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posted: 5/2/2013 5:00 AM

Tequila, with love

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Just because Cinco de Mayo is a holiday brewed up by U.S. beer companies doesn't mean you can't celebrate it with good tequila.

This year, I recommend one that lets you savor a son's love for his father. The liquor will fill your glass. But the story behind it will fill your soul.

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Meet my friend, Hector Barreto Jr. He's a Hispanic Republican, a California businessman, and was head of the Small Business Administration under President George W. Bush. He's also chairman of the Latino Coalition, which seeks to enhance economic development for Latinos, and a political consultant, helping the GOP mend fences with Latinos.

And now, he's also a tequila maker. It's not something that the 51-year-old ever planned to do. It's a labor of love -- and respect.

Barreto has a tremendous amount of both for his father, Hector Sr., who was a larger-than-life figure in the Mexican-American business community in the late 20th century.

You can hear it in the son's voice as he recalls the stories his father told him -- about coming to the United States from Mexico as a teenager with nothing but big dreams and a work ethic, of digging potatoes before opening a small cafe and going on to own three restaurants and other businesses in Kansas City, Mo.

"My dad never finished high school," Hector told me. "But he had a lot of 'EQ' -- emotional intelligence. He understood people."

In 1979, Hector Sr. helped found the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. In the 1980s, he became active in the Republican Party and supported President Ronald Reagan and, later, President George H.W. Bush.

"My father's attitude was that we're all the same," Hector said. "You're no better than me, and I'm no better than you. ... It was just who he was."

There's the story about how Hector Sr. went to meet Reagan after his election in 1980 to demand that Hispanics get jobs and contracts from the administration and instead got a lecture from his host about how Hispanics need to join the melting pot. Hector Sr. bluntly said he had no interest in melting and preferred to be part of a stew. This charmed Reagan, who appointed Hector Sr. to his transition team and then as an envoy to El Salvador and Colombia.

Hector Sr. taught his son and four daughters to work hard, to protect the family name, and to have pride in themselves, their culture and their community. That was part of his legacy.

And so is tequila. It was Hector Sr.'s dream to plant, grow and harvest agave back home in Mexico in order to make his own tequila. He bought 1,300 acres of ranchland outside of Guadalajara, his birthplace. And, at the beginning of 2004, he planted the crop. He never got the chance to harvest it. It takes seven years for agave to mature, and Hector Sr. didn't have that much time. He died in May 2004, from cancer, at 68.

What's a son to do? Make tequila. Hector Jr. paid the cost of maintaining the agave until it was cut in 2011.

"I knew nothing about growing tequila," he said. "I know a lot more now. But I'm not sure my dad did either."

He has harvested most of it and, with the help of a distilling partner, produced thousands of cases of high-quality tequila. Much of it is stored in a warehouse in Southern California. Last year, it was available in just three states -- California, New York and New Jersey. This year, the plan is to expand into 10 more. You can also order it at www.tributotequila.com.

I asked Hector how his new project was going over with his own kids.

"They love it," he chuckled. "They're proud. They're getting connected. They're creating an identity. They all knew their grandfather. All my years in business and politics, I'm not sure my kids knew what I did. Now when people ask my daughter, 'What does your dad do?' she says: 'He works on a tequila ranch.'"

The product has been given the industry's prestigious "5 Star Diamond Award" for the last two years. But it's the rest of the story that warms the heart. The brand is called "Tributo a Mi Padre." The inscription on the bottle reads: Por una vida bien vivida.

"For a life well lived."

Let's have a toast. To a life well lived. A son raised right. A father honored. A family strengthened. And a legacy preserved.

Ruben Navarrette's email address is ruben@washpost.com

2013, Washington Post Writers Group

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