaurants in the world, let alone the country, have been literally family owned and operated in the same building for over a hundred years, by the same family,” notes Beth, who points to the green chile stew as her favorite dish. “The cultural significance this restaurant has had on the fabric of this region of America is unquestionable.”

That family extends beyond just bloodlines though. “There are generations of employees that worked here with my grandmother and mother, and now their daughters work here. They are our family too,” says Cecilia Yanez, daughter of Chope and Lupe who now runs the restaurant along with sisters Margie Martinez and Amelia Rivas.

Chope’s is the perfect example of how a simple family meal can make a difference in so many different ways. This local hotspot is timeless, transcendent, and yes, extremely, tasty. (Try out my favorite menu item, the gordita plate with extra salsa, next time you stop in.)

Sadly, Guadalupe Benavides passed on earlier this year, but we in the Mesilla Valley are forever grateful to the entire Benavides family for the culture, comradery, and excellent food Chope’s shares with the community. Muchos gracias.

“The Benavides women have always been the engine that made Chope’s run as a successful restaurant.”
“Not many restaurants in the world, let alone the country, have been literally family owned and operated in the same building for over a hundred years, by the same family.” “Not many restaurants in the world, let alone the country, have been literally family owned and operated in the same building for over a hundred years, by the same family.”

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