Inside the story of one Mexican restaurateur’s journey to success in the South Bronx

cantina tarasca
After decades of hard work and struggle, Jose De Marcos Garcia is the proud owner of the new Cantina Tarasca at 576 Southern Blvd.
Photo ET Rodriguez

It’s Cinco de Mayo for the 163rd time, marking the anniversary of Mexico’s win against the French in the battle of Puebla in 1862. And while you partake in the celebrations, leave your sombreros and sarapes at home and instead, pay homage to the arduous plight so many Mexicans faced to bring you your chips and margaritas.

“I came out of work on a Friday, I’m almost home and then he hit me and said ‘give me the f—— money’,” said Jose De Marcos Garcia, owner of Cantina Tarasca on Southern Boulevard in the South Bronx.

In an interview with the Bronx Times, he recounted the gruesome details of a harrowing attack on a cold January night in 2016.

“Then he sliced me and then he stabbed me again in the stomach and then I grabbed his knife and he sliced my whole arm,” De Marcos Garcia added.

Bloody and beaten, De Marcos Garcia walked home to his apartment in Washington Heights, his arm hanging from its socket. His distraught wife called 911 and he was transported to Harlem hospital where he received emergency surgery for his seven stab wounds. 

“My hand didn’t work for about four months,” he said as he opened and closed his fist, recalling a time when that seemingly simple gesture wasn’t so simple. Nonetheless, Garcia could not be kept from work and did what he could with his other hand, for time is money and opening your own restaurant doesn’t come cheap. 

Cinco de Mayo is more than chips and margaritas — an homage to the workers behind your favorite Mexican restaurants.Photo ET Rodriguez

Garcia’s dreams of owning his own place stem from his days in Guerrero, Mexico, where work was scarce and eating chicken was something people only did on holidays. In 1998, Garcia decided he was going to cross the border into the U.S. for a better life. He kissed his wife goodbye with promises of finding them a new home and entered the U.S. via professional human traffickers known as coyotes

On about the fourth day of his journey, Garcia was separated from his pack. He looked across the desert, but only saw darkness. He had no choice but to wait until daylight and buried himself in the sand to keep away from the scorpions and snakes. By morning, he was reunited and the group was on their way. After a week-long journey, Garcia arrived to NYC where he was bedridden for a week. 

“My toenails fell off and I couldn’t walk,” Garcia told the Bronx Times. 

In Harlem, he shared a one-bedroom apartment with 16 other men where most slept on the floor. 

“I even had mice eat my nails,” Garcia exclaimed. “I swear to you.” 

Despite the seemingly horrid living conditions, Garcia had a vision he would not soon abandon. He was committed to sharing his passion for food and hospitality with the people of New York City. His wife, Maribel Pablo Madrigal, originally from Michoacán, later joined him in 2001. She, too, arrived via coyote and experienced her own hardships along the way. The two scrimped and saved working toward the dream of being their own bosses. 

A crowd of people quickly formed at Cantina Tarasca on Friday, May 3 and everyone had a margarita in hand.Photo ET Rodriguez

In 2010, Garcia left his job as a waiter at a steakhouse to become a porter at El Porton Mexican restaurant in Harlem. Normally one doesn’t leave a place of work for a demotion at another, but Garcia knew the owner and thought there could be a lot to learn under his employment.  

A year later, an opportunity to expand the El Porton name arose. This was it — his dream come true. Garcia, his boss and Alejandro Mendoza, whom Garcia had never met, became partners. Garcia gave him almost $40,000, but didn’t sign any paperwork, as he didn’t have a social security number at the time. But Mendoza was up to no good and ran off with Garcia’s money. Garcia’s boss tracked down the thief, but by then, the money was gone and taking Mendoza to court was futile.

The restaurant expanded regardless, just not with Garcia as co-owner, but his boss saw his worth and brought him on as general manager. Garcia worked like the “Little Engine That Could” with one goal in mind – to open his own place. He did whatever was asked — if he had to cook, he’d cook; if he had to do deliveries, he’d do deliveries. Things were looking up for Garcia.

Last year, Garcia found a partner and was finally going to have his own restaurant. He approached his boss of more than a decade, thanked him for the work and put in his two-week notice. 

“Why are you leaving?” “Garcia’s boss cheekily asked. “I was going to sell it to you.”

Garcia was giddy with disbelief and this past December, it became official.

“I was saving money to buy [a restaurant], but I never thought it was going to be this one,” Garcia said with a joyful chuckle while standing in the new Cantina Tarasca, formerly El Porton.

A flyer advertises free tequila shots for Cinco de Mayo at Cantina Tarasca at 576 Southern Blvd.Photo ET Rodriguez

Under his new ownership, the restaurant has adapted a theme of Guerrero and Michoacán, Mexico, the hometowns of Garcia and his wife, respectively and the two are dedicated to quality ingredients and service with a smile. 

“You can come here with your family or you can come here by yourself. Everybody’s friendly. The staff is friendly. The drinks are good. The food is good,” said Jose Galarza, who has been visiting the restaurant for four years although he lives on the other side of the Bronx in Parkchester. “And I noticed that the menu just got bigger.”

New additions include gorditas, churros, and the trending birria, where marinated beef ribs, shoulder and brisket are simmered in a pot filled with aromatics and chiles until the meat is tender enough to be shredded with a fork and served however you like. 

Drinks have always been a favorite of Garcia’s to experiment with. The new chipotle mezcal margarita is smokey on two levels, and balanced with the sweetness of panela sugar with a homemade chamoy and tajin garnish on the rim. You can also get your margaritas frozen with a range of flavors including the recently added prickly pear.

Garcia has yet to give himself a paycheck or a day off as he lives to make the restaurant the best it can be. His joy is in creating new menu items, getting to the market early and importing rare mezcals from Mexico. 

Sombreros hang in one of the hundreds of Mexican businesses sprawled across the Bronx.Photo ET Rodriguez

Stories like Garcia’s are but one of many. For decades, Mexicans have been migrating to the U.S., making them the No. 1 Hispanic demographic in the country and No. 2 in the Bronx, superseding the once dominant Puerto Ricans of the borough.

And while people may spew racist rhetoric, how many of them know about the Mexican-American War (1846-48), in which Mexicans fought to regain their land (modern-day Texas)? Or about the Gadsden Purchase of 1854 that turned parts of Mexico into New Mexico and Arizona? Do they know about Operation Wetback in 1954, implemented to stop the influx of undocumented migrants into the U.S. from Mexico, while the U.S. was simultaneously operating the Mexican Farm Labor Program also known as the Bracero Program from 1942 to 1964? The history of Mexicans in the U.S. is fraught with contradictions, abuse and exploitation.

Despite his struggle, Garcia has always been gracious. His daughter, 24, graduated with a degree in business from Baruch College and his son, 22, works at the restaurant with him — and the pride shines in his eyes. 

“If you come with a purpose, it’s worth it, because suffering is temporary,” he said. “It’s part of the process and the success.”

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