SAFFORD — The Ranch House at Eastern Arizona College’s Discovery Park Campus was packed for the Graham County Historical Society’s annual meeting and Heritage Award presentation, celebrating Mary Coronado’s life and contributions to the Gila Valley.

More than 100 guests — family and community members — turned out to honor Coronado, founder and owner of El Coronado Restaurant and regular participant in Safford’s annual SalsaFest. Her son, Greg Coronado, gave the presentation on her life and restaurant career.

Mary (Vargas) Coronado was born in Lubbock, Texas, the fourth of nine children, and raised in Tucson. She met Crispin Coronado Jr. in 1960; they married the following year, started a family and enjoyed 54 years together. They moved to Safford in 1964.

Mary Coronado has always enjoyed baking and cooking. Some of her first experiences were making pumpkin bread and bizoches for yard sales, and green corn tamales for backyard socials. She went on to make handmade tortillas, menudo and pizzas. In hard times, the family earned a bit of income selling Coronado’s tortillas to local businesses. She also made tamales for a restaurateur named Hector Martinez.

Her cooking skills began to draw praise, which led to her first restaurant experience at the 38-seat Town House Motel restaurant. Its owner, hearing of those skills, asked Coronado to work there. When it was closed down a few months later, Coronado asked to rent it.

After operating the Town House restaurant for two years, she moved to Main Street. Purchasing the old Star Cafe, she opened El Coronado Restaurant in 1983 and has served diners for 36 years. El Coronado has become a favorite spot for many locals, and praises of its salsa, huevos rancheros and stuffed quesadilla have been sung beyond the Gila Valley. Mary Coronado’s salsa has been recognized as among the Valley’s best, winning multiple prizes at SalsaFest.

As it was in the days of selling handmade tortillas to local businesses, family remains important at El Coronado. Two of Mary’s sons went on to cook there and one of her grandsons now serves as manager. The restaurant has also provided work for a number of Valley residents who went on to other careers.

“I’m very honored and very blessed,” she said after receiving the Heritage Award. “Thank you to all the friends that came; I appreciate it.”

In other activities at the meeting, the Graham County Historical Society recognized the Nov. 2019 passing of longtime member Kristine “Toni” Williams, elected board members, heard updates on a new museum site and enjoyed presentations on local history.

David Sowders is a Graham County Historical Society board member.

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