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Why one Iowa restaurant owner says ‘No love, no tacos’

Alfonso Medina of La Carreta Mexican Grill in Marshalltown, Iowa, stands in front of his restaurant.
(Alfonso Medina / La Carreta Mexican Grill)

This summer, Alfonso Medina installed a small yard sign in front of La Carreta Mexican Grill, the restaurant in Marshalltown, Iowa, that he opened in 2018.

The “We believe” sign (whose origins journalist Chris Taylor traced recently to a group of women in Wisconsin) read, in part: “We believe Black Lives Matter, No human is illegal, Love is love.”

Medina, whose restaurant became a popular campaign pitstop in the weeks and months leading up to this year’s Iowa caucus, said the decision to post the sign was a “no-brainer.”

“We keep our business religion- and party-neutral,” said Medina, who operates the restaurant with his wife, Vanessa Perez.

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“I put up a sign with some very basic ideas that people should agree on: ‘Science is real. Water is life.’

“I mean, try living without water for one month and see how it goes.”

When a customer wrote a letter condemning the sign as “politically correct propaganda,” Medina defended it on his personal Facebook page, signing his post: “No love, no tacos.”

Recently, in a tongue-in-cheek move that also happens to amplify his message, Medina installed a prominent “No Love, No Tacos” sign in front of La Carreta.

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His story was recently picked up by CNN, and Medina’s punchy four-word tagline has taken on a life of its own, spawning a hashtag, T-shirts, and a new website championing two causes the 30-year-old is passionate about: getting out the vote, and advocating to make election day a national holiday.

“Alguien tenía que poner un alto al racismo, y poner nuestra comida como centro de negociación,” Medina told me this week (rough translation: “Someone had to help put a stop to racism, and put our food at the center of negotiation”).

I spoke to Medina this week about his decision to mix business, food and politics; what he means by “No love, no tacos”; and why Marshalltown is an excellent destination for Mexican food.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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Why did you decide to put up the “We believe” sign outside La Carreta?

I had two signs. One I put up in my house, and the other was just lying in the truck. I told my wife, Vanessa: “I’m going to put it up at the business.”

She said: “Oh, you’re brave.”

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It was up for weeks and we didn’t get much feedback. Then I got one letter. Then a second letter, which is the one I posted on my private Facebook page. I ended the post with the words “No love, no tacos.”

It just caught on. People told me I should make T-shirts.

We already had a scholarship fund established at our local community college, so I partnered up with a couple of local businesses to make “No love, no tacos” T-shirts. We donate the money to the Medina Family Scholarship Fund.

Why do you think the phrase “No love, no tacos” has resonated with so many people?

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Because you can’t pick and choose what you want to celebrate from a certain culture. It’s a whole package.

I also wrote on Instagram: “We’re sorry your burrito had to get political, but it was the only way y’all would listen.”

Words are powerful. I’m just happy to do my part to help spread the word about one of the most important elections of our lives.

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Has the publicity helped or hurt business?

We’ve kept pretty busy. Today a woman from Key West stopped in because she saw us on CNN. Lately we’ve been getting a lot of people from different states. It’s pretty cool.

We’re fortunate to have a lot of support in the community. [Marshalltown] is a small community but it’s a great foodie town. There are actually a lot of Mexican restaurants in this town of 28,000 people. You’d be surprised how many options you can find here.

La Carreta was originally your parents’ restaurant. Did you grow up with the expectation that you would follow in your parents’ footsteps?

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I come from a restaurateur background. My father has opened probably a dozen restaurants in his career in the state of Iowa. We’ve also had restaurants in Reno, Nev.

Both sides of my family are restaurateurs. They have been very successful. I definitely felt the weight of that. My dad went from crossing the border illegally three times to eventually shaking the hand of President Bush in 2000 in a Latino business leader meeting in Des Moines. That’s always stuck with me. He is a very savvy businessman. I have a lot of admiration for him.

I know many kids feel like they’re forced to work in their family restaurant, and they try to get away. I did that myself as a teen. I worked in different industries, including insurance for a while.

But restaurant people tend to come back. In 2018, I decided to reopen one of my dad’s former businesses in this community.

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The original "We Believe" sign outside La Carreta Mexican Grill in Marshalltown, Iowa.
(Alfonso Medina / La Carreta Mexican Grill)

Can you tell me a little about your family?

My family is from a town called Degollado, Jalisco. I tell people that I was made in Mexico but delivered in the U.S. My mom crossed with a tourist visa so I could be born in the United States.

I was born in Roanoke, Va., but basically raised in Iowa. I was fortunate enough that my parents were able to take us to visit Mexico regularly. We lived there for a couple of years.

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I’m the oldest of five. My younger sister, Ely, is assistant director for student organizations and activities at the University of Kentucky. My brother Isaac is in Cincinnati getting his law degree. My brother Omar is getting his degree at Iowa State, and my youngest brother, Marcos, is in his senior year of high school.

My father immigrated to this country at 16. He was undocumented and tried to cross not once, not twice, but three times, just to make sure we could have a better future. He made it to California eventually and picked strawberries.

I’m very proud to say that I come from somebody who migrated here, who dropped everything and said, “Screw it. Let’s go.”

How did your family end up in Iowa?

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My family moved to North Carolina and then eventually migrated to the Midwest because there was less competition in the kind of Tex-Mex restaurants that were popular.

We landed in Marshalltown, which is one of the communities in the state with the highest percentage of Latinos. It’s about 30% Latino. One out of four people here speak Spanish.

Food has been very important for us. It’s opened doors for people to get to know a different culture.

Did you make changes to the menu when you reopened La Carreta?

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I kept the same name because the restaurant already had a following, but the menu is completely different.

I’m vegan and my wife is vegan, for various reasons. We incorporated plant-based options into the menu. I’m sad to say our Mexican restaurant might be the only one with vegan options in the state of Iowa.

What would you say to other restaurant owners who want to live their values but are afraid of mixing politics and business?

The way I see it, we are tax-generating businesses who employ people. We pay local, state and federal taxes. We should have the right to voice what we believe in. There are bigger corporations and companies that are vocal and put so much money toward what they believe in.

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If you see my business, you’ll see I don’t have a Biden sign or a Trump sign. When I do post political stuff, I save it for my personal page and Twitter.

But I think I might have started something, because I see other businesses in town starting to put up the same sign.

My generation is doing things a little bit different than previous generations of restaurant owners. We have social media at our fingertips. We’re a little more vocal, and we’re not scared.

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