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A Bright Future Bought With Hard Work and Lots of Tacos

May 30, 2003|Steve Lopez

I am a man of simple pleasures, one of which is driving around Southern California with the windows down, searching for restaurants that throw off the right scent.

Several years ago, on Pico just east of Bundy in West L.A., I swerved to a stop after passing the Talpa. I may not know much, but I know how a proper Mexican restaurant is supposed to smell from the street, and this one had the right look, too. Very little money had been sunk into the exterior design.

Inside, the joint was just as unpretentious. Formica table tops, artificial plants, a mural of rural Mexico.

I headed for the bar and ordered a fat burrito and a cold beer from a man named Andres Martinez.

The Dodgers were on TV, a warm summer breeze was blowing in through the back alley, and I felt like a dog having its belly scratched.

I don't get to Talpa often enough. But in bits and pieces for several years, usually during Dodger games, Andres has been telling me a story. It began when I told him I had lived in Philadelphia.

"Oh," Andres said. "My daughter is in Philadelphia. She's in medical school."

He was obviously a proud papa, but his modesty kept him from gloating.

Over time, I picked up on the fact that he and his wife, Guillermina, were both working at Talpa to keep up with the cost of tuition.

On another visit, Andres, who has a sixth-grade education, told me his daughter was just about done with law school at Loyola.

"I thought she was going to be a doctor," I said.

"That's the other daughter," Andres told me. "This one's going to be a lawyer."

He and his wife, who didn't finish high school, were paying for that, too, on the proceeds from this little hole-in-the-wall restaurant. A doctor and a lawyer, I thought. That's a lot of tacos.

"At $1.95 a taco?" Andres said. "Yes, that's a lot of tacos."

Last week, with the Dodgers on TV and summer finally beginning to come around, I went back to Talpa.

Andres was busy at the bar, so I talked to Guillermina first. She and her two sisters -- Nelly and Evie -- have run Talpa with Andres for 30 years.

Was it true, I asked Guillermina, that she and Andres had already paid off all the loans for law school and medical school?

Yes, she said. As soon as the girls were born, they started putting away $10 a week, upping the ante as business improved.

"When they were both in college," she said, "Andres and I worked seven days a week for five straight years."

I don't have to tell you why. It's the familiar story of immigrants wanting a better life for their children.

Andres, who was born in Jalisco, Mexico, worked at Casa Escobar on Pico as a young man. In 1963, he used to stop by another Pico Boulevard restaurant, called Reboso, before work and buy a cup of coffee. He had a crush on the waitress.

"Coffee was 15 cents, and he always left a dollar," says Guillermina, who was from Zacatecas, Mexico.

It took Andres two months of big tips to get up the nerve to ask her out. They went to see "Cleopatra" on their first date and got married two years later, saving up to buy the Talpa at about the time Maritza and Cynthia were born.

The girls both went to St. Joan of Arc, followed by Notre Dame Academy, with Maritza going to UCLA as an undergrad and Cynthia to Georgetown.

"We believed always in education," says Andres. "We believed that if you don't have it, you don't have a chance in this country."

The girls were often at the restaurant, but their parents wouldn't let them work there. They told them their only job was to pay attention in school.

"I wasn't allowed to come home with Bs," says Maritza, 32, an ob-gyn in her last year of residency at Abington Memorial Hospital near Philadelphia. "A-minuses were OK, but they weren't really satisfied. They wanted us to never suffer or struggle like they did when they first came to this country."

Cynthia, 30, works for a big law firm in downtown Los Angeles.

"We wouldn't be where we are without them," she said. "It's as simple as that."

Andres said he and his wife finally paid off the student loans a few years ago.

"It feels very good to make that last payment," he said.

Going to his daughters' graduations felt even better.

"What happened to my kids is a real big thing," he said. "When I went to Philadelphia for my first daughter's graduation, and they announced her name, I cried. I was just a little guy from a small town in Mexico, San Gaspar de Los Reyes, Jalisco."

Andres is 65 now, and with all the bills paid, I wondered if he and Guillermina would finally give themselves a break and sell the Talpa.

Maybe, he said, because although he loves his family of regular customers, 30 years is a long hustle.

But on the other hand, there's no rush to retire. Cynthia has a child now, Andres said, and he and Guillermina are expecting big things for little Lucia, who is 8 months old.

"We've started a college fund for her," he said.


Steve Lopez writes Sunday, Wednesday and Friday. E-mail is

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