Story by Brian Sanders and Michelle De Leon
Photos by Belle Jiao
There is a burned-out building near 25th Street and Bosque Boulevard. Graffiti and black scorch marks cover its three standing walls, while broken boards lay scattered on the ground.
But just next door is a building painted a bright shade of yellow – it contrasts the gloom next door.
It’s a Mexican ice cream parlor – or a paleteria. Inside, colorful posters of fruit and ice cream cones line the walls. Large freezers display homemade ice cream bars, buckets of ice cream and sweetened Mexican drinks called aguas frescas. Coming in sweet and fruity flavors, like cantoloupe, these drinks are a staple in Mexico’s paleterias.
This paleteria in Waco, La Nueva Michoacana, is managed by Lourdes Osequera and her husband Oscar.
Every morning they arrive at 9:30 to cut fruit and prepare the popular aguas frescas before customers start arriving. Lourdes always seems to be smiling, happy to serve ice cream and to have her daughter Sarah there with her.
Four-year-old Sarah, a miniature of Lourdes, comes to work with her parents and can sometimes be seen sitting and coloring at a table in the back. Just like her father, her childhood is becoming intertwined with the tradition of the paleterias.
Growing up in Mixhoacana, Mexico, Oscar spent much of his youth in Michoacana’s many paleterias. His grandfather, father, uncles, brothers and cousins all work in paleterias and he has carried on their tradition. Emigrating from Mexico to California, the Osequeras found the Sunshine Coast not as bright as they had hoped.
“It was very, very expensive and there was traffic and pollution. It was hard to find someone to say hi to,” Lourdes said.
Then one of Oscar’s uncles told him about Waco, Texas.
Tired and disappointed with California, they visited and found themselves comfortable in this city wedged between Dallas and Austin.
“When we came here, I liked it a lot because the people are nicer and are friendly, even if they don’t know you,” Lourdes said.
A year and half later, the Osequeras spend their days serving ice cream and cups of fruit to eager customers. At La Nueva Michoacana, business starts picking up around 6 p.m. as work days end for others.
Just down the road, in a spirit similar to La Nueva Michoacana, Luis Trego’s business is picking up, too.
Taco trucks like Luis’ are a common sight in many Texas towns. Located in an empty parking lot, his taco truck – Las Francas – caters mainly to the many working Hispanics in the area. Painted a shade of off-white and its wheels chained together, Las Francas has been open for nearly four years and is the sole source of income for Trego, his two young boys and his wife.
The temperature inside of Trego’s taco truck is well above the 90 degrees outside. Situated on one side of the trailer, a large stove is reserved for cooking the taco meat. Next to it, a small counter space is used to prepare the tacos and burritos.
The truck’s interior walls are lined with white tiles and a small television tuned to a Spanish station sits in the corner. One worker takes orders while the other two cook the food, all prepared to Trego’s standards.
Many Hispanic workers in the area come here to buy the $1 tacos on their lunch breaks or on their way home. The small tacos, wrapped in foil and served with a lime wedge and a small cup of sauce, are something with which the workers are familiar with – it is a meal often eaten back home in Mexico.
Trego has been cooking for the past 15 years. His mother owned a restaurant in San Luis and taught him everything that he knows about cooking. When he moved to Texas 10 years ago, he put his skills to use and began working in various taco trucks and restaurants until he saved up enough money to buy his own truck and start his own business.
Now Trego dreams of bigger and better things. With every dollar taco he sells, he hopes to save enough money to open his own Mexican restaurant in Waco.
“I’d rather open an actual restaurant where people can come sit down,” Trego said.
He plans to bring great-tasting Mexican food to Waco, saying his food is “more authentic than local Mexican restaurants.”
A few blocks away, Veronica Garcia has already achieved what Trego has only dreamed about.
“I decided to open my own restaurant, even if it was little,” Garcia said.
She owns Veronica’s, a restaurant on Franklin Avenue. Nestled between buildings, it’s easy to drive by Veronica’s and not even notice it. Inside, the dining area is small with a red-and-white checkered floor reminiscent of classic diners. The affordable menu boasts traditional Mexican food and some of the best tortas in Waco. Like Luis and the Osequeras, Garcia came to Waco and began working in the restaurant business.
After hearing of America’s prosperity and numerous job opportunities from her sisters, Garcia moved from San Luis, Mexico, to Texas with her young children in 1983. During her first years in Waco, she worked at various restaurants in the area to provide for her family, but it wasn’t until 1997 that she had an opportunity to open her own.
Originally on 18th Street, Veronica’s has built a loyal following over the years – so loyal of a following that when Garcia received an offer to buy her restaurant, which she refused, one of the conditions was that she not open another for fear that her customers would follow her.
With three people cooking in the kitchen and one serving customers, Veronica’s is open until 3 p.m. on weekdays. On the weekends, the restaurant is in full swing throughout the day.
“Everybody comes here to eat,” Garcia said with a smile.
As much as she loves owning her restaurant, Garcia has continued to toy with the idea of selling it.
“Sometimes I think about selling it because I don’t want any more problems and I don’t want to work anymore, but I also want to work until God stops me,” Garcia said.
And so she continues to run Veronica’s. The restaurant is busy at lunchtime and Garcia is proud of its success over the years.
“The principal thing is to work and to move ahead. I’ve never asked for help from the government or anything. I’ve been working hard and have never done things that aren’t right.”