Buckeye resident Stephen Paul Campos is continuing his father’s legacy in the Mexican food business with Senor Campos Salsa—salsa with a purpose.
A native of Modesto, California, Campos started working with his father, Art Campos of Campos Foods, at age 14.
“My father was a great role model,” he said. “I wanted to take over his business, but I wasn’t able to because of several factors.
“We ended up selling it. I’ve owned three taqueria-style restaurants in California. I loved our food and it never really left me. I started with hot sauces and salsa. It’s my passion. My two passions are writing books and helping veterans and my salsa.”
At the age of 19 in 1967, Campos enlisted in the U.S. Army and was sent to fight in Vietnam with the 199th Light Infantry.
Campos was in the Army infantry unit and sent to Vietnam in 1968 and 1969 and served a tour of combat duty there. When he fulfilled his duty, he returned home to join the family business of making tortillas and Mexican food products to sell to grocery stores.
“When I came back from Vietnam, I had a lot of issues,” said Campos, who is disabled. “I had a hard time adjusting and knowing what I wanted to do. I worked with (my dad) for a while over several different companies. I got involved with the wrong group of people when I came back. I was living the party life. Drinking was all I cared about. I wanted to forget about the war.”
In 1981, he received two drunken driving tickets and was sent to a year-long alcohol program that required him to attend AA meetings.
He was in denial that he had a substance abuse problem until 1982, when his girlfriend left him. His depression got the most of him.
“I started to think I was going crazy,” Campos said. “And then I started hearing a voice that (said) I should kill myself, I was a loser and going to hell. The voice got louder: ‘Kill yourself.’”
He prayed repeatedly until he fell asleep. He was awakened by a vision of God, who said, “I love you.” The words broke his depression, and the light went back to darkness.
“I looked over on my bedpost, and there was my grandmother’s rosary,” he added. “I knew for sure I had a visitation from God.”
The next day, he started attending Alcoholics Anonymous and made 90 meetings in 90 days. He became a born-again Christian in 1982.
“I hadn’t resolved the issues with the Vietnam experience,” he said.
He didn’t acknowledge his problems until a divorce in 2004 and a move to Baltimore. He lost “everything” in the divorce. He was saved by his Vietnam buddies, with whom he stayed in touch.
“There were three of us in 1968. After a horrific firefight with the enemy, the three of us got together and we said we would protect each other until the war was over,” he said about his friends Eric Yingst and Jim Dyckhoff.
“We would reunite. I kept in contact with one; he lived in California. The other, he extended, and we didn’t know if he made it out alive or not.”
His friend found the third soldier on the internet, and they reunited at a ceremony honoring Vietnam veterans.
“I was honored for the first time, and it broke my heart,” he recalled. “It completely melted me down.
“To honor the vow we made until death in 1968, we met at the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C.,” Campos said. “There were reporters who covered it. They ran our story about being rejected by the government and people. I was withholding any feelings I had about the Vietnam War until that day. It was an emotional day for all of us.”
Rescued by a woman
After he left Washington, D.C., his then-girlfriend, Kathy Lucia, encouraged him to write about his experiences. A poet, Campos never wrote a book before. He agreed with Lucia.
“I thought it would be a good idea,” said Campos, who married her. “In that time, a lot of Vietnam veterans were not being honored for their service. Those who were in the war don’t want to talk about it. It was a tough time for us to adjust.
“The VA has unlimited resources now for PTSD and alcohol. There was no help during our time. The VA turned us away in the ’70s and ’80s. It wasn’t until the Gulf War that they started opening the VA up to everybody—all veterans. Before that, you couldn’t get help in the VA unless you were injured.”
He found a publisher and released “Charlie Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” in 2009. That was the first of many veterans-centric books that he made available on Amazon.
In 1991, his father sold the company business and Campos started working in the insurance industry, where he still works full time.
In 2018, he started Senor Campos Salsa to follow up on his dream to follow in his dad’s footsteps.
“I started sending out samples to my friends and family, and they loved the taste and they kept asking me for more,” he said.
He’s proud to offer his father’s Senor Campos Salsa for the first time since 1991. Campos said his salsa is special because it’s smooth and mild enough for anyone to enjoy the flavor. It also comes in chipotle barbecue-flavored salsa and holy ghost pepper salsa.
He sells his salsa and his accompanying tortilla chips at festivals, farmers markets and online. He’s hoping that after the COVID-19 pandemic subsides, he’ll be able to sell it at grocery stores.
“I make my salsa from the heart,” said Campos, who has lived in Buckeye since 2008 with his fitness trainer wife. “I want everyone to enjoy the delicious flavor, but I have to warn you that it is addictive. It’s made with fresh spices and ingredients that my father started in 1947 and in 1965 with Senor Campos Restaurants.”