Manuel Ceniceros, who owns a hideaway Mexican restaurant in Pasadena, has been carrying on an affair of the heart that can be traced back to when he was a younger, poorer, sicker man.
It began in March when he bought everything that remained from the World's Largest Rummage Sale, the final one given by the Pasadena Auxiliary to Boys Republic.
He just wanted toys and clothes that would be distributed to little children by a mission in Tijuana that serves the needy, he said. But when he paid $400 for his purchases, auxiliary members were so taken with the man and his good intentions that they gave him everything in the place--several truckloads--for the same price.
"We figure that what goes around comes around, so we feel good about giving leftover merchandise away when we know it will help people," said Marjorie Rees, president of the auxiliary that held Boys Republic rummage sales for 71 years before giving up this year in favor of running a year-round thrift shop.
So there was Ceniceros, a 37-year-old former heart patient, faced with truckloads of goods that he would haul south of the border, one load at a time, for months. And there was his heart going out to the kids who live at Boys Republic who helped him with the loading and hauling to the temporary storage space he rented.
Boys Republic is a home and school in Chino for 148 teen-age boys, most of whom are wards of Juvenile Court and many of whom are victims of neglect and abuse by their families.
Ceniceros is the 37-year-old owner of Super Antojitos at 40 N. Mentor Ave. It is on a one-way street that can be approached only from Union, another one-way street. Although it is small, inaccessible and inconspicuous and squeezed between other businesses that compete for limited parking space, it is a popular hangout for Caltech students and other aficionados of Mexican gastronomy.
Moved by the Boys Republic kids' warmheartedness and touched by the sadness in their lives, Ceniceros invited them all to dinner as his guests. Since his place is too small to hold 148 at once, they came in groups of 20 or so for several weekends, feasting on burritos that weighed an estimated two pounds each, all the chips, salsa and soft drinks they could consume, and churros for dessert.
Then they gave Ceniceros their hearts, in the form of a plaque they made, thanking him for his generosity.
"See? Everything you give, you get back," said the surprised and delighted Ceniceros. "You can't imagine how proud I feel."
Max Scott, executive director of Boys Republic, said what Ceniceros did was unique in the home's history.
"These kids tend to think nobody is interested in them. It's overwhelming to them to see a person do something like this for nothing," Scott said. "Nice things are done for them, but never on such a large scale. One thing you have to keep in mind is these kids have bottomless pits for stomachs."
Ceniceros said the startling realization that the more he gave the more he would receive came two years ago when he feared his heart would fail, leaving his wife, Maria, alone with their four little boys.
The oldest of nine children in a poor family that moved to the United States from Juarez when he was 13, Ceniceros had suffered since birth from an irregular heartbeat that worsened despite a variety of medical treatments.
He got through high school and one year at East Los Angeles College, married and learned the restaurant business from Maria's father, Juan Salazar. He bought Super Antojitos seven years ago.
And then, Ceniceros said, the miracles began the day two years ago when a woman named Petra de Rivera, who identified herself as a spiritual healer, came into his restaurant and invited him to her tiny Tijuana mission, Arca de la Alianza. There she performed what Ceniceros said was a spiritual healing of his ailing heart.
"In a matter of a month I could feel the difference physically," he said. "Now I think I'm well. It is very nice to feel good. What amazes me is that she asked for nothing in return--she just said she was here to help and she invited me to do the same thing.
"There's no way I can repay her. I keep receiving more and more."
Business has since doubled in his Pasadena restaurant, he said. He opened another restaurant in Sylmar and has plans for a third in San Diego County.
So now, Ceniceros said, he is doing what comes naturally with good health. That includes buying and shipping loads of goods for Arca de la Alianza to distribute to the poor, inviting the Boys Republic kids and their 20 supervisors for a free dinner, helping the downtrodden who come to him, and acting on the belief that everyone deserves another chance.
"When I think of boys not doing too good, I think of what could happen to mine," Ceniceros said. "It makes me feel good to do something for them, so that maybe they can develop some trust.
"See what happens? I open my heart to them and they open their hearts to me. It doesn't seem to end."