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Updated: Thursday, 17 May 2012, 1:29 PM CDT
Published : Wednesday, 16 May 2012, 6:10 PM CDT
AUSTIN (KXAN) - In September of 1973, 14-year-old Ernesto Torrealba had never even heard of Oaxaca. So he could not have known what a major role that southern Mexico tourist city would wind up playing in his life.
What the young Torrealba did know was that his father was worried. The man was serving in a high-ranking post in the administration of Chilean President Salvador Allende, the first Marxist politician ever freely elected to lead a country in the Western Hemisphere.
But a constitutional crisis plunged Chile into uncertainty. When Allende died in a military coup d’etat and a junta took power, anyone associated with the former president was in trouble.
Torrealba’s entire family fled the country, finally settling in Mexico City where the boy met Iliana de la Vega in school. They would marry different people and go their separate ways, but after each divorced, they eventually reunited and married each other.
Soon, there were two young children and the couple did not want to raise them in the smog and teeming frenzy of one of the world’s largest cities.
They tried returning to Torrealba’s home in Chile, but the cold weather and unfamiliar surroundings proved too much for the family to handle.
Iliana had been raised in Mexico City, but for generations, her family had lived in Oaxaca. She and her husband settled on moving there. A few years later, they decided to start their own restaurant. El Naranjo, it was called, Spanish for “The Orange Tree.” It was so named after the 150-year-old orange tree that dominated the restaurant’s courtyard.
“I grew up eating this (food) in my home in Mexico City,” said de la Vega, “just a different location, but the ingredients were Oaxacan and my mom is Oaxacan and I learned that from her.”
You would think the locals would welcome a fancy new restaurant in town, but there were issues. For one thing, de la Vega refused to follow the traditional cooking method that relied heavily on the use of lard in recipes.
“I wasn't using lard and I had my many thousand reasons why not to use it, but for them it was almost like a sacrilege.
“I went back to our pre-Hispanic roots when we didn't have lard in America. We didn't have pigs and cattle and chickens, so we didn't have the use of lard, not even fat in any way.”
Beyond the tradition, though, de la Vega had something else in mind when she shunned the use of lard.
“I was doing it not for health reasons or anything because lard is not that bad,” she said. “I mean, I like it. It was more for the pure taste of the ingredients.
“If I am trying to build up layers of flavors in a mole, why would I cover that up with a fatty taste?”
The Oaxacans, though didn’t get it. And there was something else.
“They also wanted to know why somebody who wasn't born in Oaxaca was cooking Oaxacan food.”
If it had been up to such people, El Naranjo would have never survived. Tourists, though, loved the food. The restaurant’s fame spread internationally as magazines and even the New York Times featured it in articles. The business did well and the family prospered. So did the employees.
“We saw them grow with us,” de la Vega said. “At first they started walking to work and then they bought a bicycle. Then they got a motorcycle and then they got married and had children and they bought a car.”
That’s when another dose of disaster struck. Virtually every year, members of a teachers’ union went on strike and came to Oaxaca from the surrounding countryside. They set up camps in the city to press their demands.
But suddenly, in the midst of hot presidential election, things got out of hand.
“That year we had a new governor in Oaxaca,” de la Vega said. “That governor was a horrible person. He decided to kick the strikers out. So he sent the police to get rid of them. But there were more of them than the police, so they beat up the police.”
“They burned busses in the middle of the night,” Torrealba added. “There were barricades everywhere. For example, they blocked the roads to the airport so you could not get into the city or out of the city. People had to sleep at the airport because access to the city was closed.”
Obviously, tourists and their money went elsewhere and without any effective backup industry, the economy collapsed. Business owners fired employees or severely curtailed their work days.
Torrealdo and de la Vega, however, refused to do that to people they had come to love.
“How can you say to those people that you know, 'OK, I'm cutting your hours; forget about it; I don't care what you do?'
"We wouldn't do that so we wound up with a big debt and a family. So now what do you do?”
The United States
The answer came from friends in the United States who offered to sponsor the family. That enabled them to enter the country legally, with “green cards.” They settled first in New Mexico and then moved to Austin.
That’s where they heard from some former customers from their Oaxacan restaurant, who offered to partner up with the couple
so they could launch a new El Naranjo here.
They all settled on an old house at 85 Rainey St., a bustling new entertainment street near downtown. The house needed work and Torrealba, an architect by trade, supervised the remodeling project.
As the permitting process unfolded with the city of Austin, the couple converted a trailer into a food venue in the driveway and started selling their Oaxacan dishes, complete with a new mole every week.
They steadily built their brand so that when the house conversion was complete, the customer base was ready. In fact, the very moment Torrealba plugged in his new business telephone, it rang. A customer was on the line wanting to know if El Naranjo was open.
A week later, it was.
Seventy-five people showed up on opening night and business has been growing since, according to Torrealba.
The menu features fine interior Mexican cuisine, marked by five different moles, each with its own unique flavor created by the careful blending of herbs and spices. No lard.
By the way, back in Oaxaca, the lard is finally doing a vanishing act, as well.
“Now they are missing me in Oaxaca,” said de la Vega, “and people there are doing many of the things I used to do, things I was almost crucified for doing.”
But El Naranjo’s owners are in Austin to stay now.
“It's laid back,” de la Vega said. “It's nice; it's comfortable, a non-pretentious city. I love that. We feel at home again.”
Her husband looks back over the decades and marvels at the changes he was forced to endure.
“It's tough,” he said. “It's hard, but I guess that's how I built my character. I'm not an easy person. My social skills are not that good because since I was 14, I have been protecting myself.
“But you learn to adapt. And being from Mexico and South America where family is so important, if the four of us are together, I don't need anything more. If I have work, if I have a job, if we can feed our family, we're good.”
In the front yard, the food trailer is gone. There’s still no sign there. Things have been too hectic to get one installed yet.
But in a small garden beside the front door there is a reminder of this family’s dizzying journey and its ability to adapt and survive. There, in rich black dirt, stands a pretty little orange tree.
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