Cruz Cortez, the founder of one of San Antonio’s oldest and most popular restaurants, Mi Tierra Café and Bakery, and matriarch of the five-generation La Familia Cortez, died Thursday. She was 98.

On Friday, the family began erecting a special altar at the 24-hour restaurant located in El Mercado, one that is distinct from the elaborate altar already near the front door that honors Cruz’s late husband and other family members. Funeral services are being planned.

The announcement of her passing was shared on the La Familia Cortez Restaurants’ Facebook page late Thursday night: “It is with great sadness that we mourn the loss of our co-founder, Doña Cruz Cortez. Born and raised in San Antonio, Sra. Cruz embodied the authentic comida and cultura that La Familia Cortez Restaurants represents and we strive every day to honor her legacy … ”

Within minutes, friends, family, and fans of the restaurant responded with condolences and respect for Cruz, in both Spanish and English.

Cruz married Pedro Cortez in 1941, and that same year, they opened a restaurant called Jamaica No. 5 and had their first child, Manuel. As Cruz worked in the restaurant by day, joined by her husband after work in t evenings, the couple had four more children, and in 1951, opened a café they called Mi Tierra.

Ten years later, they purchased the block in El Mercado where the current restaurant and panaderia stands. Today, La Familia Cortez operates five restaurants – with a sixth set to open at the Rim later this summer – and employs more than 600 people, including Cortez family members from the second to the fourth generations. In 2016, the family invited the community to celebrate Mi Tierra’s 75th anniversary with Cruz, at 95, in attendance.

“Although she wasn’t born in Mexico, her mother and father were from Mexico,” said Pete Cortez, chief operating officer of La Familia Cortez Restaurants and Cruz’s eldest grandchild. “But the whole idea of what her and my grandfather accomplished, creating their own American dream, that was something they were very proud of, and they always felt like they wanted to build something, something people would have respect for, that uplifted the Latino community. That was very important to them.

“In her own way, she wanted the business to be not something to just feed the family, but that fed the community and grew the culture.”

In a conversation with the Rivard Report on Friday morning, Pete Cortez said he was very close to his grandmother and remembered her as someone who had a strong faith in God, loved to garden, and persistently reminded him and his cousins to “be careful” as they ventured off to college and into the world.

Though Cruz stepped away from running the restaurant as her family grew, Pete said she reminded the children and grandchildren who now run the enterprise that the food should not only taste good, but look good as well. “She would tell us that every time we presented a plate, it should be presented beautifully,” he said.

Just prior to the 75th anniversary celebration for Mi Tierra, Cruz took a fall and her health began to fail, Pete Cortez said. Doctors sent her into hospice care, but she soon recovered to the point that doctors said she had “graduated” from end-of-life care.

“She was such a strong woman, very dignified, and when she spoke, she spoke thoughtfully,” he said. “She was a prayer warrior, and her in later years, though she was not really involved in the business, she was always the matriarch in the family. Everybody always knew we had a prayer warrior behind us.”

In her later years, Cruz began planning her own funeral services. “We knew this day would come, and she was very prepared,” he said.

As she was choosing a casket from among those on display, Cruz put her head against each one to find the one that matched her hair the best, Cortez said. “There’s humility and a little bit of vanity there.”

Cruz is survived by her four children, 22 grandchildren, 27 great-grandchildren, and two great-great-grandchildren.

A public viewing for Cruz Cortez will be held Saturday, June 1, from 1 p.m. to 8 p.m. at Porter Loring Mortuary, 1101 McCullough Ave. In lieu of flowers, the family is requesting donations in her memory be made to St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital or Christ Mission College.

Shari Biediger is the development beat reporter for the San Antonio Report.