So much more than tacos: San Bernardino’s Mitla Cafe
The West Side of San Bernardino is one of those neighborhoods where people still live in the houses their Mexican-American great-grandparents bought in the 1930s. Today, on the once-thriving commercial strip, there are plenty of vacant lots and storefronts, but one business is still a magnet for customers: the Mitla Cafe. It’s proof that sometimes a restaurant is more than just a restaurant. Since the ‘30s, the restaurant has born witness to and played a role in political change. It also happens to be an unlikely inspiration for how mainstream America sees — and eats — Mexican food.
There’s a Taco Bell ad from the ‘80s with a jingle that entices: “Come taste the one and only original, taca-taca-Taco Bell.” Folks who gather at the Mitla Cafe know a different story.
“In the 1950s, Glen Bell had a hot dog stand across the street from the Mitla Cafe,” explains historian Mark Ocegueda. From there, Bell could see lines forming down the sidewalk with people waiting at the window of Mitla’s kitchen. Former owner Irene Montano says people from the neighborhood always tell her, “I remember when I was a kid we used to come to the window and we’d buy tacos for 10 cents. We used to get a dozen, and we used to have so much fun.” The story goes, Bell would sit at the counter at Mitla’s, and ask about the tacos.
“Glen Bell noticed we did a lot of business with our tacos,” says current co-owner Steve Oquendo. “My great-grandfather Salvador brought him into the kitchen and kind of showed him how we did it. He took the concept and ran with it from there to what Taco Bell is today,” he says, laughing. That story was mostly told inside the neighborhood until the 2012 publication of Gustavo Arellano’s "Taco USA."
Head over to Mitla’s today, and no one’s talking about Taco Bell. In the middle of a weekday, the restaurant is packed. Oquendo weaves through tables and booths, joking with customers about baseball and asking after family members. The menu and food prep closely match what Oquendo’s great-grandmother Lucia Rodriguez developed over 75 years ago, including those hard-shell hamburger tacos with cheddar cheese, more Cal-Mex than traditional Mexican food.
Drew Negrete came in today with his parents, and ran into half a dozen other family members. “I’ve been coming here ever since I was a kid,” he says, though he’s barely out of his teens. “I really think this hot sauce is in my bloodstream.”
Negrete says that during a two-month stint in Scotland, he tried to cook the food of his childhood, but it was no use. When his parents picked him up at the airport, all he could say was: “I just need to go to Mitla’s. I think I ate it for five days straight, to be honest with you. You just miss it. You miss it.”
This is an old-school gathering place where people come for the food and history and people. Latino faculty from the local community college meet up here. So does the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce (which Steve Oquendo is reviving). Each Tuesday at 7 a.m. the Kiwanis Club convenes over breakfast. The Mitla Café is also known as a necessary stop for political incumbents and hopefuls. With a twinkle in his eye, Oquendo says, “I like to joke with people running for office that if they don’t have their meetings here, they’re not going to get elected.”
This has been happening since the 1930s. Politicians and activists wanting to connect with San Bernardino’s West Side residents come here. Oquendo points to a wall of photos of family members and customers. “Did you see the picture of my grandma with Cesar Chavez?,” he asks. “He used to eat here.” The labor leader organized grape pickers nearby, befriended Oquendo’s grandmother, and held numerous meetings at Mitla’s, as well as just coming here to eat.
The Mitla Cafe has always been a place where ideas and action develop. Historian Mark Ocegueda, a San Bernardino native, says the city was strictly divided along racial lines. “The city restricted Mexicans to living on the West Side. There was school segregation. There was segregation in public theaters. In the workplace, at the Santa Fe Railroad, there were the Mexican restrooms and the white restrooms.” There was segregation at a public pool, at a park called Paris Hill. “Mexicans were only allowed to use it one day out of the week,” says Ocegueda, “the day before the pool was to be drained and cleaned.”
During this same time period, in the '30s and '40s, Mitla Cafe proprietor Salvador Rodriguez rallied the neighborhood’s strong business leaders. Former City Councilwoman Esther Estrada explains, “They had formed the Mexican Chamber of Commerce. They would go and meet at Mitla’s to discuss the politics of the community, so you’d see this line of leaders come in.”
They’d discuss political strategy but also plan neighborhood events for Cinco de Mayo and 16th of September. Estrada remembers, “On those days of fiesta they all came on their horses for a parade up Mount Vernon Avenue,” holding Mexican and American flags, wearing beautiful charro suits, with intricate embroidery and rows of buttons. “They were the movers and shakers of the community at that time.”
Led by the Mitla Cafe’s Don Salvador, these West Side residents created time and space to celebrate and recreate when many parts of the city were off-limits to Latinos. Take baseball, says historian Mark Ocegueda. “It was very common for Mex-Am baseball teams to just find a vacant lot within the barrio, clear the land and make a baseball diamond.”
Businesses often cobbled together the money to sponsor one player’s uniform and equipment and get the team on the field. Mitla Cafe had the resources to sponsor a whole team. Ocegueda continues, “People would come after church, outline the field with their cars, and honk if a ball was hit over the fence. There was music. There were drinks being sold. People would dress up and watch the baseball game because they couldn’t do this in other parts of the city. It would draw literally thousands of people.”
Ocegueda says that in the context of segregation, putting on charro parades and sponsoring baseball were political acts. The Mitla Cafe was building civic and racial pride. Esther Estrada says when she was younger, she might not have seen it that way.
“We’re from ‘60s and ‘70s. We were raised at a time when it was absolutely proper to hit the streets and advocate and show the government you weren’t in agreement. In ‘30s and ‘40s, maybe that wasn’t the case. For these people in leadership positions, they exercised their own leadership in way that was subtle, but they got things done, also. And one of those things was the desegregation of that swimming pool.”
Business, civic and church leaders who met at the Mitla Cafe to organize formed the Mexican American Defense Committee, and sued the city for access to that public pool. Mark Ocegueda explains, “1944, the decision went in favor of the Mexican American Defense Committee, and it desegregated public pools, parks, and recreation facilities for Mexican Americans in the city of San Bernardino.”
This served as precedent for the case that would desegregate schools in California, says Ocegueda, “and that in turn served as precedent for the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954.”
The late ‘40s and early ‘50s were vibrant days for the Mitla Cafe and for the neighborhood, says waitress Lucy Reyes, who started working here in 1951. Route 66 ran down Mount Vernon Avenue, and many locals held railroad, steel and Air Force jobs. “It was real lively, a lot of little businesses. We had a grocery store at the corner, two tortillerias. We had the theater Azteca,” which played Mexican movies starring Pedro Infante and Luis Aguilar. “It would get filled up on Friday and Saturday. Then up the street we had a bakery, pharmacy, cleaners. There was a man called Jimmy’s Carnitas, about three more restaurants. It was very lively.”
What happened next is a familiar story: Across the country, urban development nearly amputated once-vibrant African-American and immigrant neighborhoods.
Former councilwoman Estrada says residents saw a proposed new freeway as a sign of progress, as an opportunity to direct even more people to Mount Vernon Avenue and the West Side.
“Instead what they did was they designed the freeway with only exits to the east, towards downtown, away from the Hispanic community of San Bernardino.” On the West Side, the freeway got a sobering moniker. “It was our own Berlin wall,” says Estrada. “It shut us off from the downtown and brought the demise of our businesses on the West Side.”
Last year, westbound off-ramps were added in a freeway upgrade, but those old scars remain. Walk along Mount Vernon Avenue now and you’ll pass empty lots and vacant storefronts, and bars on the windows of existing businesses.
“You see the blight,” Mitla co-owner Steve Oquendo tells me, when I mention what I see. “You see the bars on the windows. I don’t see that when I come here because I’m from here. My 'hood, my barrio, it’s a beautiful place.”
He says, when he was a business major in college, he had all sorts of ideas about how to make Mitla’s kitchen more efficient, about how a new location could bring in more money. He’s relieved now that he, and his ancestors, made no radical changes. “There were a lot of roads that could have been taken by my grandmother and my grandfather that would have changed the history, and I’m glad it never did.”
I ask, does he ever get resentful that his family never saw dividends from inspiring Taco Bell? “Not at all,” he responds, quickly. “I wouldn’t change where we’re at for the world. I really wouldn’t. If we had gotten that big, I don’t think I’d have the sense of responsibility and pride that I have now. Our customers come here for that gut feeling, that soul feeling, that home feeling. It’s a meeting place. You can’t take that away.”
Maybe that attitude is key to Mitla’s survival: Four generations of owners kept the original menu, and stayed right here.
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