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Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

East High student Ruben Lemus was the captain and MVP of the wrestling team. He plans to help young wrestlers at the school in an after school program. He will attend UC Merced in the fall.

A plate of tamales sat atop the kitchen counter of East High School senior Ruben Lemus' kitchen counter one recent Friday.

A mixed plate, some were stuffed with jalapenos and cheese, others with pork and spice, and some with pork and green chile sauce.

Lemus didn't make the tamales. They were his mother's work.

But, the wrestler who will graduate from high school Wednesday is well-versed in how to make the traditional Mexican entree that for his family had been a needed source of work.

His parents, Ruben and Gloria Lemus, brought their family to Bakersfield from Sinaloa, Mexico in June 1994.

And Lemus (junior) was born into the family of a hard-working farm workers a couple months later. He would, about seven years later, have his first introduction to a different form of work: food service.

His mother had opened a business named Lupita's Tamales in 2001.

Most days Lemus would peel husks from ears of corn to wrap masa, the steamed soft outer shell of the business' feature attraction. And the family would work in an assembly line.

"We did it every day," Lemus said, describing the business as "burdensome."

In the winter, he poured cups of champurrado -- similar to hot chocolate -- into styrofoam cups and sold them to customers while his dad would peddle a cart packed with his mother's tamales in front of a store at Mount Vernon and Niles.

Lemus said as a result of the early sales experience, he has always handled money well.

"I was way ahead of the curve at that time," he said.

As he grew older, balancing his responsibilities for the business with school work became more difficult.

That burden peaked when his mother was diagnosed with cancer in 2012.

Lemus, now 18, was 16 at the time.

He said he remembers her cheeks and neck were swollen and she grew quieter and sustained chemotherapy treatment.

Soon her hair would fall out.

"She wasn't the same, but she was still my mom," Lemus said.

Sometimes he would come home and "lose heart."

In those moments, school helped him take his mind off of his mother's illness.

Lemus, in his junior year, was balancing school work with lunch meetings for extra-curricular clubs and daily wrestling practice after school.

His sister, Lupita, was handling the brunt of the work for the family business.

But that work became too much for everyone, Lemus said.

The family sold Lupita's Tamales in February 2013 for about $7,000.

Lemus said he instantly missed it.

"It was a part of me," he added.

Lemus said although he hopes to go into mechanical engineering, he will never forget what he learned from his father -- how to treat people, how to serve them.

Lemus said when he leaves for college at the University of California, Merced in August, his mother -- who still receives chemotherapy treatment -- and her business won't be far from his mind.