Margarite Faras tried to fight the endemic corruption in the tribal government of the San Carlos Apache. For her effort, her political enemies began a campaign late last year to strip her of her tribal council seat, destroy her reputation and run her out of business.
They held rallies outside her home, using bullhorns to yell threats and rude remarks at her. She was degraded daily on local radio. In time, she began receiving death threats and could no longer walk into public places without hearing sniping comments.
Finally, she was removed from the tribal council by her enemies using apparently illegal maneuvers that were the subject of a federal investigation ("Tribal Belt," Robert Nelson, December 14).
Amid accusations that she was a Mexican, an atheist, a lesbian, that she wanted to lock up the children of San Carlos, or that she didn't want tribal members to have water, she was also accused of using cat meat in the tacos at her roadside Taco Shack, the 65-year-old family business she had inherited from her mother and father.
Her political enemies, who also harangued her for making Mexican-style tacos instead of Apache-style tacos, called for a boycott of the Taco Shack. They encouraged tribal members to instead frequent the taco stand of Velesquez Sneezy, not only Faras' business rival but her staunchest political foe, the tribe's vice chairman who wanted Faras off the council.
Since the smear campaign began late last year, business at the Taco Shack has declined 60 percent, Faras says.
But even as some tribal members steered clear of the Taco Shack, Faras was getting new business from attorneys, auditors and government officials who were in San Carlos investigating or fixing many of the systemic problems Faras had brought to light.
They often said her Mexican food was as good or better than anything they could find in Phoenix or Tucson.
One of those visiting bureaucrats was particularly enraptured by Faras' salsa, a tough-love mix of fiery New Mexican chiles created by her mother 65 years ago.
Two months ago, the man, who wished not to be identified, asked Faras for a jar of the salsa. He wanted to send it to a friend of his in Kansas City, Kansas.
The friend, Joe Polo, is co-owner of Original Juan Specialty Foods Inc., one of the country's fastest-growing producers of gourmet salsas.
Last month, Polo called Faras. He wanted to mass-produce Faras' salsa for distribution around the country.
For the first time in nine months, Margarite Faras had some good news.
"What fun!" Faras says. "In the middle of this absolutely awful time comes this golden opportunity. We've just been going crazy trying to put this thing together."
A few days after Polo's call, a chemist from Original Juan called Faras for her recipe. She wanted to make some sample salsa.
When Faras received the first test jar of salsa, she realized how difficult it is to turn homemade salsa into a product that can sit on store shelves for months. Faras' fresh salsa would have to be cooked and then vacuum packed.
"The first try was pretty bad," she says. "It was like this globby tomato paste thing."
She told them to try again.
"The second jar was even worse," she says.
So, last week, Faras flew to Kansas City with a suitcase of her special New Mexican chiles to oversee the creation of her salsa.
The trip was a rousing success. Original Juan executives decided to produce two of Faras' salsas.
They will start small by creating 600 16-ounce jars of each salsa.
Faras, with the help of friends and Original Juan staffers, has begun work on her marketing and distribution scheme. She is working to get shelf space in Costco or Sam's Club, as well as several restaurants and grocery chains throughout the south and western United States.
She has a tentative label for one salsa that reads, "Taco Shack Salsa: Faras Family Recipe." She admits it's a little bland.
She says Cat Scratch Fever is out of the question.
She also has been laboring over the requisite salsa story for the back-of-the-jar label:
"Sixty-five years ago, Tom and Julia Faras started selling Mexican food out of their home. All of the food was made from Julia's home recipes. Today the legend of Julia's recipes still continue[s] to exist through her daughter. The taste and quality of the mouth-watering robust-flavored salsa still lives on."
That might get some editing, too.
"This stuff is tougher than you might think," she says.
Still, she says, it's all a joy compared to the rest of her life in San Carlos. The tribal government remains in disarray, the tribe remains on the verge of bankruptcy and Faras remains blocked from her council seat.
And she is hunkering down for more retaliation. Her Phoenix attorney is on the verge of filing a case against the tribe for violating Faras' civil rights.
For the most part, though, Faras' hope is no longer grounded in litigation. It's grounded in salsa.
"This seems so strange, but my real hope now is to be able to make a go with the salsa outside the tribal lands," she says. "If it works out, we'll probably just close the Taco Shack. I just don't think I can keep going on with restaurant business in these conditions."
"It's so sad, but I'm starting to see salsa as my way out."