MiChicana’s Mother…

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Martha Rodriguez was born in the small border town of Reynosa, Mexico.  She was one of eleven children who was forced to grow up at a  very young age.  She dropped out of school in the second grade to help her family make money by washing clothes and selling palomitas (popcorn) in the local market.  She was always very entrepreneurial which makes her story that much more remarkable.  There is so much I could write about my mother but the story of how she finally made her dreams come true is the best.

I jokingly tell people that tacos helped pay for my college education. My mother used to make tacos for my Papi to take to work.  At first it was 10-20 tacos but demand quickly increased that number to 100 tacos.  It was our ritual when I was in high school.  I would sit at the dining room table with my homework while my mother would make tacos. I can still smell the frijoles (beans) and ground beef mixture caressing my senses.  To this day, the smell of cumino immediately relaxes me.

She would wrap two tacos in aluminum foil and then, at the end, she would count them.  I can still hear the sound of her nails clicking against the foil as she counted the tacos under her breath.  Two…four…six…twenty…forty…click…click…click. At the end of her count she would always ask the same question.  “Mi’ja, if I opened up a restaurant, do you think people would like my food?” “Yes mom,” I’d respond, “People would LOVE your food.”

This was in early 90s. She would make tacos. My Papi would sell them to his co-workers.  Every evening it was the same routine.  I would often ask if I could help.  “No…no..no,” she would say. “You’re job is to do well in school. That’s your only job.” Needless to say, I took my job seriously which is why I’m not that great a cook despite my culinary heritage.

Years passed. My mother continued to work in the laundry department of the local V.A. Hospital and my father worked at a local factory.  I went off to college and, through scholarships and jobs, paid for approximately 3/4 of my college costs. The remaining balance was paid from those tacos my mother labored over every night.

In 1999, my mother and father traveled through the rinky dink town of Augusta, Michigan. It is a nothing little town you would miss if you sneezed.  She noticed a tiny little hole-in the-wall sub shop on the main drag.  My mother encouraged my father to stop in and look around.  It was right around dinner time and there were no patrons in the building.  I don’t even think ghosts hung out there.

Fortunately for my parents the owner was in the building.  My mother made inquiries. How much is rent? What are utilities, etc…? The owner cautiously said, “I don’t think people around here would like…Mexican…food that much.” My mother heard, “People don’t like Mexicans around here.” She was ready to raise holy hell. My father, the level-headed, light-hearted fellow that he is said, “Well…they are gonna love us!” He proceeded to tell the owner about our family and his successful daughters. By the end of the conversation, the owner and my father were best buds and my mother was calculating what she would need to transform the place from a sub shop to an authentic Mexican restaurant.

She purchased equipment wherever she could find it: auctions, restaurant closings, liquidation sales, etc…My sisters and I made up the initial staff. We were like the three stooges in those early days trying to learn to be waitresses, cooks, and bookkeepers.  It was all in the service of my mother’s dream. She had spent her entire life taking care of others. Now it was her time.  She still worked in the V.A. laundry during the day and the restaurant at night.  I remember I’d work in a law firm during the day and change out of my suit to wash dishes at night. It was all worth it because my mother had sacrificed so much for us…this was the least we could do for her.

She named the restaurant Nina’s Taqueria after my youngest sister. I am always asked if that makes me jealous. Frankly, it would have become “that Mexican restaurant” if she had named it after me or Marthalicia. Nina’s was the perfect name. Short. Simple. Sweet.

The restaurant opened in April 1999.  Word soon spread about Nina’s and the business grew bigger than any of us had imagined.  Today, my mother owns two restaurants, one market, and a car wash.  She is phenomenal in every way and one of the smartest people I know. Her commitment to excellence, to her customers, to her employees is bar none.  She is one of the most focused, ambitious, and innovative people I have ever known. I am so incredibly proud of her accomplishments.

My singular favorite moment with my mother was an evening after we had just finished cleaning the new building. She was preparing it to open and wanted everything to be perfect. We had just finished sweeping and mopping.  We were tired. We sat in the 70s style, orange, vinyl booths and looked around at her newest acquisition.  “Mi’ja,” she asked earnestly, “Do you think people really like my food?”

“Yes, mami,” I said. “People LOVE your food!”

Happy Mothers Day!

Mil gracias for reading,

Marisela Martinez-Cola

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