Last week, I posted some insight from an interview I did with Tennessee State Senator Ken Yager, R-Kingston. Here is the same thing from an interview with Lorenzo Garcia. Garcia, 42, is the owner of three Mexican restaurants in Tennessee. El Rey Azteca locations are Oneida, Caryville and Powell.
Garcia was born in Guadalajara, the capital of the Mexican state of Jalisco. His father and grandfather were already working in the U.S., picking fruit on a South Carolina farm. When Garcia was six months old, his mother and father decided to bring him to the U.S. permanently, in search of a better life. He doesn’t remember that trip, and says he’s glad he doesn’t. He nearly drowned that day, as his family floated across the Rio Grande on an inner-tube in the pouring rain.
In 1988, the Garcia family received their temporary visas. They were among 2.9 million people to receive amnesty under President Ronald Reagan’s immigration reform. They later received their permanent visas, and then their green cards. Garcia’s father later applied for and received citizenship.
After earlier being denied citizenship, Garcia applied again in 2018, and was approved. His attorney told him that one of the reasons for his earlier denial was his failure to show proof of character. This time around, he had six people from his community write letters on his behalf. Among them were the sheriff, the county mayor, a magistrate, and the director of the local women’s shelter. In the interest of full disclosure, I was among those who wrote a letter on his behalf.
Garcia was naturalized at a ceremony in Chattanooga last summer, and in September received an American flag from U.S. Senator Bob Corker, R-Tenn., that had flown over the nation’s capitol in Washington, D.C.
BG :: When did you know that you wanted to be a U.S. citizen?
LG :: I always wanted to. I used to be a Boy Scout. I was so proud. I was a little trooper. I used to enjoy that stuff. I applied for citizenship a long time ago but couldn’t get it. It was really hard. I waited a while before I tried again because I was so busy with restaurants and kids and stuff.
BG :: Your father started in the U.S. as a farm worker, then he worked his way up to restaurant owner and actually owned a string of restaurants across Middle Tennessee. How did he accomplish that?
LG :: He lost his job in Florida and moved to South Carolina for a year or two. That’s where my sister was born. They moved to Chicago from there. When he was in Chicago, one of his friends said he needed people to work restaurants and he helped my dad to get started. So we came to Tennessee. But he’s retired now. He just owns one restaurant now. He buys houses and renovates them instead. Restaurants are too stressful. The main problem is finding people to work. I would open them all day long if I could find people to work. But you can’t find anybody. They’re fun, though. I love what I do.
BG :: Now you have three restaurants. Would you say that the American dream is a real thing?
LG :: Absolutely. You can do anything you want. You just have to work for it. People give up too early. They want everything too easy. I’ve got young kids working for me, and I’m a little rough on them but I try to push them. Sometimes their parents get mad at me, even though they give me permission to push them. I want to show them that it’s a hard world out there but you can do anything if you work for it.
I tell my son that I’m living the dream right now. I’m the most I’ve ever been. I have a little campground in Robbins (Brimstone Recreation). I have a little spot over there where I camp. This is the dream life.
BG :: Could you have done what you do here if you had never been brought to the United States?
LG :: No. The market in Mexico is not as big as it is here. The restaurants that are there have been there forever. It’s not like here. There’s more cash here. The dollar is valued at more here. Mexico is getting better, but it’s harder there.
BG :: What does it mean to be able to accomplish what you’ve accomplished?
LG :: People have died trying to get here. People would do anything to have this. It’s the ultimate goal. People died trying to come over here and get that dream for themselves. Our kids now, they don’t know what they have. I have a former employee who is a U.S. citizen and he takes it for granted. Other people would love to be in that situation and make something for themselves.
BG :: Some people say minorities have an easier time achieving the American dream because of handouts. Is it fair to say you were given a leg up?
LG :: No way. We worked hard and saved money. We borrowed some money from friends but we never got a single government loan.
BG :: It’s also said that Mexican workers are in demand because they work for less, which means they’re taking American jobs. Is that fair or unfair?
LG :: That’s not true. We’re just trying to live and take care of our families. I always tell people that Mexicans don’t get paid less. I have cousins who make $30 an hour in construction. They don’t work cheaper. Even tobacco workers, they weigh their tobacco out and they get paid based on how much they bring in. Some of them were making $1,000 a week and that was 16 years ago. Even now that would be a lot of money.
BG :: What do you say to Americans who have no idea how good life is in the United States?
LG :: They need to go on a mission trip to another country. Like Erika Schmelter (Brimstone Recreation, recently returned from a missions trip to Honduras). Some people judge when they don’t really know anything else. They need to feel blessed that they were born here. This is an amazing country. We still have our flaws here, but overall it’s amazing. Like I said, people died trying to get here. We should appreciate what we have.
BG :: You’re here, you’re a U.S. citizen, and you were legal for a long time before that, since you were a kid. But you weren’t always legal. What’s your take on people coming to the U.S. illegally?
LG :: Unless you have a lot of money, it’s hard to get here legally. There’s almost no way to come legally, unless you get married to an American in Mexico. Disney Land and some of the larger corporations can apply for work visas, especially in the farming industry. But regular people can’t. These people, I mean, they’re just trying to live. I don’t hate on them. I wish it was easier and there was a legal way. I could’ve gotten hurt when I was brought here.
BG :: There has been a lot of talk since the Trump administration began about ramped-up rhetoric and more hatred towards immigrants. Do you see any of that? Do you feel like people treat you differently now than they did a couple of years ago?
LG :: I don’t see that here because people know me. Anywhere I moved, at first, people took me different. But once they got to know me, they didn’t treat me any different. In Nashville, I was the only Mexican at my high school. I’ll never forget that. Everybody else was whites and blacks. That’s when I felt prejudice. I never knew what prejudice was until I moved to Nashville. But, no, I don’t see it here because people know who I am.
BG :: What about your kids? They go to school surrounded by white kids, in a county that’s almost exclusively white and that voted overwhelmingly for Trump? Do they get treated differently because of their race?
LG :: Not really. Overall, no one messes with my kids. We had just one incident where one of my daughters got picked on because she had darker skin. But the schools do good with my kids.
BG :: There has also been a lot of talk about a criminal element when it comes to immigration. Trump made headlines as a candidate when he talked about that, and there was also a lot of talk about criminals mixed in with the caravan back last October. Is that fair or unfair?
LG :: I’m not sure it’s fair. We don’t know them. They could be criminals, but they could be people who are really hurting, because a lot of them are hurting. Honduras is the worst country of all. I just feel sorry for them. I’m lucky I am here, and I feel bad for the people who are trying to come here.
BG :: What about the criminal element engrained in Mexico?
LG :: When I went to Mexico two years ago (for the first time in 16 years), I was so scared to go. But I didn’t see anything. I’m sure if I was looking for trouble, I could’ve found it. But everybody was friendly. They don’t have much money but they try to feed you and take care of you. I didn’t see anything like I saw on the news. It’s just like here: if you’re looking for trouble, you’ll find it. We’re actually going back to Mexico for our honeymoon in March.