SAN ANTONIO — The bright orange Mexican marigold decorates altars for Dia de Los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, at historic Mi Tierra downtown.
“It's not a scary holiday about ghosts and ghouls and things that Halloween might be about,” Carino Cortez said. “But it's more about the culture and the tradition and memories."
Cortez knows about culture and memories. Her grandfather, Pedro Cortez, opened the landmark restaurant 77 years ago.
“He really wanted to put his mark on this place and he named it Mi Tierra,” she said, “which means 'my country and my land.'"
After decades of growth and expansion, the sprawling, festive restaurant now dominates El Mercado near Milam Park, and has become a San Antonio Tex-Mex institution.
"They taste the food, they hear the mariachi music, they take their photograph in this gorgeous restaurant space,” Cortez said. "And they'll have a story to tell when they leave here."
The Cortez family now owns four restaurants, employing 600 people and serving tasty Tex-Mex with a hefty side of Mexican culture to 1.5 million diners every year.
“It's familia; our community is our family,” said Eusebio Trujillo, a longtime manager at Mi Tierra, as well as the restaurant’s meat buyer and a cousin to the Cortez family. “So we're here displaying the best of the best of our culture, and it's not just about making the taco. It's about feeding minds, souls and spirits."
Cortez opened the first family eatery here in 1941, having bought a tiny restaurant called Jamaica #5 for $150. Before long, he was feeding San Antonians 24-7 with one counter and three small tables. His wife, Cruz, ran the kitchen.
Years later, they bought another restaurant, renaming it Mi Tierra. The name may have been inspired by Mexican Revolutionary Emiliano Zapata's famous phrase, “La Tierra es para quien la trabaja,” which translates to "The land belongs to those who work it."
A popular T-shirt sold at the restaurant’s gift counter depicts a defiant Zapata in a sombrero above the Mi Tierra logo.
On a recent weekday morning, Carino provided KENS with a tour of the restaurant, including the site’s first dining room.
“That's where it all started,” she said. "We added the pictures because it also gives you that added feeling of home,when you're in someone's kitchen. So we have a lot of family photos around here. "
Those photos dot almost every wall in Mi Tierra; some of prominent politicians like Ronald Regan and Bill Clinton, others of distant family members and longtime employees.
In the 1950s, Cortez added a panaderia – or bakery – and helped the city upgrade the nearby El Mercado to reduce crime.
By the '80s and '90s, other restaurants followed, growing the Cortez food empire now entering its fourth generation.
“We've got this altar with several different family members and patrons,” Cortez said. "We've got my grandfather here in the middle with the glasses, we've got the candles and the lights that light the way.”
Those candes light the way, according to Mexican tradition over the holiday, for ancestors' souls to return on this day to be honored by their descendants.
But San Antonio's ancestors and stars are honored every day in a giant Mi Tierra mural stretching across an entire rear dining room. It includes Mexican icons like Zapata and Frida Kahlo, as well as film stars like Cantinflas and Eva Longoria, Medal of Honor recipient Roy Benavidez and politicians Henry B. Gonzales, Henry Cisneros and the Castro brothers.
"A restaurant, a lot of times, is just a plate of food,” Cortez said. "But here at Mi Tierra, we like to say that we build memories.”