Sunday, October 9, 2011

Business and Community

The following is an excerpt from a work-in-progress called The Town I Live In.

Jennie Reyes and her husband Johnny owned and operated a Mexican restaurant in Fullerton called La Perla for almost 40 years. It was located at 247 East Truslow. Reading a transcript of an interview with Reyes from 1975, I am overwhelmed at how much she cared about her community, and contributed in very tangible, practical ways to the lives of her customers. She recalls:

“In those years that we worked, the Nationals, the Mexican people that used to come from Mexico to work here, used to go to our restaurant and we used to make very good money. We made good money in the restaurant by working hard, too. I feel that we earned it. We didn’t try to cheat the boys or anything. We used to help them in sending money to Mexico for them. I remember I used to get five and six hundred dollars just for the money orders because they had to send the money to their families. They were working here and I hated to see them spend it and not send it home. It really wasn’t my business, but I felt sorry for those people back home and I could imagine what they were going through, hoping and praying and waiting for the money to come from their husbands over here, so I used to tell them, ‘Okay, just bring me the money. I’ll send it.’ Every Monday I used to spend about four hours at the bank to make all those money orders and to get the money orders ready to send, and to register their letters and all that.”

At a time when there was tremendous racism against Mexicans and other minorities in Fullerton, Reyes’ restaurant welcomed everyone and treated them fairly and warmly: “I used to tell them, ‘I don’t care if you are colored, an American, a Mexican, a bracero, or a Japanese, whatever your nationality; whatever you are, you are welcome here. Just behave like a human being and respect the place.’ That’s all I asked of everybody and it worked because I used to treat everybody the same. I used to be nice to everybody, I tried to do my best for everybody.”

Reyes saw herself, her family, and her business as a part of her community. She was deeply connected to her customers’ lives. Speaking of recent immigrants from Mexico, she said, “They couldn’t speak English. They didn’t know where to go, who to go to, who was going to take advantage of them, who was going to be honest to them. That’s why I used to feel sorry for them. If I would go to town shopping and I’d see somebody there, and some of them didn’t know English they'd say, ‘Could you interpret for me?’ I’d say, ‘Sure.’”

How different this business mentality is from a large, faceless corporation who only cares about profits and the bottom line. It’s kind of ironic. Once a corporation goes “public” and starts having to answer to shareholders and not customers, that business loses its connection to the real public and the local community.

I think businesses today would do well to emulate the model of La Perla restaurant.

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Jennie and Johnny Reyes outside La Perla Restaurant, 247 East Truslow, Fullerton, CA, August, 1970

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