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Inspire - Posted August 25, 2017 10:27 a.m.

Let’s buy the tortilla machine!

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"So … we can take this $750.00 and put a down payment on a house or ... we can use it to buy a tortilla machine and start a business ... the choice is yours, Mama.” – Jesse Leal

My dad, Hector Jesus Leal, grew up in abject poverty in a small South Texas town called Mercedes. His Spanish-speaking friends called him Chuy, and those who spoke English affectionately called him Jesse.

At a young age, he helped his mother provide for his younger siblings by leaving home and doing migrant work. Among other things, he picked tomatoes in Jacksonville and cotton in the Panhandle. He began this life of work at the ripe old age of 11.

His early travels brought him to Muleshoe. In 1955 he married a pretty girl name Irma Anzaldua, and moved her there. He was working at Barrett Produce at the time, and the newlyweds had planned on finishing out the season and moving back home to the Rio Grande Valley.

They wound up staying a little longer than they had planned.

Two things happened: My mother was deeply touched by the love and hospitality of the wonderful folks of West Texas, and she also saw a glaring need.

In 1957 my eldest brother, Hector, was an active 2-year-old toddler, and Mom was pregnant with my sister, Alma. They lived in a small one-room – not one bedroom but one room – apartment and struggled for more than two years to save $750.00, what they considered to be a small fortune.

Irma’s father, Elias Victor Anzaldua, had provided for his family in Mercedes with a small tortilla factory named El Arco Iris or The Rainbow. He delivered fresh, warm, stone-ground corn tortillas around their neighborhood every morning in his Model T Ford. It was during the Great Depression and half of his product he gave away, because so many of his customers couldn't afford to pay. My grandmother on my father's side was one of his free accounts. They were a large family of eight and my grandfather, Justino Leal, suffered from alcoholism and struggled to keep steady employment.

My mom grew up helping in the small family business, and when she arrived in Muleshoe, she quickly recognized a need for fresh tortillas, menudo and barbacoa. In those days the Bracero Program, a federal guest worker program to supply labor, was in full swing and no one was making Mexican food or fresh tortillas or catering to the Braceros’ needs. While she lacked any formal education, she was a savvy economist, seeing a demand with no corresponding supply. It is hard to imagine, in this day and age when we have Mexican food on every corner, but back then tortillas were an oddity in the Panhandle.

Part of the contract between the Braceros and farmers required the farmers to bring the Braceros to town one day a week – usually Saturday or Sunday – so they could do their shopping and entertaining. After shopping on Main Street, the Braceros would walk a short distance to our little place on the east side of town to meet friends, eat, and visit with Mom and Dad. After the farmers had done their shopping and entertaining (there was a bowling alley in Muleshoe at the time), they would drive to our cafe and wait in their pickups outside while the men finished eating.

Dad knew most of the farmers since he managed "The Association" (the local Bracero program), when he first arrived in Muleshoe in 1954. He had an incredible gift of hospitality and would take plates of food to the farmers who were waiting outside. It was the first taste they had ever had of tortillas, pollo en salsa or barbacoa.

The following week the farmers would peek inside and nervously ask Dad for another plate. My dad would reply, "Sure ... but come inside and eat in here. Don't sit outside in your truck."

Leal's became one of the first truly integrated cafes in Texas, and my parents helped introduce Mexican food to a brand-new audience. It was a small and humble start and my parents were a bridge between two communities.

My five siblings, Hector, Alma, Laura, Sergio, Abel and I grew up working alongside my parents and small staff, in all areas of our restaurant and tortilla factory, learning to serve from our hearts in a manner that dignified everyone. Our parents instilled in us a servant’s heart.

Today, in our six restaurant locations we consider it an honor and privilege to serve around 20,000 wonderful guests. Our staff now numbers more than 300, and we make tons of ground corn into fresh tortillas every day, and offer our chips and hot sauce in several grocery and retail stores around the area.

As we serve, we are trusted by our guests with some of the most significant and meaningful times of their lives. They celebrate their birthdays and anniversaries, and the accomplishments of their children with us. We cater weddings and provide food for funerals. They invite us into their lives, and we strive to continue to earn their respect and trust.

It’s easy sometimes to see any business, large or small, and overlook the tremendous sacrifices, risk, hard work and daily challenges they meet. I enjoy visiting with entrepreneurs from all walks to learn their fascinating stories. Every one of them has a story of their struggles and often failure a time or two.

In fact, our story, though it is unique, is in some sense your story, too. It’s the great American Dream of being able to risk it all and be willing to sacrifice short-term comfort for long-term success. We live in a great state and country where we can still flourish as we were meant to by the God who created us – if we are willing to work to achieve the desires He has placed in our hearts.

In a tiny apartment in Muleshoe, my dad placed a small fortune on a bare dinner table and asked my pregnant mother a question that would change the course of their lives and the lives of many others: "Mama ... we have worked very hard to save $750.00. With the baby on the way, we desperately need a bigger house. We can use this money for a down payment on one, or we can risk it all and buy a tortilla machine and go into business."

My mom had been encouraging my dad to talk to Mr. Garcia, the gentleman who had built my grandfather's tortilla machine in Mercedes. When Dad paused, all she remembers hearing is or. Without batting an eye she exclaimed," Let's buy a tortilla machine!"

by Victor Leal

Victor is the owner of the Leal’s restaurants in Amarillo and Muleshoe. He has been married to his wife, Debbie, for 30 years, and the couple has two sons, Roman and Noah. Victor is an avid reader, and enjoys spending time outdoors, hiking, fly-fishing, running and cycling.
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