HARLINGEN, Texas (ValleyCentral) — After nearly a decade of pushing for food allergy awareness following the death of her son, a determined mother’s hard work paid off as a new law goes into effect this year.

In 2014, Sergio Alexander Lopez died after ingesting peanut butter at a McAllen restaurant. Before eating, Lopez checked with employees whether it was safe.

Lopez, who was 24, was an aspiring musician who graduated from high school in Harlingen.

ValleyCentral spoke with his mother, Belinda Vaca, who has made it her mission to prevent tragedies like this from happening again.

June 25, 2014

On June 25, 2014, Lopez was on his lunch break and went to a restaurant on 10th Street in McAllen with a friend. He ordered a veggie taco and asked if the order had peanuts. He was told no. Lopez received the ordered and asked again, and was told no a second time, his mother recalled.

He took the order to-go and began eating the food in front of the music academy he worked at when he felt a tingling sensation.

“So, he called [the restaurant,] it’s on his telephone. He spoke to them for a minute and a half, and they again told him ‘It’s just spices,'” Vaca said.

Lopez continued eating the taco and made his way to work. That’s when he was seen grabbing his throat, saying “they lied to me, they lied to me.”

A co-worker drove Lopez to a hospital, who was kicking the inside the car struggling to breathe. Along the way, they saw a private ambulance and stopped the car. Lopez got out, waving his arms before passing out.

When Vaca arrived at the hospital to pick up her son, she figured it was for something minor. They pulled her to a room where Sergio was filled with tubes in a coma.

“I raised my son on my own as a single mom … It was just me and him, he was my everything,” Vaca said.

Less than eight hours after he ate the taco, Vaca was ordered to leave the room and medical personnel rushed in. Shortly after, they asked her if she would like to say goodbye to her son, and there was nothing they could do to save him.

Lopez died early that morning. An autopsy revealed his cause of death was anaphylaxis due to peanuts, she said.

A mother’s fight for justice

That same day, Vaca returned to the restaurant with a co-worker. She let her do the talking, she said. Her co-worker asked for the same taco, and asked what the ingredients were, under the guise that she really liked it.

The owner came out and said one of the first ingredients was peanut butter, she said.

“She told him, ‘my friend just lost her son this morning because you told him no. He asked three times and you told him no that it doesn’t have peanuts,'” she recalled.

Vaca said the owner responded by saying “Oh well he asked for peanuts, this has peanut butter.”

“My son died because of someone’s ignorance,” Vaca said.

Before his death, Sergio had plans of moving to Austin. His mother was planning to transfer there as well to be closer to him.

After he died, Vaca was interviewed and got the job.

“My office was two blocks from the Capitol,” she said. “I feel like God put everything there for me because that’s what I would do on my lunch hour and breaks. I would go to the Capitol and I would talk to people.”

Vaca recalled how she would go down the halls and knock on every representative’s door. She started with senators and representatives from the Rio Grande Valley but admits that she did not even know what a bill was at the time.

Senator Eddie Lucio Jr. from Brownsville was the first to tell her that she needed a bill. In 2015, he was the first to sponsor her. She was warned that since she was by herself, it may take her up to 20 years.

“I wanted to keep trying, so I did,” Vaca said.

Vaca said she paid for flyers, and in 2017, she bought 80 t-shirts and passed them out at the Capitol. She added that she felt too embarrassed to make a GoFundMe page, and that she did not receive any money from lawsuits.

After Sergio passed, Vaca joined Facebook groups for mothers of children with food allergies. She named several mothers and children across multiple states that have endured similar tragedies.

Vaca said she received multiple calls from thankful mothers after the bill passed, including one who was crying because her 5-year-old child had several close calls.

The Sergio Lopez Food Allergy Awareness Act

The Sergio Lopez Food Allergy Awareness Act, or Senate Bill 812, will require restaurants to display a standardized poster with information about food allergies and responses to allergic reactions.

The law will also require food training programs and for the food certification manager exam to include allergies as the subject.

The bill was authored by Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, and passed the Senate on April 6. After being filed without a Governor’s signature, the Sergio Lopez Food Allergy Awareness Act will go into effect Sept. 1, 2023.

For Vaca, the fight for justice does not end yet. Fighting back tears, Vaca exclaims that she’s heading to Washington D.C. to push for a federal law in honor of her son.

“It might take me my whole life until I die. It may not happen,” she said. “But, just like there is a Heimlich maneuver poster in every restaurant, why can’t there be a food allergy awareness poster in every restaurant in the United States to save lives?”