December 7, 2023

The Mitla Cafe: Serving the San Bernardino Community for Generations

The Mitla Cafe on Mount Vernon Avenue in San Bernardino, California, has been serving tacos dorados since it opened its doors in 1937. Made of a fried tortilla stuffed with cheese, ground beef, and diced tomatoes, they were originally sold for ten cents each to Mexican immigrants working in the region’s railroad and citrus industries. Along with other staples like enchiladas, chile rellenos, and menudo, these tacos have been drawing city leaders, movie stars, and everyday people to the cafe for 86 years.

In the last 10 years, one customer has earned a lot of attention: Glenn Bell, founder of Taco Bell, who got the idea for the fast-food chain’s hard-shelled taco from the Mitla’s first owner, Lucia Rodriguez. Since Gustavo Arellano featured the story in his book Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America, this connection to fast food history has become central to the Mitla’s story in the minds of many. But the Mitla is not just the place where Taco Bell’s tacos originated—it has also nourished the region’s thriving Mexican American community, becoming a place where locals and anti-discrimination activists gathered alongside travelers heading to Los Angeles along Route 66.

An exterior view of the Mitla Cafe on the Route 66.

photo by: Mitla Cafe

Exterior of the Mitla Cafe.

It’s this history that is being honored by National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Backing Historic Small Restaurants program (BHSR)—presented with American Express—which provided the Mitla with $40,000 to help them improve their business. “Coming out of COVID has been tough for restaurants, and we're still recovering in a lot of ways,” said Michael Montaño, Lucia's grandson, who co-owns the cafe with his cousin Steve Oquendo. “[Thanks to the grant] people in the neighborhood will get to walk by and see a fresh coat of paint. It’s going to reflect better on our community.”

And there’s more to come. With the support of the National Trust, the family is working on a mural commemorating Lucia Montaño and the women who came after her. Chris Morris, manager of the National Trust’s Where Women Made History initiative, has been working closely with the Mitla’s owners on the effort said, “our goal is to tackle this exciting public art project in 2024 to celebrate the women who created and sustained the Mitla and the West San Bernardino community.”

The Beginnings of an Iconic Restaurant

According to historian Mark Ocegueda, Lucia and her husband, Vincente Montaño, immigrated to San Bernardino and settled on the city’s West Side in 1928, a time when Mexican immigrants were plagued by forced deportations. Yet the community in San Bernardino still flourished, building a prosperous business district along Mount Vernon Avenue despite the neglect and hostility of white officials.

Vicente passed away not long after Lucia opened the Mitla. In order to ensure the cafe succeeded, Lucia threw herself into her work with single-minded vigor, sometimes working for 24 hours straight and sleeping in the back of the restaurant.

Meanwhile, Lucia’s second husband, Salvador Rodriguez, made sure the whole region knew that his wife’s cafe was the best place to go for tacos and more. “He had the wherewithal to start bringing in local groups and politicians,” Montaño explained. “He became the voice [of the restaurant], while Lucia was the backbone.”

Lucia and Salvador’s hard work paid off quickly. By 1940, the Mitla was the go-to restaurant for locals and motorists passing through the city. Route 66 went right past the cafe. “This was the last stop before someone turned right and headed west towards Santa Monica,” Montaño said. “Imagine, you’ve just come from Barstow, you've been driving through the desert for hours. And now you finally see this glimpse of civilization.”

For many white visitors, the Mitla was their first introduction to Mexican food, a fact that Lucia used to her advantage. “Lucia was very savvy,” Ocegudea notes. “She said, ‘all right, if we’re going to bring these customers in, let’s cater to them. Let’s make our image safe and palatable for them.’ She knew there was money to be made.”

View of Route 66 from the Mitla Cafe looking North

photo by: Mitla Cafe

View of Route 66 looking North from the Mitla Cafe.

A sepia toned photograph of an older man and a woman standing next to each other. This is Salvador and Lucia Rodriguez of the Mitla Cafe.

photo by: Mitla Cafe

Salvador and Lucia Rodriguez who worked to make sure that the Mitla Cafe was known all throughout the region.

Tacos With a Side of Community Organizing

The Mitla also served as the home base for the city’s Mexican activist community. Rodriguez was a member of the Cámara de Comercio, or the Mexican Chamber of Commerce, a group of merchants with businesses along Mount Vernon Avenue who met regularly at the cafe and played a significant role in bolstering the community.

The Cámara de Comercio also took on government officials to combat discrimination. In 1943, workers at San Berndarino’s public swimming pool denied entry to Mike Valles, the son of prominent Chamber of Commerce member Gonzalo Valles. In response, the group wrote letters to mayor William Seccombe demanding racial restrictions of public pools be lifted, organized rallies at local churches attended by hundreds of people, and eventually hired Los Angeles-based civil rights lawyer David C. Marcus.

Lopez v. Seccombe, the ensuing court case, went before the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California in 1944, and made San Bernardino’s segregated public pools illegal. Partially based on this experience, Marcus later argued Mendez v. Westminster, which desegregated public schools in Orange County, California, and went on to serve as precedent for Brown v. Board of Education.

The Mitla Cafe in San Bernardino, California.

photo by: The Mitla Cafe/Mark Ocegueda

Left to Right: Vera Lopez, Mary Olave, and Helen Martinez standing outside the Mitla Cafe. Lopez and Martinez were two of Lucia's daughters.

Nourishing a Community

In the second half of the 20th century, a lot changed for Mount Vernon Avenue. In 1959, U.S. 395 (later renamed I-215) was completed, replacing Route 66, and by extension Mount Vernon Avenue, as the main motorway through San Bernardino. Despite objections from the Cámara de Comercio, the highway was built with left-hand exit ramps, diverting motorists away from the Mexican side of the city and towards the predominantly white side.

Nevertheless, the Mitla continued to serve as a community cornerstone. “My dad told me that when he was young, he would get hit by a ruler if he was caught speaking Spanish at school,” says Montaño. “But [the Mitla] was a place where you could speak your native language freely. This was the place where you could have a conversation without the expectation of retaliation.”

After Lucia died in 1981, her daughter Vera took over, and then the restaurant passed to Frank and Irene Montano, Michael Montano’s parents. Montaño remembered the Mitla as a place of comfort and safety. “It was my family’s kitchen. On the way to school, I’d go to the kitchen and grab some fresh tortillas or a burrito, whatever I wanted for breakfast—the same thing you would do if you went into your own kitchen.”

Honoring a Legacy

When considering the Mitla’s legacy, Montaño thinks about the women in his family—his mother, his aunts, and, of course, his grandmother Lucia. Even now, he remains inspired by the effort they put into both their restaurants and their children through good times and bad. “[Watching them run the restaurant], we learned how to do it all. My aunt would walk into the bookkeeper with her dirty apron, talk to them and engage with them, and then go take us shopping, or take us to get toys. But it was never, ‘I’m too tired, I have too much going on.’ It was an important example of how to be a parent and a business owner.”

This legacy is what inspired Montaño and Oquendo to pursue the Mitla’s new mural. “I was thrilled by that concept and suggested we tackle this as a separate project,” said Morris. “Doing so ensures that we have the time needed to develop a meaningful and permanent mural project with the input of the family and the local community.” The team plans to work with local Mexican American women artists to design and paint what is sure to be an iconic work of art in West San Bernardino.

The legacy also lives in the restaurant itself, which Montaño is committed to maintaining as a sustainable family restaurant with deep roots in its community. “It’s tough to run a small family restaurant. But [Steve and I] like to say that we’re stewards of this place. We want to put things in place to make it a little easier if, at some point, we step away and decide that maybe someone else in the family will be the next stewards.”

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Rebecca Ortenberg is a public historian, digital storyteller, and wrangler of people and ideas. She has served as the managing editor for Lady Science, a magazine and podcast about women in the history of science, and has written for the Science History Institute's Distillations magazine. Though she has adopted Philadelphia as her home, she will always be a West Coaster at heart.

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