On this Christmas weekend, Rosa Lucatero and Ruben Verduzco know they are blessed. It’s been nearly a year since the husband and wife opened their restaurant, Carnitas La Yoca on South Sixth Avenue, across from Tucson’s VA hospital.
Their restaurant, which serves food from their native state of Michoacan in western Mexico, is the result of perseverance and serendipity.
“In part it has been luck, but we have worked hard,” said Verduzco, 36.
For the couple, it’s almost a miracle.
They came to this country without legal authorization. Their second son has autism. Verduzco lost his construction job. City building codes and county health regulations were a spider web of confusion when they were prepping the restaurant for opening.
And Verduzco spent nearly a month in immigration detention.
That they were able to meet their challenges and resolve problems is a testament to the couple’s fortitude and resiliency. They didn’t back down. They were motivated because they wanted a better life for themselves and their two boys, Kevin and Richard.
Both husband and wife now are in good legal standing. Their son is exceeding everyone’s expectations and attends mainstream classes. And their restaurant — which opened last Jan. 6, Three Kings Day — has been successful. Foodies seek out La Yoca’s deep-fried pork and pig stomach lining called buche, considered a delicacy by Mexican food cognoscenti.
Even selecting the restaurant’s name was a serendipitous moment. Verduzco went to City Hall to register the name he had originally selected — Carnitas Santa Ana, the name of his small town. But that was taken. So in a spur of the moment, Verduzco decided on La Yoca — his brother’s nickname.
Their journey began back home. Verduzco worked alongside his father, who sold carnitas. Lucatero worked making corn tortillas. The two met in their teen years, and he was smitten. So much so that when Lucatero’s parents sent her to California, he followed her to Santa Barbara.
To pay for the high cost of living in the ritzy coastal city, they each worked two jobs. But they were spinning their wheels.
The couple eventually abandoned their rented room and headed for less-expensive Tucson, arriving 10 years ago in a ’91 Honda Accord with Kevin, their first-born son, clothes, a TV and their dreams.
She got a job cleaning hotel rooms. He worked as a construction framer. Life was better.
They rented a one-bedroom house and eventually she became was pregnant with their second son. But in early ’08, on the day she stopped working shortly before Richard’s birth, Verduzco was laid off, an economic victim of the recession.
She returned to work as soon as she could, but one paycheck was not enough. Midway through that year, a friend suggested he sell carnitas out of his house. Verduzco was embarrassed, but his food and her tortillas were a hit.
He began cooking and catering for friends and strangers. But that ended when Verduzco was discovered by a city code inspector and his home kitchen was shut down. However, the inspector did something valuable: He suggested Verduzco buy a food cart and told him how to get the permits.
They parked their carnitas coach at the intersection of East Ajo Way and South Country Club Road, and a growing legion of customers followed. Then came the diagnosis of Richard’s autism. Again, they sought answers and assistance, and got him into therapy.
Nothing came easy for the couple as they worked and cared for their boys. Some days they wanted to give up, but that wasn’t an option.
Then came Oct. 10, 2010. A block away from where they would eventually open the restaurant, two U.S. Border Patrol agents stopped Verduzco while he was driving. He hadn’t committed a driving infraction, Verduzco said. It was several months after Arizona had passed SB 1070.
Verduzco was sent to a detention facility where he stayed for 28 days until his family and friends could get him out on bond.
As they cleared up their immigration status, the couple turned to opening the restaurant. With money they had saved and some from their Michoacan families, they took over what used to be Maria’s Cafe at 3530 S. Sixth Ave.
While it appears that the couple has reached their dreams, they have one yet to be realized: A return to Michoacan some day to visit family.