Article, photos and photo essay by Apolinar Islas
It is 10 p.m. on a Saturday night in September. Street lights illuminate Los Torres, a taco truck stationed on a sidewalk of Southern Boulevard and Aldus Street in Hunts Point in the Bronx. The truck’s sides are stamped with life-size murals of an Aztec warrior, Popocatepetl, who is wearing a red-and-green panache and kneeling beside the dead body of his fiancée, Iztaccihuatl, who is dressed in white and laid out on a bed of white margaritas.
Inside the truck, another pair of Mexican lovers, Alfonso Torres and Filogona Espinobarros, are hurrying to close for the night. Containers clatter as they clean and store leftovers. They sigh as they take off their black aprons, put them away, close the acrylic window, and lock the taco truck’s doors. The rectangular neon sign with Los Torres spelled out in sky blue ink is the last item to be shut off along with the generator.
But their day is far from over. They still have to pick up their children from a babysitter and prepare food for the next day.
Like many immigrant entrepreneurs, the Torreses find themselves caught between their two young children and their mobile business, which they opened just a few weeks earlier. For the Torreses, making a success of their one month-old food truck is the most urgent battle—the way to provide a better living for their children. After years of working menial jobs, they are happy to own their own business, yet sad because they cannot spend time with their 8- and 5-year-old children, who typically spend 13 hours per day with a babysitter.
“Our kids are very important to us, but if we don’t see them now is because we have to focus on our business to have something to give them,” said Torres in Spanish.
The Torreses met at a PJ Clarke’s restaurant in Manhattan where they worked for a decade before being able to open the taco truck. Torres cooked at PJ Clarkes, Espinobarros did food preparation.
Launching Los Torres has been a challenge, however. Immigrants have few options for financing a new business, explained immigration lawyer Luis Gomez; that’s especially true if they are undocumented. While some undocumented immigrants can get a credit union loan with an ITIN number, an Individual Taxpayer Identification number issued by U.S. Internal Revenue Service, the lack of information makes access to financing tougher.
The Torreses borrowed part of their start-up capital from family, a common strategy for new entrepreneurs. They invested $50,000—a combination of their life savings and a loan from one of Torres’ siblings.
Failure, said Torres, is not an option.
“Imagine,” Torres said, “after all this effort, losing everything is not a choice. We want to succeed in this country.”
The Torreses are among a burgeoning group of immigrant entrepreneurs. About 14 percent of U.S. business owners were immigrants in 2012, the most recent year for which there are records. And food service is one of the industries with the greatest share of immigrant proprietors– about 29 percent, according to a Small Business Administration 2018 analysis.
The Torreses came to the U.S. to escape the poverty of rural Mexico.
Torres emigrated from Atlixco, a small town in the province of Puebla at 17; he had worked in construction since age 10 and recalled the pain in his fingernails when they were smashed by rocks, hammers and bricks at his construction job. He also remembers abusive construction bosses.
Espinobarros was 30 when she left Plan de San Miguel, in the province of Guerrero, for the U.S. Before emigrating, Espinobarros had worked her family’s land, where they grow corn and other crops, since age 9; as a child, she did not own a pair of shoes, she recalled. While other children played, Espinobarros sold corn tortillas door to door.
“By experience I know that childhood is atrocious if parents don’t think about their children,” said Torres, whose father had abandoned his family when he was four years old. “My mother killed herself day and night to meet our basic needs.”
Now the Torreses want to shield their children from such hardships. “Right now we are just planting the seeds,” said Torres. “Afterwards, we will be harvesting the fruit of our sacrifice.”
In the meantime, their perseverance is beginning to pay off. The taco truck brings in $300 to $400 a day in profits. Although this is half of what they initially hoped to make, according to Torres. They spend $70 to $100 on supplies; ice for the soda cooler is the taco truck’s biggest expense, at $20 to $25 daily.
Los Torres’s best sellers are the $3.50 double corn tortilla with lengua (beef tongue); the steak tacos garnished with chopped white onions, cilantro, lime and radish slices; and the $9.50 8-inch by 6-inch torta (sandwich) that comes with mayonnaise spread, iceberg lettuce, tomatoes, pickled jalapenos, Mexican cheese, beans, avocado and a choice of meat–carne enchilada (home-spiced pork meat), chorizo (spiced sausage), cecina (cured and salted beef), carnitas or al pastor (pork).
“I like their authenticity,” said Wilma Walker, 30, as she waited for her burrito al pastor and a chicken torta for her husband on this September evening. For Walker, a Bronx resident, this was her second order from Los Torres in two weeks. “The lengua sopes were delicious,” she added, referencing an earlier order of the thick sautéed tortillas that are served with taco toppings.
Los Torres is open from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. on weekdays and until 10 or 11 p.m. on weekends. That means, the couple’s children typically stay with their babysitter from after school until at least 10 P.M.
Espinobarros calls them often to make sure they are O.K. “I know they need us,” she said. “I wish to take care of them 24 hours a day. But, unfortunately, I can’t. And that’s what pains me most.”
It’s 10:30 p.m. as Espinobarros hands her husband plastic-wrapped tortillas and to-go containers filled with ingredients to put in a large white cooler in the back of their 1997 green van.
At 10:35 p.m. they each grab a side of the truck, pushing and pulling it down the sidewalk with all their strength, they attach the taco truck to the van. Click. They get in the van, slamming the doors shut. Behind the driver’s seat, two 20 lb. propane tanks, one perched on top of the other, make a dull metallic thumping sound as Torres drives the van to a garage in the Hunts Point market, where it will stay the night along other food and ice cream trucks.
It’s 11 p.m. by the time Torres and Espinobarros pick up their children; they have fallen asleep at the babysitters. Torres leaves his family at home while he returns to the garage to scrub down his mobile business. Meanwhile, Espinobarros showers and feeds their sons before tucking them into bed. Once the children are sleep, Espinobarros prepares food for the next business day.
They are lucky to get to bed by 3 a.m. for a few short hours of sleep before they are up again before sunrise to awaken their children at 7 a.m.. After breakfast, at 8 a.m., Torres takes them to school.
It’s a blustery day, with autumn leaves swirling around the streets while Torres once again picks up his wife and together they head to the garage to pick up their food truck.
The sun shines on Popocatepetl and Iztaccihuatl, the eternal lovers, as the Torreses go on, manning their taco truck on Southern Boulevard – their thoughts never far from their children.