A taste of Mexico in Auburn.
How one woman used her culture and her culinary skills to bring La Plaza, a Mexican supermarket and taqueria, to the Plains.
There are mangoes — dried, chili-dusted pieces of mango that make kids pucker their cheeks after tasting the lemon squeezed on it. There is dulce de tamarindo, a sweet that makes adults pause and remember the way they’d ask their madres for some pesos so they could feel the sticky maroon candy wedge between their teeth. And there is the fast, wispy sound of Latinos on TV who are talking sports to the pace of musica ranchera, songs that swell with accordions and horns and whatever else can get people dancing.
All of this is housed in La Plaza, one of the Auburn area’s Mexican supermarkets and taquerias located in the Tiger Crossing Shopping Center near Winn-Dixie.
“This place is like a piece of home,” said Oswaldo Cruz, 30, whose family is from El Salvador. “I come here after work a lot, and I don’t know, you just feel less alone when you see the food from your country. My kids love it.”
Azucena Santillanes Rodriguez, the owner of La Plaza, said she is grateful to hear such comments from her customers. Seeing customers eat her food makes her want to go back in time to tell herself that it would be OK, she said, to tell the little girl from Durango, Mexico, who prayed to la Virgin de Guadalupe that her family would one day have the basic things they needed.
“When I came to the United States in 1999, I was 18 years old, so I didn’t have any plans of opening a business,” Rodriguez said. “I was just waiting tables at my uncle’s restaurant, trying to learn the language and save money.”
Her uncle, Tino Rodriguez, had settled in Opelika in 1999 and opened a restaurant named after the place of his family’s birth: Durango’s Mexican Restaurant. Rodriguez said she enjoyed working with her family.
Some of the customers, however, could be offensive.
A few male customers, she said, expected the women working at the restaurant to be flirtatious.
“I remember some of the customers treated the waiters wrong,” she said. “They just expected some of [the waiters] to be flirting with them, but of course that wasn’t our job.”
After eight years of working as a waiter, Rodriguez said she came home one day to her son, Sebastian Santillanes, who was 10 months old, and her mother, Cristina Santillanes, who helped Rodriguez raise him, and felt stuck in place.
She realized how quickly the months had passed since Sebastian was born. It would be up to her to raise him, she said, up to her to be the mother and father for this child that “had cheeks big like balloons” and “eyes so pretty” they made her look to their future and see what she had to do for their sake.
“You know how it is with Latinos and saving money. I had been doing that the whole time I was a waiter,” Rodriguez said. “I asked my brother for a loan, and with that plus the money I had, I decided I had to open a business.”
She decided she’d open the city’s first Mexican supermarket along with a taqueria. The two locales would be right next to each other.
“Of course I was nervous,” she said. “But I knew this was for me to get ahead and to help mi hijo.”
Some family members cautioned her about the risk of starting a business. It was 2011, and the recession was still causing people to reel from the economic impact.
Rodriguez decided the risk was worth taking. She can remember the anxiety she experienced as a child, stressing about her
parents’ financial uncertainty. Her child would not have that, she said.
The fridge would be full, and the mailbox would be empty of overdue billing statements, she promised herself.
“Nobody other than God knows what will happen to you,” she said.
She prayed that God had written her story and that it included a chapter on a successful La Plaza opening.
Her prayers weren’t answered initially.
During her first year of business, almost no customers came. For a two-week stretch, only two customers entered the store. She worked 12 hour days, seven days a week.
“When you have a son, and it’s up to you to raise him, you don’t think about the hours,” she said. “I was going to get us ahead on my own, so I had to stay hopeful.”
It would be 8 p.m., no customers all day, and still, she’d stay in the store until closing time.
“I used to say to myself, ‘Well, there was nothing today, but I think tomorrow will be better,’” she said. “You have to be constant and disciplined when you start something like this.”
Again, she prayed to her Virgincita de Guadalupe.
And after several tomorrows, a few Latinos began going to the store they heard was selling treats from Mexico. Then a few students began entering the store with curiosity. Then those students told other students. Soon, Rodriguez had to hire an extra hand. Eventually, she hired more.
La Plaza now employs five Latinas who bring dedication and talent to the dishes that make their restaurant known, Rodriguez said.
The dishes are her grandmother Josefa Ramirez’s recipes. She used to show up unexpectedly like an inspector and make sure the sauces were up to her standards, Rodriguez said.
“It started with her recipes back in Durango, and …,” she said before receiving a call from her son.
She apologizes and answers.
“OK, but don’t get burned,” she tells her son, who is hungry.
She rolls her eyes and smiles.
“I think he’s happy there’s soup,” she says.
In a few hours, she says, she will honk her horn in the driveway and be home with him. She will see a fridge filled with food and tell her son that there is a place where you can step inside and taste the candy of a people that picked mangoes in the sun, that dried the slices of fruit he holds in his hands as his madre whispers to him goodnight.
She will tell him that they are the owners of this place.