Paula Renteria has been making burritos and serving scrambled eggs and hash browns for more than two decades at the Los Angeles Times' Orange County plant cafeteria in Costa Mesa. But on Friday the cafeteria will close, and she's going to bid farewell to the many reporters, editors, pressmen and advertising folks who have relied on her for meals between deadlines.
Since 1988, Renteria has been an anchor behind the counter, patiently taking orders, smiling and never visibly in a bad mood — even in the presence of the hurried employees who work for the Los Angeles Times, Daily Pilot and related publications.
Renteria is a Mexican immigrant who grew up in a small ranching community north of Guadalajara. Now she's moving on, becoming another example of the newspaper industry's struggles that trickle down and affect just about everybody who stands in the path of the ever-changing Internet.
But as newspapers change and adapt to an online environment, Renteria will be adjusting as well. She has taken a new part-time job at a hospital cafeteria in Yorba Linda.
But she's a bit worried about the future and the lack of health benefits.
"Right now, my health is fine," she said, "but it's always nice to have that extra security, that insurance."
Renteria has a mortgage to pay on a duplex in Fullerton she and her husband bought several years ago.
For the moment, she's keeping a positive attitude and focusing on the fact that, at least for now, she has found part-time work in a similar capacity.
"It's going to be so sad leaving here," said Renteria, 56, as she sat in the cafeteria, her trademark black net cap covering her hair, her uniform as white as any doctor's.
"But you know what? I'm going to leave here with a lot of good memories," she added. "Everybody's been so kind to me here, and I've tried to be so kind to them. That's usually the way it works: When you try to offer the best service possible, respect becomes a two-way street."
If there were ever a motto for Renteria, it would be that: to serve. Or, at your service.
Renteria and her husband, Ramiro Renteria, a truck driver for a construction company, made the illegal trek across the border in March 1977, just a year after the Bicentennial of the United States.
Renteria said she remembers having to hide in the bushes from the Border Patrol in the middle of the night when she and a group of six others crossed between Tijuana and San Ysidro.
The area is often referred to among the Mexican immigrants as "las sierras," or the hills.
It was after they had crossed the hills that they came face to face with a major freeway, the likes of which were rare in Mexico. It was a foreboding expanse of pavement that left Renteria and her husband behind.
They'd lost all contact with the coyote, or human smuggler, and the half-dozen others crossing with them.
"I couldn't run fast," said Renteria. "So my husband and I had to hide in a small neighborhood in San Ysidro. I remember we were really scared that we were going to get caught. All the dogs were barking."
But then, after a few hours, a second group, led by a different smuggler, showed up with another group of six. They helped ferry the Renterias across the freeway and into a secure place. There, the Mexican men were put into trunks of separate cars while the women sat in the front and back seats.
The purpose was to sneak them all past the U.S. Border Patrol checkpoint at San Clemente, but the checkpoint wasn't open that day. They all made it safely, albeit illegally, to Orange County. Renteria and her husband then joined her older brother, Ramiro, now 60, who lived in Garden Grove. From there, the couple found jobs immediately, picking strawberries off Beach Boulevard.
They'd hit pay dirt, making $3.50 per box and bringing in as much as $75 to $80 a day — a far cry from the pittance they pulled in milking cows on a small farm just outside Guadalajara, where running water and electricity were luxuries only the wealthy could afford.
Over the years, Renteria would land jobs typical among any set of immigrants new to the country.
Behind the scenes, she'd help Orange County's well-to-do, whether it was sewing the sails on sailboats or stitching life vests.
She also worked a job assembling countless Cabbage Patch Kids dolls before they were hauled off to local stores.
Then came the moment when she got the job at the Los Angeles Times Orange County plant's cafeteria in 1988. At the time, there were hundreds of reporters, editors, advertisers and pressmen working in the complex.
Five years later, she would study for the citizenship test and become a U.S. citizen, as reporters she served wrote about the greater numbers of immigrants turning to U.S. citizenship to receive government benefits.
"Becoming a U.S. citizen was a turning point for me. I felt very proud," she said. "I finally felt like I belonged. I wouldn't have to worry so much about my future."
But The Times moved many of its Orange County editorial employees to Los Angeles as circulation dwindled, and the demand for the cafeteria dwindled.
Ernestine Lona, who works in the advertising section for the Daily Pilot, said she's saddened by Renteria's imminent departure.
"It sucks," she said. "It's very sad. We all love Paula. She has a very good attitude. She's always smiling, and she always tells me, 'Don't worry about anything.' I love her burritos. I'm going to miss them. She's even taught me how to order in Spanish."
Daniel Careaga, 40, a janitor at the Orange County Times building, said he is going to miss Renteria as well.
"It's time to move on for her," Careaga said. "It's sad, but that's life, and as Mexicans, we grin and bear it. That's just the way we live."
Someday, Renteria would like to return to Mexico and live in her hometown for six months, then return to Orange County for six months.
"We have two casitas that we bought over there," she said. "They're tiny, and my 85-year-old mother lives in one of them, but it would be nice someday to have two places to live. But for now, I've got to work. I want to work. I love work."