Not long ago Attorney General Jeff Sessions came to Houston, Texas. Somehow he ended up at one of the El Tiempo Cantina restaurants owned by the Laurenzo family. It was a surprise to the management that someone from the presidential cabinet was there, and one of the employees had a photo taken of himself and the AG. The social media staff then posted the image on Facebook. It was seemingly innocent enough, but a firestorm soon ensued. Protestors gathered outside of the eatery, calls for boycotts of the businesses were made, insults were hurled against the owners, and sadly there were even threats of violence made toward the members of their family. The unfortunate situation led to a regular brouhaha with insinuations that the owners of the establishment were white racists who had somehow gravely insulted their loyal customers.
Unfortunately all of the accusations were based almost solely on highly charged emotions rather than the facts of the situation. Roland and Dominic Laurenzo are the co-owners of several El Tiempo restaurants in the Houston area. They are not at all like the image that is being painted of them. I know this because my husband attended high school with Roland, and my mother-in-law was friends with Roland’s mother, Ninfa.
The Laurenzo story is a great one of success built on imagination and hard work. Ninfa Laurenzo was born in Harlingen, Texas to a Mexican farming family. She met her husband Dominic when she was visiting a cousin. The two fell in love, married and decided to cast their lots with Houston which they had heard was a rapidly growing city. They moved to a tiny wooden house just east of downtown Houston and opened the Rio Grand Tortilla company, selling pizza dough and tortillas. They had four children including Roland. Life took a downturn when Dominic died and the tortilla company began to fail. Ninfa supplemented the family income by opening a tiny restaurant with only ten tables located in front of the tortilla factory. She also began to prepare a dish for her customers that was still relatively unknown in the United States, fajitas.
Roland was a hard working and talented young man, and after he had graduated from college he helped his mother to expand the little restaurant in the shadow of downtown. Ninfa’s featured Mama’s beef and chicken fajitas, and thrived with Roland’s business acumen added to the mix. Soon people were coming from all around town to taste the food and meet Mama Ninfa, a woman with a broad grin and a big heart. She was known to sing for her customers and listen intently to anyone who needed to tell her of their troubles. Before long there were Ninfa’s restaurants all over town and Mama Ninfa was a local celebrity. Along the way she and her sons never forgot to pay forward their good fortune. Some of their charitable causes were well known, and others were done quietly and without fanfare. It was in their natures to always volunteer to help the community whenever there was a need.
Eventually the family sold all of the restaurants bearing the Ninfa name and began other ventures, among them the El Teimpo Cantinas. They created a classic Tex Mex environment at their new eateries complete with lots of traditional recipes and some new takes on cooking. Old family photographs in black and white silently and proudly tell the family’s story. The wait staff is mature and appears to have been part of the Laurenzo journey for many years. Everyone is friendly and helpful and desirous of making the dining experience exceptional and unforgettable.
I have been saddened by the turn of events since the Attorney General’s visit to one of the El Tiempo establishments because this is a family that represents all that is good about the story of diversity in America. If ever there were people who should be celebrated rather than abhorred, they are the ones. Mama Ninfa was a founding board member of the Association for the Advancement of Mexican Americans. The family has supported Houston Community College, the Houston Food Bank, and the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center among many other causes. It is little wonder that they hosted Jeff Sessions so well because it would not have been in their natures to deny him the same level of hospitality that they provide to every single person who walks through their doors. The fact that someone associated with their business got a bit excited about having a famous person eating in one of their establishments says nothing about their ideologies or who they are as individuals. It is a very silly thing to become so angry about this incident that it would lead one to insult and threaten them without ever really taking the time to know their essence.
Luckily this is Houston, Texas and the people here realize how wonderful the Laurenzo family has been to our city. They also mostly have a very strong sense of fairness, and so there has been an outpouring of support for the business. My husband and I joined in that effort by having lunch at El Tiempo after all of the hubbub. Like the Blues Brothers my Mike saw it as a kind of mission from God to support his classmate, Roland, whom he knew to be a kind a generous man.
The thing that struck us were the number of older Hispanic people employed by the restaurant, and we wondered if the protesters had taken into account what would happen to these individuals if the businesses failed. Where would they go to work? How would they get by? Why would they get caught up in such a ridiculous disagreement? It would not just be Roland and Dominic who would suffer, but hundreds of people who depend on them to provide jobs. We always need to remember that no action operates in a vacuum. It’s effect almost always impacts many more people than we might imagine.
The Laurenzos are big boosters of a program that raises funds for the Houston Food Bank. They are always ready to provide food at little or no cost for dozens of causes. One photograph can’t possibly negate all of the good that they have done for decades. Besides, why should that one moment in time even matter? By today’s definitions Roland is a person of color himself, one who has never used his identity to harm anyone.
I was relieved to see the packed house when I visited El Tiempo, and I believe that all the restaurants will thrive. Still, I shudder at the idea that such a small thing as a photo with a disliked politician has lead to the besmirching of people with such good reputations. That is wrong on every level, and like my husband, I see it as a kind of mission from God to do my part to set the record straight.