Special to the NEWS
Born in Brownsville in 1949 as the fourth of six children, Ayala’s family sold tacos and raspas to the workers of the fruit packing warehouse on Frontón.
Ayala has earned recognition for his humanitarian support for student sports, an interest he developed thanks to his brothers who all participated in sports growing up.
Every year, he donates toward sponsorships for student athletes. He says that his willingness to lend financial support goes back to a spirit instilled by his parents who were active in fundraising for their neighborhood church, and for the youth sports programs of Brownsville.
Ayala graduated from Brownsville High School and attended college for one year. He enlisted in the National Guard and entered the workforce taking a job with Levi’s and then with A&V Lopez Super Meat Markets.
He entered the restaurant business in 1984 working for Antonio’s. Ayala went on to open his own restaurants in San Benito and in Harlingen.
As a successful restaurateur, the owner of “Pepe’s” in Harlingen credits his clientele for their support of his business. Ayala’s workers are long-time employees, most with more than 15 years of service at “Pepe’s.” Ayala’s cook has worked with him for 25 years.
At the entrance to “Pepe’s” is a wall of plaques, ranging from a “Pepe’s Day” proclamation from the Cameron County Commissioners Court (1996), to an induction into the Rio Grande Valley Sports Hall of Fame (2006).
Ayala has also been recognized by the Harlingen Kiwanis Club (1995) and the Harlingen Pan American Association (2009) for his support of their scholarship funds. As a leader in the Hispanic business community, Ayala also takes pride in an award form 1996 that recognizes “Pepe’s” as one of the top Hispanic restaurants in the U.S. The award comes from Hispanic Magazine and “Pepe’s” was the first restaurant in the Rio Grande Valley to receive the award.
Aside from his advocacy for business and youth sports and education, Ayala is pro-active in the music field. He comes from the Medina family of folk musicians on his mother’s side. He lends financial support to the native conjunto scene of the region, and since 1991 he has managed his uncle’s band, “Bene Medina y Su Conjunto Aguila,” and occasionally sings with the band.
He remains involved in the youth sports scene, offering his support to many student athletes who may not have otherwise been able to participate in sports.
Ayala has also been named a “Citizen of the Year.” He likes to share the proceeds of his success with the community.
The 2014 Freddy Fender Humanitarian Awards was named after Baldemar Huerta of San Benito, also known as Freddy Fender – a rock and roll and country musician who found fame in the 1960s and 70s with the hits “Wasted Days and Wasted Nights” and “Before the Next Teardrop Falls” as well as being a member of the Texas Tornados super group. Fender – also known for his humanitarianism – was a Grammy award-winner whose fame reached international heights, even landing him on television in an episode of Dukes of Hazzard.
The awards ceremony is scheduled for 7 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 9, at the Texas State Technical College Cultural Arts Center on 1902 North Loop 499 in Harlingen.