Story and slideshow by MARIA HERNANDEZ
A reckless 20-year-old. Lying inside a car carried away by a loud train. He couldn’t make a sound. Breathing was already dangerous. Standing up at the wrong moment meant the end of his adventure. Hours passed, and Manuel had nothing but himself in the darkness of that summer night. With nothing in mind but the American Dream, Manuel lay patiently in the car, waiting for the right moment.
This is the story of Manuel Valdez. A motivated entrepreneur who came to the United States with nothing but the clothes he had on, and his pockets full of dreams.
His Life in Mexico
Valdez lived his whole life in Zacatecas, Mexico. Raised in a big family of seven children, mother and father. They all lived together on a small ranch, living from selling what they grew on their farm. Valdez has a passion for horses, cars and farming, like most people in his family. However, Valdez was also passionate about adventure. He had finished high school and continued to pursue a technological degree in Mexico. But after graduating as a technologist in electricity, Valdez struggled to find a job. He knocked on many doors, only to find disappointment. Employers kept rejecting him because of “lack of experience.”
“Ironic. How did they expect me to gain experience when they wouldn’t let me work?” Valdez said.
It was a hot evening, and after so many rejections Valdez couldn’t stop thinking about his future. Ramiro, his best friend, made a surprise visit from the U.S. “Manuel, let’s go north,” he said. “Your life and the life of your loved ones will change.” This wasn’t the first time Valdez heard the so-called pláticas, or talks about America. But this time, the idea kept echoing in the back of his mind. Adventure’s flame had been turned on in Valdez, and nothing now could make it stop.
Crossing the Border
Full of courage and passion, Valdez decided to leave everything behind and come to the United States. Through contacts, Valdez found himself sneaking into a new car that was transported by a train into the United States.
First try. Caught.
“I went with Ramiro, and they caught us in Chihuahua trying to board the train to El Paso. They drove us on a truck to the opposite side of the city just to be mean,” Valdez said, laughing. “They really thought that was going to stop us from trying again. Silly immigration.”
Second try. Caught again.
Third time was the charm. The friends made it. After two days and one night in the train, they finally had arrived to Los Angeles.
New Adventure in Los Angeles
Valdez started working on a lime farm in Los Angeles. He worked long hours and earned 30 cents per box of limes. He would collect around 18 boxes per day. “Those hours were hell, man. I knew how to work the land, that was all I had been doing back home. But the pay was terrible there, and after all the fees they charged, I ended up with just enough to pay rent,” Valdez said.
Salt Lake City
Tired of strenuous hours of work, Valdez was ready to quit. Why was he struggling here when he could be comfortable at home? Wasn’t this the land of freedom and opportunity? In search of new adventures, Valdez moved to Salt Lake City, where some of his relatives lived. He started working in several restaurants, at least three jobs at a time. After work, he would also ride his bike every night to the Rose Park neighborhood on the west side of the city to take an English as a second-language class. And then he’d cycle home to the block of 400 West and Main Street to get ready for a new day.
Citizenship and New Challenges
Through his hard work, Valdez gained his citizenship through the amnesty decree. He could now not only pay taxes, but also enjoy their benefits. He could go back home and take presents to his nieces and nephews. He could finally live a life free of fear and uncertainty. This only inspired him to keep going, to work even harder and for longer hours. To save enough money to start building a stable life.
After several years of hardship and long work hours, Valdez learned English and made enough money to go visit his mother in Zacatecas several times. Some of his brothers followed him to the U.S., and life was almost stable.
A New Business Proposal
While in between jobs, Valdez met Susan Harris, a businesswoman who wanted to start a new business together. Harris saw Valdez’s potential and knew he was the guy she needed. Harris contacted Valdez and following this phone call, Valdez’s life changed.
After many discussions, Harris and Valdez started a Mexican restaurant. A very small shop in Cottonwood Heights, a neighborhood in southeast Salt Lake City. Valdez, with some of his brothers who were in Salt Lake too, created the recipes, decorated the place and did all the finances to start this new business. Little did they know that 23 years later, Lone Star Taqueria would be one of the most popular Mexican restaurants in Salt Lake Valley, with hundreds of customers desiring the family’s famous fresh fish tacos. Lone Star Taqueria was even featured on Diners, Drive-Ins, and Drives by Food Network, and has appeared in several magazines.
“I had heard wonders about this place, but I always thought it was overrated. What could you expect from a hole-in-the-wall place?” Lora said, one of Lone Star’s regular customers or amigos, how they are called by the employees. “However, when I did come, my world changed. Lone Star has the best Mexican food I’ve ever had, and I’m from California! It is authentic and always fresh. I come here at least three times a week, and they treat me like family!”
Testimony from a New Adventure
In 1994, the same year that Lone Star was opened, another adventure came into Valdez’s life: His son Antonio Valdez. “I grew up at Lone Star. My dad would pick me up from daycare, bring me to the restaurant and put me in a tomato box so I wouldn’t crawl away. I remember seeing my dad working so hard and still being there for me, and since then I have admired that man to death,” said Antonio, 23, who recently graduated from Utah State University and works as an internal auditor for Goldman Sachs Group Inc.
“It has all been worth it. I see my children being successful, and it feels good, you know. Laying down on that train, every lime I picked up in LA, every plate I washed in restaurants; every sacrifice was worth it,” said Valdez, when reminiscing about his life. “I’m glad I jumped on that train and waited in that car. Life is stable now, and I hope it continues to be.”