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ORANGE COUNTY LIFE : Bracero Worked His Way to Hilltop : Profile: For Salvador Avila, patriarch of the El Ranchito empire, the road to riches was fraught with misfortune.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

From his home high atop Spyglass Hill, Salvador Avila enjoys a scenic panorama that takes in the tall buildings of Fashion Island and several Corona del Mar landmarks before the coastline dips into the Pacific Ocean.

From here, it’s hard to imagine his meager beginnings. The 67-year-old patriarch of one of Southern California’s most successful restaurant families was once a bracero who picked fruit in Central California.

But the road to Spyglass Hill hasn’t been easy for Senor Avila, as his employees respectfully call him.

The self-made millionaire built a successful chain of Avila’s El Ranchito restaurants with his family working by his side. Then on May 8, 1987, his son, Jose Luis Avila, 40, was gunned down, Mafia-style, in his black Porsche convertible while driving to one of his restaurants. Fourteen bullets were pumped through the side window of his car.

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To this day, Jose Luis Avila’s mother, 66-year-old Margarita Avila, finds it difficult to talk about his death. She wishes she could drop the month of May from the calendar. “I don’t want anything to do with May. I lost my son during that month and . . . of course it’s very sad,” she said in Spanish.

But the family does not dwell on the past. At a recent brunch at the parent’s home, table talk was upbeat and humorous. Over plates of sliced papaya and watermelon, they ironed out details for the Avilas’ El Ranchito Fiesta Catering company which will be providing food service for the opening festivities of the Richard M. Nixon Presidential Library in Yorba Linda beginning next Sunday.

For authenticity, mariachis have been hired for some of the library events and Margarita Avila will make a batch of tamales for the February Group, an alumni association for Nixon Administration employees.

What may have tipped the scales in the Avilas’ favor, according to Nixon Foundation insiders, is that Nixon loves Mexican food. In addition, one of Nixon’s favorite mariachi tunes happens to be the enchanting love song “Maria Elena,” the name of the Avilas’ 37-year-old daughter who manages the catering service.

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The symbolism of such a selection--to feed the nation’s former top officials, including four ex-presidents and top advisers--is not lost on the Avilas, all of whom were born in Mexico.

“I was excited and honored that they picked a Mexicana, " said Maria Elena.

The Avila saga began with a wedding in the town of Penjamo, near Guanajuato. Salvador, who was born in Michoacan, married Margarita in her hometown.

But soon after, in 1946, he came north as part of the bracero program, in which thousands of Mexicans were allowed to legally migrate to the United States to work in agricultural jobs. He picked tomatoes and celery in the Central California farm fields near Watsonville and held odd jobs until he saved enough to bring his wife and six children to California 12 years later.

The couple moved into a tiny, two-bedroom home in Southeast Los Angeles. The children shared one of the rooms; the girls slept in one bed and boys in another.

Then Salvador strained his back doing heavy lifting and lost his job at a foundry. To feed his family, he delivered eggs from the back of the family station wagon.

With a $2,000 loan from Salvador’s uncle, the family opened the first El Ranchito restaurant in Huntington Park in 1966. They made a fortune serving plates of carne con chile, frijoles, arroz and handmade corn tortillas--the very essence of Mexican cooking.

“I didn’t have to hire any employees,” Avila said with a wide smile.

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Everyone worked.

Margarita waited tables and cooked. When the couple’s children came home from school, the girls would bus dirty dishes and the boys would sweep the floors, mop, and do whatever chores had to be done. Margarita’s father, Leopoldo Cerda, washed dishes, while her mother, Guadalupe, helped with the cooking.

“I still remember coming home Fridays from junior high school,” said Sergio, 38, who now lives in Newport Beach with his wife and two daughters. “I would have to cut the strips of meat for the menudo we were going to use for the weekend. I hated cutting that menudo .”

Their restaurant became a college, a campus for on-the-job training. In 1972, brothers Victor and Sergio, who were then living together in Newport Beach, opened an El Ranchito in Long Beach with their own $18,000, their father’s backing and their mother’s help in the kitchen.

“Our father always told us to buy the land (with) the restaurant. We did,” Sergio said. “I was only 20 and too young to own a liquor license. Victor was 22, so he bought it.”

Preparing the restaurant for its opening was a family affair. Sergio and Victor fixed the place up with fresh paint while their mother oversaw the kitchen and food preparation. Brother Salvador did the plumbing and other maintenance, while both sisters decorated the restaurant.

Then in 1975, Sergio branched out on his own when he had an opportunity to buy a corner piece of property in Newport Beach. There was just one problem--he didn’t have enough money.

“He called all the family together and we realized it was a lifetime opportunity,” said his sister, Margarita, 33. “He asked for everyone’s help because the asking price was $105,000 for the land and he needed two weeks to get 50% of it down.

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“We got all our family in Southern California involved. Sergio ended up counting change. I mean that,” Margarita said. “He was counting pocket change at night, quarters, nickels and dimes to come up with the money.”

Today, the Newport Beach restaurant in the city’s trendy restaurant zone is worth an estimated $1.5 million to $2 million.

Margarita said rivalry among the six children was common growing up in the Avila household, but when the children left the house, “we were forced by our parents to watch out for one another.”

“The boys had to take care of us younger ones all the time,” Margarita said. “It was always taught to us, kind of a reminder that if we’re together then there’s nothing that can break us apart.”

Joe Avila was alone the night of May 8, 1987. He closed the El Ranchito restaurant in Costa Mesa about 11 p.m. and was driving to a Santa Ana Heights restaurant. When he tried to make a right turn onto Tustin Avenue from Santa Isabel Avenue, he stopped to avoid a stalled motorcycle that was blocking the road. It was then, police speculate, that a gunman fired into the driver’s side of the Porsche.

“It was undoubtly a professional job,” said Orange County Sheriff’s Lt. Richard Olson. He added that the case “remains open” and is assigned to a sheriff’s investigator. No suspects have been identified.

The death and subsequent media reports about Joe Avila’s alleged drug dealings, which police had suspected, left the family shaken and searching for clues.

“My mother and my dad really took it bad. Joe was my dad’s right-hand man, and Sal is Joe’s twin. He took it the hardest. After all, these two were very close,” said their sister, Margarita.

A portrait of Jose is kept near the parents’ bedside.

“As a family, I don’t really think we ever will get over Joe’s death,” said the youngest daughter, Margarita.

The family says Jose was the dreamer of the family. Owning two restaurants and a nightclub, they knew he was ambitious. What they don’t know is why it happened.

“You know, we sincerely don’t know. Our suspicion is that maybe Joe owed somebody some money . . . at least that’s what we believe in our hearts,” Margarita said.

Ownership of Joe’s Costa Mesa restaurant is being contested by his widow, Lynn. The family still owns six El Ranchito restaurants. Salvador Avila still owns and operates the first El Ranchito in Huntington Park and the others are in Newport Beach, Santa Ana, Long Beach, Laguna Hills and Brea.

Salvador Jr., 43, the eldest surviving son, owns the El Ranchito in Laguna Hills; Sergio owns El Ranchito’s in Newport Beach; Victor, 41, owns El Ranchito restaurants in Long Beach, Santa Ana and also Brea with his sister, Maria Elena. Margarita, who assists the family with marketing, is a psychotherapist who lives in Irvine.

Salvador Avila Sr. can still recall the early days when he awoke at dawn and drove the family station wagon three times each week to the Central Market in downtown Los Angeles to buy fresh vegetables and fruit for his restaurant. El Ranchito’s food business has grown so large that the family has established El Ranchito Distributing in Huntington Park to buy food in bulk.

“We buy 20,000 pounds of beans and 10,000 pounds of rice about four times a year now. Although we still get fresh vegetables at the Central Market, most of the other products are bought almost by the truckload,” said brother Sergio.

Although the menus may seem the same at each El Ranchito, the seasonings are relatively tame and intended for gringo palates. The exception is the original Huntington Park restaurant, which is in a Latino community. The menu there offers goat’s meat, beef tongue, and exotic fish and shrimp soups. It’s different at the El Ranchito in Newport Beach where customers are likely to eat a Mexican salad pocketed inside a deep-fried flour tortilla shaped into a bowl or find a dollop of sour cream aboard an enchilada.

It’s the attention to each restaurant’s locale that keeps the sites popular. Maria Elena said the Brea restaurant is more sedate and family oriented, while life inside the Newport Beach restaurant at happy hour can be a wild and crazy affair with gaily colored balloons and party favors for each liter of icy margaritas.

Now, almost 25 years after starting his first restaurant, Salvador Avila can look at his empire with pride. “I’ve been very fortunate,” Avila said recently. “But we’ve also worked very hard.”

“My dad had this broom theory,” daughter Margarita said. “He would always tell us the secret to our success is the unity we had. He always would take a straw from a broom and put it over his knee, and say, ‘If you have one straw all by itself, it can be broken. But a bundle of straw, like a broom, hit with whatever, would survive . . . because it’s held together.’ ”


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