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August 12, 2009 > Francisco Zermeno, a man of passion

Francisco Zermeno, a man of passion

By Simon Wong

Hayward's Francisco Zermeno is a man of many parts (visit - Professor of Spanish at Chabot College for 32 years, councilman, champion of youth, Mexican culture and the Spanish language, a director of St. Rose Hospital Foundation, co-organizer of Hayward's annual Cinco de Mayo Festival... and a passionate collector.

When he left Mexico as a child, he knew of Superman but his first comic in the US featured The Amazing Spider-Man, a hero with superhuman powers and very human problems. He was hooked and has since amassed a collection of approximately 6,000 Spider-Man pieces, from fast-food giveaways to sought-after collectors' items.

An avid philatelist, Zermeno plans to re-catalog his stamp collection but this will take time. There are some one million stamps. The collection's main themes are U.S., France and Mexico.

The professor is also a connoisseur of tequila, Mexico's national drink. His discernment for "aguamiel" (honey water) is so finely honed that he and several friends have finally organized Hayward's first annual Tequilafest after toying with the idea for eight years. According to Zermeno, the only other festival in California celebrating the product of the agave plant was in San Diego two years ago.

He began sampling tequila when he came of age. That stopped abruptly when he went to Madrid as an athlete in 1973, his junior year at UC Santa Barbara.

"There was no tequila in Spain at that time. Even now, there's very little and what's there isn't that good," he says. "Tequila is shipped from Mexico to Europe in barrels then bottled locally. It isn't a matter of tequila travelling well, or not, more a case of waiting for Europe to discover tequila. Once that happens, tastes become more discerning, as in America where there are publications like 'Tequila Aficionado Magazine.'"

Zermeno came to the U.S. in 1964, with no English, aged 12, and immersed himself in American culture. After nine years, Frank Zermeno, a 21 year-old American, left for Madrid having lost most of his Spanish and sense of being Mexican. He re-discovered his Mexican identity in Spain.

On returning to the U.S. in 1974, he resolved to learn more about Mexican culture. As part of his education, he read widely about tequila and tasted as many as possible whenever he visited Mexico. It became a serious interest. A book on the subject is expected next year.

Mrs Zermeno is French and accustomed to taking an aperitif, such as a pastis, port or sweet wine, before dinner. Her husband joins her with a shot of tequila.

"Each day, I have a different one. When visiting a restaurant to taste the tequilas, I have three different shots with my meal. My doctor says 'everything in moderation' and a shot a day is just fine," cautioned the Councilman.

"You don't just collect. You must taste. You collect for a reason. You try them. Most of the collection is open. Some are waiting to be opened but some should remain unopened," he explained.

A sealed bottle is labeled "cabron" (he-goat), an insult. When the Mexican government realized the error and revoked the license for this tequila, 5,000 bottles had already been distributed. The collection boasts a tequila by the family of Pancho Villa, the Mexican Revolutionary general, in a clear-glass form of the .32 caliber rifle used during the Revolution. Zermeno once paid $500 for a bottle of tequila... plus $500 for a new oven for his wife.

"My tequila collection is the second-largest in the East Bay with more than 100 bottles. Acapulco Bar & Grill, Tequilafest's venue, has the largest," he concedes.

Zermeno wastes no opportunity. On his travels, he searches liquor stores just as he scours antique shops for Spiderman memorabilia and stamps. He discusses tequila with restaurateurs, here and abroad. Some are not exported from Mexico so the thrill of the chase is all the more exhilarating.

When taken neat, tequila is usually served in a narrow shot glass called a "caballito" (little horse). Zermeno has a string of them - all shapes and sizes, some comical, some serious, some artistic. They evolved from the small horn-cups that tequila ranchers kept in their saddle bags to sample their product.

The idea for Hayward's Tequilafest was born when Zermeno and his wife visited a Pleasanton restaurant, with more than 200 tequilas, 10 years ago.

"The first annual Tequilafest will celebrate and promote between 30 and 40 lesser-known tequilas. We've invited the distillers to showcase their products on August 29. Tickets are selling fast. There's a buzz out there and it's putting Hayward on the map. We're very excited," concluded Zermeno.

Hayward Tequilafest 2009
Saturday, August 29
5 p.m. - 9 p.m.
Acapulco Bar & Grill
19950 Hesperian Blvd., Hayward
(510) 785 8200

$40 before August 15 (online and by phone).
$50 at the door.
21 and Over

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