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Greatness Is Their Style : Family to Be Honored at White House Ceremony

June 19, 1988|MARY LOU FULTON | Times Staff Writer

It's the discipline that makes their family a success, Mario and Celia Jimenez say.

The discipline it takes to immigrate from Mexico and turn a tiny Whittier Boulevard taco stand in Pico Rivera into a thriving restaurant.

The discipline to raise five children, four of whom are in college.

The discipline to serve the community, and to instill in their children the need to do the same.

The Jimenez family of Pico Rivera will be honored at the White House for its accomplishments. The family has been selected by the American Family Society as one of six Great American Families. First Lady Nancy Reagan is scheduled to present the award Aug. 12.

'Like a Dream'

"It's like a dream," Mario Jimenez said. "One does these things from the heart, not because one expects to get something in return."

Mario, 46, and Celia, 45, met in Pico Rivera and were married four months later in September, 1964. With a smile, Celia says it was love at first sight. Mario is quick to fetch faded wedding photographs showing the couple on the steps of Los Angeles City Hall with their license.

They didn't have much money, and celebrated their wedding over hamburgers at Bob's Big Boy down the street from their church in Santa Monica.

"We were happy then and we're happy now," Celia said. "The money doesn't cleanse you."

Family Struggled

But back then, the 3-year-old Mario's Tacos was struggling. After they were married, Celia ran the business and Mario drove a truck for a moving company. Four years later, weary of being on the road and of being refused service in the South because he was Mexican, Mario quit and joined Celia at the business.

It was during those lean years, Celia said, when the value of discipline became evident.

"I would go shopping for the house every 15 days," she said. "If I wanted to cook something and it wasn't in the house, then I didn't cook it."

Mario said a certain amount of money was set aside each month for a planned expansion of the business and for their children's education. "I wouldn't touch that money for anything, no matter what happened," he said.

It was in the early 1970s that the Jimenezes organized their first community service project, donating about $500 for sporting equipment and a scholarship fund at the El Rancho Unified School District.

Projects Have Grown

Their projects have grown since then and have involved the children. In 1985, Mario and his youngest son, David, 20, drove a truckload of donated medical and dental equipment to clinics serving the poor in Pico Rivera's sister city, San Luis Potosi, Mexico.

Mario proudly shows a red binder full of letters of commendation from Mexican and American officials, praising his generosity. Mario plans another trip to San Luis Potosi this year. He said donated medical equipment already is filling the garage of his Whittier home.

Last Thanksgiving, the Jimenez family started what they plan to make an annual tradition: serving free turkey and trimmings at their restaurant. For years, police and other public servants working on holidays have stopped by Mario's Tacos for a free meal.

Earlier this year, the family held benefit car washes in the restaurant parking lot and collected $5,000 for a former employee's relatives after five of their children were killed in a Montebello house fire.

Mario and Celia say they get special pleasure out of granting individual favors--giving money to a high school student who could not afford to compete in an out-of-state wrestling tournament; hiring a disadvantaged teen-ager unable to find work elsewhere

"We're not a company, it's just us, so we can do that," Celia said during an interview at the new Mario's Tacos, a spacious, sunny restaurant that opened in 1982 two blocks from the old taco stand.

As a reminder of the old days, Mario had a painter complete a four-panel work showing the old taco stand, the new restaurant, a church steeple in Mario's hometown and cliff divers in Acapulco.

Seated at a walnut-topped table beneath that painting, Mario and Celia speak proudly of their family. Daughters Mary, 22, and Martha, 18, and sons Mario Jr., 21, and David, 20, are in college. Norma, 17, is a high school senior.

"Keeping our family together and providing an education for the children has been the most important thing," Mario said.

The Jimenez family was a finalist for National Hispanic Family of the Year in 1987, and was nominated for the Great American Family award through that organization.

The families selected by the American Family Society include single parents, foster parents and those of diverse ethnic groups, said K. Wayne Scott, the society's president.

The awards are based on how well families nurture individual growth, family teamwork and love, and friendship and service to other people, Scott said.

"It's a program to highlight the importance of contributions that strong, solid families are making to the quality of life in the community," Scott said.

The Jimenez family is the second Latino family to be selected since the awards program started in 1982. The American Family Society pays for the winning family's trip to Washington, where Mrs. Reagan will present the members with a porcelain plaque.

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