- Associated Press - Monday, September 5, 2016

SAN ANTONIO (AP) - The walls of San Antonio’s iconic Mi Tierra Cafe & Bakery are cemented by the mortar of sacrifice, trust and an old-world work ethic that never dies.

The glow of candlelit, home-style altars for past workers and Cortez family members greets customers at the entrance, symbolic of the common refrain heard from longtime employees: Mi Tierra is their second home. It all started in 1941, when Pedro Cortez and his wife, Cruz, bought a little three-table cafe at the San Antonio farmers market. Today, Mi Tierra seats 650 people in a vast space that has seen countless quinceaneras and graduations celebrated, much political campaigning and a little skullduggery, visiting celebrities galore and an endless stream of tourists from around the world.

Day after day, it’s the employees who make the difference.

Melchor Martinez, for one, has 38 years with the company, working nights for 20 years at the eatery that provided him a path to citizenship. Luz Arrendondo, called “La Mama de Bakery,” renewed a faltering faith with help from her employers as she put in years of work. And Elida Rodriguez, “La Amiga,” labored at two shifts for five years to help buy her family’s home and has even included the cafe and panaderia in plans for her final days.

As La Familia Cortez Restaurants celebrates its 75th year in business, Chief Operating Officer Pete Cortez, the founder’s grandson, credits the company’s success to those three and all the 600 other team members who have given their lives to Mi Tierra and its three sister restaurants.

“They are the heroes of what we do, and we’re so proud of them,” Cortez, 51, told the San Antonio Express-News (https://bit.ly/2bSzHv3). “I never forget they walk out of their houses to come and serve the community. And we want to honor their families for allowing their loved ones to be with us. We realize that’s very special in our company.”

In the restaurant that never closes, where the joyful Christmas lights are on year-round, the standards that founder Pedro Cortez set are carried on by his family and the restaurant’s loyal employees.

Among the restaurant’s legends is Melchor Martinez, nicknamed “The Roadrunner.” The morning manager is a blur as he pitches in to keep the work flow going, expertly balancing a tray of food as he slips between co-workers beneath glittery piñatas, past festively painted murals and troubadours serenading guests.

When Pedro Cortez hired the native of Mexico, the job became his priority. Martinez is so proud of his work, he wore his Mi Tierra apron on days off when visiting his children at school for lunch.

During his years, he’s worked every position, including busboy, bartender, tortilla maker, dishwasher and decorator. He said he admired Cortez, who was very strict but always looked out for his workers.

“He took time for his employees,” said Martinez, 61, “to acknowledge them.”

He credited Cortez’s son David Cortez for providing citizenship classes Martinez attended with more than 50 people at Pico de Gallo and for Martinez’s becoming an American citizen in 1996.

“I felt free when I became a United States citizen,” he said.

Fifteen years ago, Luz Arrendondo started as a busgirl. Though her title is bakery lead, she said she’s just a member of the team.

“This is my Cinderella story, my American dream,” she said. “I put my heart in my work.”

She worked for five years until she had to stop because of a high-risk pregnancy. After she was gone for three years, Jorge Cortez, father of Pete Cortez, called her to come back. She readily returned.

The only thing that matches her pride for her job are her three children; her oldest son and daughter were valedictorians of their high school classes. But there was a time when adversity shook her faith.

When Pete Cortez heard she was down, he called her to his office. There was legal trouble with her daughter, and she thought God was punishing her. He arranged for her to meet an attorney who helped clear her daughter’s name.

Cortez told Arrendondo it was not a time to run from God, but back to God. Then he said she needed to go to church on Sunday and ask for forgiveness. With her daughter back on track to getting her university degree, the daughter has pledged to present that degree to the Cortez family for their support.

Elida Rodriguez, a server for 35 years, said she was destined to work at the cafe. In 1979, Rodriguez was visiting San Antonio with her sister and children from Houston, and on the way to a carnival, she stopped at the cafe, attracted by the ambience and possibility of making a living for her family.

“One day I’m going to work here,” she recalled thinking to herself.

Eight months later, she moved to San Antonio, and her neighbor, chef Raul Salazar’s brother, Modesto, helped her get hired at the cafe. She went from sweeping floors to washing pots, slicing ham to her current job serving customers.

“Working at Mi Tierra has been a blessing for me,” said Rodriguez, 68. “I really appreciate the Cortez family. There are no words to describe my appreciation. I will do my best for my customers to be happy with my service.”

Like her co-workers, she doesn’t plan to stop working anytime soon. But if she takes her last breath while working, Rodriguez has one last tribute she wants to pay her workplace: She has asked that her funeral procession pass by Mi Tierra.


Information from: San Antonio Express-News, https://www.mysanantonio.com

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