Salvador Avila, bracero turned Mexican restaurant baron, dies at 99

One day in the 1970s, Maria Elena Avila served artichokes to her family.

She, her siblings, and her parents had found success with their family restaurant, Avila’s El Ranchito in Huntington Park, and were beginning to expand into Long Beach and Orange County.

But the years of struggle and sacrifice as Mexican immigrants to the United States were still on everyone’s mind.

Salvador, Maria Elena’s father, had arrived in the United States in the 1940s as a bracelet — a Mexican farm laborer under contract.

The hard work and loneliness of those days made her reluctant to talk about it with her children. But when he saw what Maria Elena was about to serve, he had to speak.

“He just looked at me and then said to all of us, ‘I can’t believe I used to cut them,'” recalls Maria Elena.

The patriarch then described how he had to carefully cut the vegetable from the stalk with a knife, taking care not to prick himself on its spines, and do it hundreds of times a day in the scorching sun near Watsonville.

“And then,” continued Maria Elena, “daddy said, ‘Now I’m going to eat artichokes. I have never even tried them.

Salvador Avila died July 28 in Newport Beach of natural causes. He was 99 years old.

His insistence that his children never forget where they came from and always stick together helped El Ranchito d’Avila grow from a five-table place to a multi-million dollar empire with 13 locations, all owned and operated by three generations of the family.

They memorized many of his daily aphorisms: Keep a restaurant clean. Make sure the food is always delicious. A single straw on a broom will break, but a bunch of them together are unbreakable.

“He led his life with determination, humility, gratitude and selflessness,” El Ranchito d’Avila said in a press release. “He recognized that all his blessings came from Heaven above.”

Born in Michoacán, Avila worked in the fields of central California, returning to Mexico after the picking season to visit his growing family. In the late 1950s, he took them from their Pénjamo home in southeast Los Angeles, where he juggled two eight-hour shifts at different foundries so his children could attend St. Aloysius Gonzaga and that he can buy a three-bedroom house. His three boys and two daughters each shared their bedroom, and he and his wife Margaretanother one.

Salvador eventually lost his job after injuring his back. He was selling eggs in the family station wagon when the opportunity arose to buy a restaurant. Neither he nor his wife had ever run their own business, “but my dad just wanted to create something, and it was a golden opportunity,” said Maria Elena.

Avila’s first El Ranchito opened in 1966. Huntington Park at that time was still an Okie and Arkie enclave. At the time, eaters preferred crispy tacos and cheese combo plates to regional Margarita recipes, such as beef tongue or cocido de res – beef soup. The family only earned $13 the first day.

But Avila opened at the right time. Southeast LA was about to undergo a dramatic demographic transformation. The children of Salvador and Margarita – who all worked in the family business when they weren’t in school – caught the entrepreneurial bug from their parents and asked for their blessing to open restaurants in the county of Orange, making sure to follow Salvador’s most valuable advice: Own the land where your restaurants will stand.

“My mother was the one who had the sazon [touch]”, said Maria Elena. “My father was the one with the vision.”

In the 1980s, Salvador and Margarita were able to move to a hilltop estate in the Tony Corona del Mar neighborhood of Spyglass Hill, overlooking Catalina Island. Almost all of their children lived nearby.

“I have been very lucky” he told the Times in 1990. “But we also worked very hard.”

Salvador made a point of visiting his family’s restaurants every day, until he finally retired at age 90, to thank customers for their decades of visits.

“He would have a cup of coffee, or maybe a glass of wine, and just talk to people,” his daughter Margarita said. “He knew their history and he had seen them grow up with their children. It was his soul. »

Salvador also enjoyed checking in with the staff, and not just his children and grandchildren.

“He would come up in the dishwasher and tell us, ‘Without him, you’re not going to be successful,'” Margarita said. “He knew the pain of not being respected.”

During his off hours, Salvador has become a fixture on the Newport Beach social scene in a different way: by running. The longtime smoker decided to quit cold turkey at 50 and committed to running a marathon.

“My friends were like, ‘Hey, I saw your dad running around Fashion Island this morning! ‘” Maria Elena said. “But it was dad – once he had something in mind, he was going to do it.”

He finally achieved his goal in 1998, running the Los Angeles Marathon at age 75 wearing a tank top with the name of his family’s restaurant on it. He competed every year until the age of 81.

In his later years, Salvador liked to share his secret to a long life: la olla frijolespinto beans in broth with radish and cilantro on the side.

“What he was most proud of was creating an opportunity for his children and grandchildren to succeed in this country,” said Maria Elena. “He felt like he had lived a good life.”

Salvador Avila was predeceased by his Margarita, his wife of 72 years, and a son, José Luis. He is survived by his daughters Maria Elena and Margarita and his sons Salvador Jr., Victor and Sergio, as well as 14 grandchildren and 19 great-grandchildren.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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