Scott Ball / Rivard Report
This year, La Familia Cortez Restaurants, which owns the iconic San Antonio restaurant, Mi Tierra Café & Bakery, turns 75 years old, and even now, beneath the technicolor Christmas lights and papeles picados strung across the eatery’s ceiling, three generations of la familia Cortez are preserving and growing their legacy established by the family patriarch, the late Pedro Cortez.
Over the years, Mi Tierra, which also is a panadería, and cantina in the heart of San Antonio’s historic El Mercado – or Market Square – has become a downtown Tex-Mex staple for tourists, locals, and visiting celebrities alike, drawing families to celebrate birthdays, mourn the death of a loved one, or have their weekly Sunday dinner in a place that feels almost as familiar and warm as abuelita‘s.
But the 24-hour landmark that has grown from a one dining room establishment to one that can seat up to 600 guests is more than just enchiladas verdes and crispy flautas. Es una experiencia, from the decorations to the mariachi strolling through the dining room to the loyal and long-serving wait staff, who take pride in treating each customer como familia.
At the end of the day, even after 75 years, familia remains one of the key values of the Cortez clan, and that extends to the more than 550 employees who serve Mi Tierra and its customers each day. Some, such as Chef Raúl Salazar, have been there for more than 40 years.
The family’s other core values and beliefs as illustrated by Pedro and his children are printed for every employee on a yellow, pocket-sized pamphlet and are passed on from one generation to the next as the restaurant transitions into new leadership in a rapidly changing and growing San Antonio.
“We’re trying to make sure that we safely and respectfully make that transition and that it’s done in such a way where we’re still honoring our mission statement,” said Pete Cortez, Pedro’s oldest grandchild and La Familia Cortez Restaurants’ chief operating officer. “I think in doing that, we’re going to be able to continue to grow.”
Walking through the restaurant today, it would be difficult for the Cortez family – and their restaurant familia – to forget Pedro and their Mexican-American culture. The curated atmosphere is both a sensory and nostalgic experience, one that pays tribute to those who came before us and celebrates their lives and hard work that helped make Mi Tierra and the city what they are today.
Upon entering the restaurant, one is immediately greeted by an elaborate altar, bearing Pedro’s photo along with many other Cortez family members, both blood-related and those bound to them by time. Walking into the panadería portion of the restaurant at the front brings happiness and feelings of celebration, and the rest of the restaurant – with its year-round Christmas lights, mural of prominent local Latino leaders, and various other family and community photos – is a reminder to honor one’s Chicano roots.
Deborah Cortez, a self-taught artist and one of Pedro’s granddaughters who works primarily at Restaurante Pico de Gallo, another Cortez family establishment two blocks west of Mi Tierra, said the seemingly random décor and Mexican folk art at Mi Tierra is curated, mostly by her and her father, Jorge, one of Pedro’s five children.
Some of the small, tin juice cans with patterns cut into them, lights put inside, and strung amid the papel picado in the main dining room are the original ones made decades ago by the family’s accountant, Pepe Villagomez, a Mexico-native.
“The whole thing is this big, ol’ jewelry box,” said Deborah, citing Jorge. “This space is very large and has to make an impact (on customers). The decoration … is something that obviously has become iconic to our corporation. It’s (meant) to create an embrace, to create a setting that hopefully makes you feel good and elicits your feelings, and sometimes it’s a memory – sometimes it’s a memory that makes you feel things.”
For the Cortez family, that memory is one of their patriarch’s journey from Guadalajara to San Antonio during the Great Depression, where he later met his wife and now family matriarch – Cruz, who recently turned 95 years old.
Cariño Cortez, established chef and one of Pedro’s granddaughters who helped open the family’s newest restaurant Viva Villa Taquería, credits Cruz with showing her and the other women in the family how to hold their own in a company full of men.
“In a lot of Hispanic families, there’s usually a matriarch,” she said. “Even though there’s always been a lot of men working here, for the longest time they deferred to my grandmother … Her demeanor is a very strong woman who knows what she wants and she’s leading a whole (group) of people, whether it’s employees or family.”
In 1941, with just $150, a collection of family recipes, and no formal cooking training, Pedro and Cruz opened their first restaurant, the three-table Jamaica No. 5 café, and 10 years later they purchased a former Japanese restaurant en El Mercado, which would become Mi Tierra. The name was inspired by Mexican Revolution leader Emiliano Zapata’s famous phrase, “La Tierra es para quien la trabaja – The land belongs to those who work it.”
El Mercado also reminded Pedro of the vibrant culture at his home in Guadalajara.
“My father, as a teen, grew up near the market (in Guadalajara),” Jorge, who is still very involved with Mi Tierra and the local community today, said in Spanish. As a child, Jorge, too, remembers spending much of his time in the mezcla of cultures that was San Antonio’s mercado, with the Mexican culture as the dominant one. “(El Mercado) has always been ‘Little Mexico’ – so you’d smell the food, the vegetables, watch (the people) walk by. It was beautiful, like a movie.”
During its early days, the restaurant provided many meals for the early rising campesinos and factory workers and those who would get off work or leave the bars late at night. The food, a mix of Tex-Mex and traditional Mexican dishes, has continued to evolve over the years while still maintaining the original recipes for authenticity.
Decades ago, El Mercado was growing and changing quickly, but Mi Tierra surmounted difficulties brought about by the area’s recession after the produce brokers moved to a market on West Zarzamora Street and urban renewal, proponents of which wanted to tear down and reconstruct El Mercado.
Determined to preserve the vital cultural area for the Latino community, Pedro and Cruz bought an entire block of land surrounding Mi Tierra and would soon after become prominent advocates for El Mercado, working diligently with (and sometimes against) the City of San Antonio and other groups to ensure El Mercado‘s – and Mi Tierra’s – longterm success.
The area has since been designated as the Zona Cultural, and the remaining generations of Cortezes possess Pedro’s passion for civic engagement and determination to maintain “the last frontier of the Mexican way of life in San Antonio,” as Pedro coined it.
“He was not ashamed to roll up his sleeves and get to work, and that’s what he taught us,” said Michael Cortez, one of Pedro’s grandsons who spearheads the restaurant’s PR and marketing efforts and serves on the San Pedro Creek Improvements Project subcommittee. “But at the same time, he taught us also to put on your suit and go sit in a meeting and fight for what is right for your community – sit on a board and make sure that what you need for a bond or El Mercado, that you get it.
“I would not have gotten (that trait) if I wasn’t born into this family.”
Michael, Jorge, and their family are continuing to lead the charge to enhance the Zona Cultural to bring Pedro’s dream of a flourishing mercado – just like in Mexico – and cultural space that the Latino community can learn from and be proud of to fruition. This year, la familia Cortez will host El Grito de Dolores, an annual event hosted by the Mexican Consulate in honor of Día de la Independencia de México.
The free celebration, which will feature music, dancing, and other entertainment, will take place Thursday, Sept. 15 starting at 6:30 p.m. outside Mi Tierra in El Mercado. El Grito ceremony, officiated by Consul General Hector Velasco Monroy of the Mexican Consulate, will begin at 9 p.m.
As the years have passed, la familia Cortez has become synonymous with good food and genuine cariño – or affection – that most Latino families in San Antonio have grown up with. While each of their restaurants are some of the most popular in the city, their humility is inspiring.
“It’s not that we’re fancy or expensive – people from all walks of life walk in here, celebrities, (everyday) residents,” said David Cortez, one of Pedro’s sons who is still active in the business. “You still see very well dressed people here and then you see people in work clothes. We’ve been very blessed that people continue coming.”
Pete said that the family is working on “building infrastructure to sustain growth.” He hopes that later down the road, there will be more Cortez family restaurants around San Antonio and the surrounding areas.
Ask any of the numerous Cortezes who work either at Mi Tierra or one of the family’s other restaurants – La Margarita Restaurant & Oyster Bar, which is situated right next to Mi Tierra, Pico de Gallo, or Viva Villa – and they all have fond memories of sitting in the main room of Mi Tierra as children, eating breakfast before school or, for the older generations, just simply spending time with Pedro on the job. Every person interviewed by the Rivard Report recalled how Pedro dug out the restaurant’s basement himself for more storage. It still functions today as the restaurant’s commissary and butcher shop.
Pedro never obligated any of the family members to get involved in the family business, Pete said, but growing up around it and seeing the positive impact Mi Tierra has had on customers, employees, and the community made it an easy decision. Most of the family has been working in the restaurant since they were in elementary school.
Mi Tierra is perhaps one of the only major restaurants in the city that has employed some of the same people – and their family members – for more than 40 years in some cases.
“(Supporting our employees) is at the heart of what makes our company special,” Pete said. “It’s because of them.”
Many of the employees are there because Pedro had faith in them, like others had faith in him when he first came to San Antonio from Mexico to start his life anew. Many would argue that the long time employees have helped create the unique atmosphere that is Mi Tierra, and the Cortezes make it a point to ensure their happiness along with the customers’.
“My grandparents would have us know that we’re really stewards and with the spirituality that has been instilled in us we need to know that many people have worked very, very hard before us,” Deborah said. “Every day that we come to work we remember that.”
Editor’s note: This story was originally published on Wednesday, Sept. 14.
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Mi Tierra was turning 75 years old, when La Familia Cortez Restaurants as an entire business is turning 75.
Top image: The Panadería at Mi Tierra. Photo by Scott Ball.