By Linda Thompson
Ismael Pena's family and friends consider him a “mini-celebrity.” They’ve even asked for the La Jollan’s autograph since he won the Pepe's El Original Mi Amor Mi Chicharrones essay contest on Dec. 10, picking up a cool $3,500 prize.
Pena said winning the contest was better than meeting comedian George Lopez backstage one time. “I did not get any money meeting George,” he joked.
Since writing is not his forté, Pena said he was “shocked” to find out that his essay about why he loves pork rinds (chicharrones) was chosen the overall winner from the 977 short-story submissions.
The contest invited customers to write about their love for pork rinds and how they were introduced to the snack as part of Pepe's salute to National Hispanic Heritage Month.
Pena said the company was very generous to give so much in prize money. “Thirty-five hundred dollars is a lot of money,” he said.
He emphasized that he is not bragging, but is just “happy,” and so he naturally wants to share the story of how he won.
Pena said his first reaction to the news of the win was a text to his wife. Then, he told his friends and family members to go to the Internet at
to read his winning story.
Pena credits his wife for introducing him to Pepe's Chicharrones a couple of years ago. He said he normally does not eat processed foods.
“I usually avoid fast foods and commercial snacks because they lack the authenticity of homemade food,” he explained. “I am usually disappointed (with snack chips). But I was surprised, I was very impressed, I did not expect them (Pepe's Chicharrones) to be so tasty.”
Pena said he saw the contest advertised on a Pepe's Chicharrones bag that he bought, but it was his wife's encouragement that persuaded him to enter. She felt like he had a story to tell.
Pena’s story is a reflection on how eating Pepe's Chicharrones brings back memories of his impoverished but loving, close-knit family.
His essay tells the story of his grandmother's pilgrimage to the United States with his dad and uncle, who were just boys at the time. They walked 800 miles from Chihuahua to the border to escape the revolution under Pancho Villa in the 1900s, and later became migrant field workers upon entering the states.
It was during his migrant field days that his grandmother introduced him to chicharrones, also known as pig rinds. They would get the pig skins from the market or from slaughtered pigs on ranches.
“The pig skin is the cheap part that is thrown away,” Pena noted, and reminisced about his grandmother deep frying the chicharrones in lard on an open flame.
The win is more than supplemental money for Pena's family vacation to Costa Rica. He said it represents his grandmother's legacy of her 250 descendants who have transformed their lives from a heritage of poor migrant field workers into prosperous professionals.
Pena, 69, has a contracting business and is now grooming his two sons to take it over. Even though tough times have slowed down business, the company still thrives due to its good reputation — just like Pepe's Chicharrones.
Note: Pepe’s El Original is produced by snack food maker Rudolph Foods.