I’ve lived in Riverside, and I’ve owned Tio’s Tacos here for over 25 years now. Growing up, I lived in a small town in northern Michoacán Mexico called Sahuayo. I loved the culture of my town, but I dreamed of escaping the poverty around me to the United States. I was a rambunctious child at school and it would get me into trouble, until I had to drop out in the third grade. I was surrounded by poverty, but I was a child, so I found ways to make the best of it. That’s when I started making art. I took the garbage from the streets and neighborhoods around me, and I used my imagination, and I started sculpting.
I came to the U.S. when I was 16, and I started by selling oranges along the freeways. I would collect things from the side of the road, bottles and cans and anything that looked interesting. After that I had a hotdog cart, and then I got a job as a cook and I did that for five years until I was able to buy the place, which you now know as Tio’s Tacos. I had always wanted to run a restaurant, and I’d always imagined it would be unique. Just making good food wasn’t enough. I wanted to bring something besides food to my customers, and I wanted the whole experience to stand out. Riverside is a very art-friendly community, so it made sense to bring my own creativity into the neighborhood through the restaurant.
The food and the art serve the same purpose. They bring other families here, from other counties and other parts of California, to sit and eat and start a conversation, together. I’m sharing my own community, the recipes and the art and the culture of my hometown, Sahuayo. The food gives me a connection to the people who come here, and sharing the experience connects them to one another. I choose to work with found objects, and to recycle what would otherwise be garbage, because I want the people who come to the restaurant to leave feeling inspired. Anything in our lives that we don’t need, or that we aren’t satisfied with, can become something better. That leaves the world around us a better place, for our neighbors and for future generations. I’m proud to say that my daughter Maiten, my youngest child, is taking an interest in art. She works with me on some of the pieces and also makes her own artwork.
Some of the pieces I’m especially proud of are my Day of the Dead pieces. I have a cowboy and also a bicycle rider. These have been displayed at museums and as part of cultural exhibitions around the Inland Empire. I also have a funny piece up on the roof of a lawnmower and a man who is driving the lawnmower and flying through the air. That’s me!
That’s my lawnmower that I used to use when I worked as a gardener for a while. One day I reached in to fix something and I didn’t realize it was turned on, and in an instant it chopped off the tops of my fingers. So, you know, I had to keep that lawnmower as a reminder. Sometimes Maiten will paint the skin on the tops of those fingers to look like painted fingernails!
People leave the restaurant full of ideas and excited to make the most of what they have, and that attitude has been central to my success. If it helps these people achieve their dreams, or if it just fills their lives with more art, then I’ve done what I wanted to do with this restaurant.
Ever since I came to this neighborhood in the 1990s, I’ve made an effort to communicate with my neighbors, especially other business owners. When I came here, there was a lot of prostitution and drugs. It was a scary area. But the business owners in the area all came together and reported any crime we saw to the police, and we stood together to make it clear that sort of thing isn’t welcome in our neighborhood. It’s important that local businesses stand up for their communities, their customers and neighbors, since those businesses are where community really happens. I have a good partnership with the other restaurants around here, like the Taco Station and Mario’s Place.
We make sure to recommend one another’s shops to people passing through town, or to people staying at one of the nearby hotels. I also make an effort to invite new business owners to come here for dinner, so we establish that communication from the beginning. My family lives here, so I try to make everything in the neighborhood better for them. I’ve been here for 25 years, and I’ve spent the whole time trying to make this food the healthiest I can, because my family eats this food.
I hope my restaurant and my family’s story leaves a legacy for the young people here. The teenagers here need to know how to set goals, and not get distracted from them by street problems or the other challenges they face. I want this community I’ve helped build to continue for generations. And the youth here today are lucky. My wife and I moved here without any education, and barely knowing any English. There weren’t resources here to help people like us in the ‘90s, but we took what we had then, and made it into what you see now. Young people today have advantages, there are programs to help them, and they need to take advantage of that.
We’ve been here for 25 years, and we’ve had some rough months, but we’ve built this restaurant and now my neighbors and my children get to be a part of my culture. If I did all of this without any studies and without much money, anyone can do this. I want to write a book someday to tell the young people in my neighborhood that they can do anything. Never be ashamed because you don’t know something, or because you don’t have much. You only get anywhere by facing the hardships of life, making the most of what you have around you, and taking care of the people you share a community with.