Scott Ball / Rivard Report
Rosendo Gutierrez walked into Campos Los Dos Hermanos, a bustling Mexican restaurant on the West Side, on a Wednesday morning around 9 a.m. He was greeted immediately with boisterous hellos.
Gutierrez made his way up and down a long table of diners, meeting each person with a handshake or pat on the back. He had driven 30 minutes to get to the restaurant from his home near Rolling Oaks Mall in Northeast San Antonio.
With the warm reception from the group of 45 men seated at tables pushed together, onlookers might think this was a special occasion. For Gutierrez and his dining companions, this was just another Wednesday morning.
Each week, a similar gathering takes place at a different restaurant somewhere within the Edgewood Independent School District boundaries. Gutierrez and his fellow diners are members of Edgewood District Veterans, a nonprofit that raises money for scholarships and resources for students in Edgewood ISD.
On Wednesday mornings, the social arm of Edgewood District Veterans, the ROMEOs – retired old men eating out – gather to reminisce about their school days and catch up on more recent events. They talk about their aches and pains and share family news.
“We go to 11 different restaurants and rotate around,” Gutierrez said. “Guys call and set up appointments with each restaurant and we have to make sure they can accommodate all of us.
“I don’t get a chance to talk to everyone because of how many there are, but if you don’t catch up with someone, you can talk to them the following week.”
The ROMEOs, whose membership also includes women, are a cohesive group, wearing ball caps with military emblems, dog tags, and T-shirts from Edgewood ISD events. Each week, there’s between 40 and 60 members who attend, most of whom graduated from the school district and served in the military.
(The nonprofit allows non-Edgewood graduates and non-veterans to join as associate members. Some of those associate members attend ROMEO breakfasts.)
The majority of ROMEOs served in the Vietnam War, but the group is always looking to recruit younger veterans to keep the tradition and nonprofit alive, said Gutierrez, who serves as president of Edgewood District Veterans.
Juan Castillo, a former classmate of Gutierrez from Edgewood High School, is a regular ROMEO. He arrives early in the morning for the gathering and orders coffee and some breakfast tacos, sitting next to his younger brother, James Gonzalez, who is also a frequent Wednesday morning diner.
Mugs and iced tea cups litter the table next to plates of tortillas and beans. Castillo chats with his fellow ROMEOs about the walkouts that took place in 1968 when students of the now shuttered Edgewood High School decided to protest inequitable education systems for Latino students.
He tells his friends, several of whom graduated in different classes or attended one of the district’s other two high schools, Memorial or Kennedy, that he didn’t participate in the walkouts to seek any big systematic change. He says he simply left campus to get out of going to class, an admission that elicits some laughs from his fellow diners.
The group also talks about their shared background in the military. There’s always some good natured ribbing about the different branches under which each ROMEO enlisted.
Someone remarks that the Marine Corps is just a department of the Navy, to which Castillo responds that it is indeed the “men’s department.” He enlisted with the Marines after graduating from Edgewood High School in 1968.
Beyond the jokes, there’s a kinship that’s founded on shared experiences from the Vietnam War.
Several of the ROMEOs feel their service in the military was unappreciated. Castillo remembers people advising him to not wear his uniform in public because of how controversial the war had become.
“Vietnam vets were not recognized, they were looked upon with some shame,” he said as fellow ROMEOs nodded. “Amongst us, we know we did our part. … I feel strongly that because of us, the Gulf War, Afghanistan, Iraq vets are now receiving a lot of respect and recognition.”
On Wednesday, Castillo sits near Audencio Diaz, a fellow Marine and Edgewood High School alumnus who graduated two years after Castillo, and David Rodriguez, who attended Fox Tech High School and joined the military in 1965.
To them, the group is less a regular dining date and more a community.
The bonds the three and the other ROMEOs share aren’t confined to whatever restaurant they’ve chosen for breakfast. Earlier this year, many of the ROMEOs visited “The Wall That Heals,” a replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, when it came to the Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery. The group also gets together for Edgewood’s homecoming football game between Memorial and Kennedy high schools.
(Castillo said he goes to tell the other fans that if Edgewood High School were playing, it would be the sure winner.)
Many of the ROMEOs no longer reside in the Edgewood area. Some travel to breakfast from even farther away than Gutierrez, coming from Seguin or Medina Lake. But the ROMEOs say distance is no barrier to their commitment to their community and one another.
“The majority of us don’t live here now, but our hearts are still here,” Castillo said. “We want to be able to give back, and our hearts beat for the community.”