by Margaret Williams
Photographs by Claire Schaper
John Cazares Jr. has owned the Green & White Grocery since 1993, when he inherited the business from his father, John Cazares Sr., but the shop, which started as a general store, has been in his family for generations. Opened in the ’40s by his maternal grandfather, Noverto Lopez, John Sr. worked at the store as an Austin High student, where he met Lopez’s daughter Olga. The two fell in love, married and eventually took over the business after Lopez’s death, in 1971.
Once known almost exclusively for its tamales (customers would place Christmas orders months in advance) and now functioning as a botánica, where one can find any matter of candle, herb or religious icon, Green & White transitioned to its current incarnation in 1996 after one particularly intense December. Explains John Jr., “One day during the Christmas season, it was a Sunday and I was cooking by myself to get ready for Monday, and it just didn’t hit me right anymore. I realized that I just didn’t want to do it, or just couldn’t do it at the pace. I mean, this was my social life, family life. It was all too much.”
Green & White Grocery sits as a cheery, albeit slightly worn icon on the corner of East Seventh and Waller streets. Recently John Jr. was happy to give us a history of the shop, which is synonymous with its surrounding East Side neighborhood. As we talked, customers wandered in and out, some taking pictures of the, yes, green-and-white exterior, all taking comfort in the fact that just as things change, they also stay the same.
On the Past
“It was my grandfather’s store first, my mom’s dad. He had a little Mexican grocery store. We sold brooms and hardware, galvanized tubs, electrical supplies. And so it was kind of a general store, but we had a full meat market, a produce section. Plus, we always made tamales. Everybody in the family did the cooking. We would have to start in September to prepare, because, you know, when the weather got cooler, that was tamale weather.
“I grew up on Garden Street, and I went to school at Our Lady of Guadalupe, so I was in between school and here and home most of my life. Even during high school, I worked over here after school. I’ve only had one job [at Austin Parks and Recreation] outside of this place my whole life.”
On the Neighborhood
“You know, it’s different now. It’s more expensive. And a lot of the old businesses are gone. My dad’s generation is kinda completely gone from here. It keeps you understanding that things change all the time. But one day, I was crossing the street and I had four people honk at me. They were going in each direction, and I was like, OK, I still know somebody here. I just, like, took a deep breath. That made everything OK.”
I knew it was gonna hit hard and it might upset some family. I have three sisters and two brothers, and everybody worked here at one time or another growing up. But after, when we stopped making the tamales, to some people it’s like we closed. We’ve never been closed. We’ve always been here.”
On the Food
“My grandfather did well here, and my dad did well here, but things were different in those times. In the early days, it was worthwhile because that was when we were more seasonal. We would work straight for four months during tamales season, and then we cashed in, paid off stuff and got the returns for the whole year. But by the time I took over, it was just like a regular workweek. We should have been the ones that started $4 tacos, but at that time people didn’t pay for food like they do now. Everything that we did was handmade. All the tortillas were handmade. We made your taco as you wanted it. We made our own Mexican sausage. They were really good.”