|President Barack Obama hugs La Hacienda restaurant owner and St. Edward parishioner Lilia Yezpez as her husband, Carlos Yezpez, looks on. Obama was in Nashville Dec. 9 to speak about immigration reform at a town hall meeting at Casa Azafran, located down the street from La Hacienda. He made a surprise visit to the restaurant and placed a to-go order on his way back to Air Force One. CNS photo/Kevin Lamarque, Reuters
When Lilia Yezpez heard that President Barack Obama was coming to Nashville to speak about his recent executive order on immigration, the native of Mexico was hopeful she might be invited to hear him speak.
“Just to be in the same room, to be so close, would have been an honor,” she said.
After an invitation to the speech didn’t materialize, Yezpez never expected to see the president of the United States walk into the restaurant she and her husband Carlos own. But on his way out of town after the speech, Obama stopped by La Hacienda restaurant on Nolensville Road – one of the oldest locally owned Mexican restaurants in the city and a landmark in the heavily Hispanic South Nashville neighborhood – to buy some lunch, surprising the owners and the staff.
“I wish we knew the president was coming. I could have hung some banners,” she said. “I would have had my family here. I have a very large family.”
The president walked around the restaurant greeting all of the customers and staff. When he extended his hand to Yezpez, she skipped the handshake and gave him a big hug, which was captured by photographers and ended up on the front page of the local newspaper.
“I felt his hug,” Yezpez said. “I felt the warm and beautiful person he is.”
The presidential hug put a spotlight on the story of the Yezpez family and their journey from Mexico to California and ultimately to Nashville where they found the better life that has lured generations of immigrants to this country. Theirs is a story of an immigrant’s dream come true.
Yezpez’ father, Aureliano Ceja, first came to the United States in the 1960s on a temporary visa to work in the farm fields of Northern California. He would leave his family behind in Mexico for six months at a time as he would travel north to work.
After several years, he earned a permanent visa and brought his family to the United States. They settled in Santa Ana, Calif., near Los Angeles, and Ceja quit working in the fields and went to work in a restaurant so he could give his family a better life, Yezpez said.
She was 12 when she moved to Santa Ana, a town with a large Hispanic population. “Everybody spoke Spanish,” she said.
Lilia and Carlos married and started their family in Santa Ana. “I was really happy with my life,” she said.
She was a housewife with five children in the early 1990s, when her life took a dramatic turn. Her brother, Jose Ochoa, had left Santa Ana to take a job in Nashville. During a visit back to California, her husband asked her brother “what business does Nashville need. My brother said ‘tortillas,’” recalled Yezpez. “No one in the city was making fresh tortillas.”
Her husband became more excited about the prospect of coming to Nashville to start his own business. They visited Nashville to explore the possibilities. “My husband fell in love with it,” she said of Nashville. “He got more excited and I got more depressed because I still did not want to move,” fearful of leaving her extended family, Yezpez said.
“He said give it a try. Think of your kids. Don’t you want a better life for your kids? How are we going to get it? Let’s work together. I need your support,” Yezpez recalled. She finally agreed. “It was a big, big move for me.”
They still had some obstacles to clear, the first being that neither knew how to make tortillas, at least on a scale big enough for a business. But Yezpez’ aunt was the co-owner of a small tortilla factory and her husband spent some time with her learning the business.
They refinanced their house in Santa Ana to get money for the business and bought a machine to make tortillas, packed up a U-Haul truck and a minivan, and headed to Nashville in the summer of 1992.
When they arrived in Nashville, they drove past St. Edward Church near where they had rented an apartment. Yezpez turned to her husband and said, “Look, this is the church we will come to.” They’ve been parishioners at St. Edward ever since.
The family rented a small store front on Nolensville Road and began making cold calls to restaurants offering their fresh-made tortillas.
It was a slow start for their business. “We were very scared,” said Yezpez. They agreed that if the business wasn’t doing well in five years they would go back to California.
But things started to change. “Little by little we knew, we’re not going home,” Yezpez said.
The family started selling burritos and menudo, a traditional Mexican soup, to people working in businesses along Nolensville Road. That part of the business grew into a taco shop, which eventually became La Hacienda. Along the way, they opened a Mexican grocery store and bakery next to the restaurant, and converted a warehouse behind the restaurant into a tortilla factory. “That little machine turned into a factory,” Yezpez said, and all of their business interests now employ about 100 people.
They arrived in Nashville at just the right time, Yezpez said, just as the city was beginning to attract more and more Latinos. Their restaurant and grocery became a magnet for the city’s Hispanic immigrants looking for the familiar food of home and an understanding ear. Soon the Nolensville Road area became a center of the Hispanic community and today the road is lined with signs in Spanish advertising all kinds of businesses.
“Nashville is a diverse place where you can come and do what you want,” Yezpez said. “There are no barriers.
“It’s an honor to say we are the first one in Nashville,” she said. “This is the legacy we want to leave for our children. You have to be hard working and honest and humble.”
On the day of the president’s visit to Nashville, employees and customers started to notice men with dogs in the restaurant’s parking lot, Yezpez said, but she thought they were Secret Service agents protecting the route of the president’s motorcade.
Eventually, a member of the White House staff who was waiting in the restaurant announced that La Hacienda was about to have a special visitor, the president of the United States, Yezpez recalled.
“When she said it I was frozen. I started thinking is this real,” she said. “My second thought was why us. We’re considered small, the most powerful person in the world, why did he choose this place.”
Then, she flashed back to the day her pastor at St. Edward, Father Joe Pat Breen, blessed their restaurant and she remembered his words: “Lilia, Carlos, you’re gonna do good.”
Their success impressed even the president. He asked Lilia and Carlos how long they had owned the restaurant, where they had gotten the capital to start the business, and how many restaurants they owned. They answered that they owned just one restaurant but they have a tortilla factory. The president told them, “Wonderful job,” Yezpez said.
“Then he said, ‘I’m hungry,’” Yezpez said. “I believe he was craving for tacos.”
The president ended up ordering five steak tacos, five flautas, guacamole and chips and salsa, and insisted on paying himself, Yezpez said. “If I support small businesses I need to pay,” the president told them, and he then left $60 for a $20 order, Yezpez said.
Days after the president’s visit, customers and friends were still asking Yezpez about it. “It was very emotional,” Yezpez said of the presidential visit. “These memories are going to be here forever and ever.”