Manuel Rojas died on February 12, 2013.
As a child I spent my weekdays at my grandparent’s house while both my parents worked; East LA was a second home. While I spent days wandering the neighborhood with my retired grandfather or watching my grandmother pick fruits and vegetables out of their garden, I always remember feeling like I was in this really awesome neighborhood where everyone knew each other and treated neighbors like they were part of the family. It’s magical.
I’ve been going to El Tepeyac in East Los Angeles for as long as I can remember. It’s not very far from my grandparent’s home and it bar none the best Mexican food there ever could be in this lifetime. While unassuming on the outside, inside there is tons of life; waitresses in traditional Mexican blouses, mariachi music playing, and guacamole being consumed by the mouthful.
At the center of it all was Manuel.
Manuel was nothing short of the definition of swagger. This man could work a room like nobody else. He started El Tepeyac in Boyle heights in 1952 along with his mother after his father had deceased. You might have heard of El Tepeyac before. In 2009 it was featured on Man vs. Food and it always seems to be popping up on top burritos lists for it’s “Manuel Special.”
For me, El Tepeyac is more than a good burrito. Growing up, my family and I would go to El Tepeyac consistently for breakfast and we would be greeted by the walking smile that is “Uncle Manuel.” It was common to see different generations of the Navarro family at El Tepeyac sitting together and enjoying some chips and salsa while talking to Manuel and hearing about his latest conquests at the horse track. (He loved his horse races.) I always called him Uncle Manuel and he would call me Little David, just like my grandfather. It wasn’t until I was a pre-teen when I realized that Uncle Manuel wasn’t really my blood uncle. He knew me, though. My favorite candy was and still is to this day a Tootsie Roll, and while normal customers at El Tepeyac would get a small party-size piece of candy upon leaving the restaurant, Manuel always had a extra-large Tootsie Roll on deck for whenever Little David came in, even when Little David wasn’t so little anymore.
Manuel fostered such community around him, and he did it with humor, a good heart, and the most charming, devilish smile one could possibly imagine. He treated everyone who entered his restaurant, whether a long-time patron or first-time visitor, as a dear friend and always invited them back. When it was insanely busy at the restaurant and there was a line out the door for a table, he would come outside and work the line, offering people coffee or tequila. (He never had a liquor license and police officers looked the other way.) ”Tequila is better in the morning,” he’d say. His happiness came from seeing the happiness in those he fed. His role was caretaker before anything else. He loved his community.
I have a lot of great memories of Manuel, but one sticks out quite clear. I had stopped into El Tepeyac for lunch one day and I sat at the counter, since I was alone. Manuel and I went through the routine of greeting each other and checking in to see how the other was doing. I ordered and waited patiently for my food to come. While I was waiting, Manuel took a stool next to me at the counter and asked me if I was dating any “beautiful young ladies.” I had been out of the closet for years at this point, but Manuel and I never had discussed my sexuality. It just never came up, I guess, yet I knew we had never talked about it. I felt nervous, oddly, and didn’t want to lie, but wasn’t sure how this devout Catholic man would take to having a homosexual amongst him. I said something like, “no beautiful ladies, but I’m seeing a handsome man,” very nervously. He flashed me a grin, and asked to see a picture. ”Let me see how handsome he is.” I showed him a photo on my phone and he said, “Yup, he’s handsome.” I instantly felt his love for me.
I don’t know why I would have ever doubted him. That moment meant the world to me. I never got to tell my grandfather I was gay; he had died earlier on in my life. Manuel was a man that not only saw me grow up, but he was a friend of my grandfather’s, and he was just fine with me and whatever sexuel orientation I just so happened to be. In a way, I could sense my grandfather (my best friend) hanging around El Tepeyac with me at that moment. Maybe that is a part of love.
Manuel died yesterday of cancer. He was diagnosed recently and it was too late for anything to be done. My sister told me of the news last night, and at first I was a bit dumbfounded. When my grandparents were growing older, I knew that my time with them was limited and there would be a day when they would physically be gone from this world, but with Manuel, another constant adult in my life, I never had those feelings. I guess I associated him so heavily with this physical place and this communal experience, and those don’t necessarily have a shelf-life.
To me, El Tepeyac is more than a place to get a great burrito that I saw on TV, or a shot of tequila in the morning. It’s my Uncle Manuel’s place; his home. Luckily enough, he gave me the privilege to come back and spend time with him over and over again.
I fell asleep last night thinking about Manuel and the loving community he created. It got me to thinking about fostering community in my life, and what I can take away from Manuel.
Communities pop up everywhere based on varying interests and lifestyles, but sometimes communities can go beyond their initial creation and start a loving movement.
In matters of the heart, how can we create a community of love?
R.I.P. Uncle Manuel