By Azra Halilovic / CU-CitizenAccess.org / Hoy -- Out in the middle of farm country in Central Illinois, Arturo Zendeja and his wife run the town’s first Mexican restaurant, a small joint called “El Taco Tako.”
Zendeja said that after years of odd jobs he has business he can focus on.
He said he misses his home country of Mexico but considers himself blessed to be living in Arcola. He loves its small-town charm and he calls it “paradise.”
“I’m comfortable now, but my youth was very poor and humble,” said Zendeja, a native of Cadereyta Jiménez in the Nuevo León region of Northeastern Mexico. “I lived in the streets and slept on benches. But I’ve always been cheerful because people liked me and looked after me.”
Zendeja, 61, moved to Arcola 12 years ago.
For the past eight years, he and his wife, Maria, have been getting up to prepare food they promise to be “comida sabrosa, 100 por ciento Mexicana.”
The restaurant, whose forest green walls are covered with framed photos and articles from Mexico or from Zendeja’s past, is big enough to seat 10 people at a table and on stools. A stout man with glasses and a grey moustache, Zendeja speaks very little English but points to his business license and citizenship papers framed behind the counter.
A proud Mexican-American, Zendeja said he spent most of his life scraping by before settling in Arcola. He grew up in poverty in Cadereyta, which in the 1940s was known as the “broomcorn capital of Mexico” for its corn and broom industries.
His father worked in a broom factory and his mother tended to the house and chickens they kept. An adventurous young man who loved making people laugh, Zendeja decided to pick up the business of clowning.
“I was a clown for kids’ plays,” said Zendeja, “and I did that for also about 30 years.”
But every six months from 1986 to 1988, he would enter the United States to work at a friend’s restaurant in Odessa, Texas.
“I was living there without complete papers,” said Zendeja, who had temporary work papers. “But by 1988 I had gotten residency.”
By 1994, he was back in Odessa working for the same friend, Eliseo Bello, who had helped him acquire documentation for residency.
“My first job here was with El Taco Tako,” said Zendeja. “The first one is owned by my friend in Odessa, Texas.”
He said he named his Arcola eatery after the one in Odessa in honor of Bello. While working at the original Taco Tako, Zendeja kept up his life as a jack-of-all-trades, including working and entertaining crowds almost nonstop.
“I was in a public relations type of position,” said Zendeja, who described a full schedule of finding and looking after guest artists and general restaurant maintenance. “I was in charge of the dancing room and also played music in the evenings.”
Zendeja also worked in radio. Slapping the table and his thigh like a drum, he talked of performing plays for a kids’ morning program called “Los Locos de la Mañana,” meaning “the morning nutcases.”
But his career as an entertainer came to an end after moving to Arcola. He and his wife moved to Arcola after their oldest son, Arturo, convinced them the town was full of Mexicans from Cadereyta.
And it was: the Libman factory was importing broomcorn from Cadereyta and employing mostly Latinos. Zendeja discovered he was forced to change his way of life.
“We’ve been here already 12 years, but I had to give up everything that I already had done, — my work as a clown, as a musician, radio host,” said Zendeja. “Everything, because here I didn’t find more than this little, peaceful paradise.”
Zendeja does not complain, however. He said that, after more than a decade in Arcola, the town stands out for its tranquility and law enforcement.
“There was a lot of work in Odessa,” said Zendeja. “But there was more violence, which is why we came here.”
Zendeja and his wife have watched Arcola transform from a rural, white community to an eclectic town whose population is about 30 percent Latino.
After working at Libman’s for four years, he and his wife started playing with the idea of operating their own restaurant — an idea that started in their backyard.
“We started making taquitos from my home and people started to like the food,” said Zendeja. “But the police put an end to it because I didn’t have the permission to sell food from my house.”
Eventually, Wilmer Otto, a local businessman and real estate agent, helped Zendeja find the current restaurant site. Otto is known in Arcola for his historic buildings and renovations.
“Before I knew it, he and his wife quit Libman’s,” said Otto. “Their income, of course, went down.”
Periodically, he’d come in with a financial crisis, and we’d work it out. The economic recession was affecting everyone. But he’s always been happy, smiling.
Since they don’t have many hands pitching in to help, Zendeja closes the restaurant on Mondays and Tuesday — but not on weekends.
“Seems to me more like people are resting and settling into the week on Mondays and Tuesdays,” said Zendeja.
On her days off, Maria gets out of the kitchen and puts her hands to use as a beautician. “I do people’s makeup and hair,” said Maria, laughing as Zendeja gestures with hands like a woman applying makeup.
Behind the register counter is a mural of photos collected by Zendeja and his family — a public archive of their lives from their youth in Mexico to their lives in the States.
A slender, young Zendeja dressed as a clown is pictured next to photos of Zendeja the musician and grandfather. Also pinned against the walls are photos sent by friends and articles that mention them or loved ones.
“This started off as a game,” said Zendeja about the photos. “Some years ago, a group of girls came in and asked for photos with me, so we decided we’d start doing the same.”
They have accumulated five years worth of photos, pasted and pinned on the two walls behind the counter. But the most beloved article on the wall is a photo of the couple the day they received their citizenship.
“I have my rights now and vote,” said Zendeja, pointing to the photo of him and his wife with their citizenship papers. “I can vote now before they kick me out — I’ll have my say first.”
He said Arcola is a relatively safe community but he wonders if the white population is diminishing because it feels threatened. However, the Latino population in Arcola is here to stay, he said.
“It’s here that we are living,” Zendeja said.