Dora Chicas has worn many name tags in her lifetime. There was the name tag she wore when she cleaned the New York police department, the name tag she wore during her night shifts at Walmart and the name tag she wore at her own restaurant in Hicksville, New York. Now she wears one from the University of Dallas.
Dora grew up on a cow farm in El Salvador, where she and her 11 siblings helped make cheese. She remembers her siblings playing with the 100 cows and other farm animals for fun.
Dora loved going to school as a kid and wanted to continue her studies after middle school, but she had to stop her studies before high school, as did her siblings, to help make cheese on the farm. She motions in the air as she describes how she would make the cheese, and I can imagine the queso fresco materializing in front of me.
At the age of 17, Dora immigrated to New York in 1990, where she met her husband, José, who had the same bus route as her. They were soon married and had four children: Oneyda, Adam, Kaelyn and Jonathan. They lived in Bay Shore, New York, an hour away from the heart of the city.
The family bought a restaurant in 1998, which they named Santa Fé Taquilla.
Dora describes her daily schedule in New York while pointing to the wrinkles around her eyes, which she said came from those years.
She would get up at 3 a.m., clean the Old Westbury police department from 4 a.m. to 7 a.m., go for a run (so that, she says, she could listen to the sing
ing birds), clean the restaurant for an hour, and then clean houses until she had to pick the kids up from school. Then the family would go to the restaurant where they would all work until 11:30 p.m. That was before she picked up a night shift at Walmart.
Dora said she would get only two hours of sleep every night, but she is quick to add that she liked all of her jobs, especially cleaning the police department. The only thing she regrets is not spending as much time with her kids when they were little as she would have liked.
The memory of the New York restaurant still lingers like a happy dream in the Chicas’ house. One old, tattered menu hangs on the wall, and it comes down so frequently for visitors to admire that Kaelyn, Dora’s younger daughter, smiles and groans quietly when it does. But Kaelyn nonetheless joins the visitors in poring over it.
The Chicas kids remember growing up in the restaurant. When the restaurant comes up, their conversation immediately turns to the huge crates of fresh ingredients the restaurant would receive every day. You don’t get used to cutting onions, Dora says with the certainty of experience. You have to wear goggles. The kids recall cutting tomatoes with a sense of nostalgia.
Kaelyn dreams of opening her own restaurant someday, inspired by her memories of being a kid in the New York restaurant. She prefers cooking Italian and so leaves the tamale-making to her mom. But for now, she’s in school to be a dentist.
Kaelyn’s older brother, Adam, doesn’t enjoy cooking like his parents and younger sister. He dreams of taking a road trip around the U.S., or simply driving with nowhere in particular to go. Because he enjoys driving so much, he helps with his dad’s trucking business while taking a few classes at a community college. Adam lights up when he describes the hauls he and his dad make across the country.
Adam, Kaelyn and Jonathan –– Dora’s youngest, who is still in high school –– are still living at home in Lancaster, TX, while Dora’s oldest, Oneyda, is married and lives nearby.
Dora’s husband, José, is the real chef of the family. When José immigrated to the U.S. in 1989, he took a job washing dishes in a restaurant, before climbing the ranks and eventually managing a New York bagel shop, which he left to start his own restaurant.
José is quiet, yet he looks very intently at me when he describes the ideal fish taco. Red cabbage and chipotle mayonnaise on top, he says in Spanish, gesturing with his hand to indicate perfection. But he owns a trucking company now, and spends many of his days on the road, away from any kind of kitchen. Dora said that she knows he misses cooking.
Any given night at the Chicas’ house may turn into a fiesta. Before dark, the memory of their New York restaurant seems to spill into their Texas backyard. Dora urges guests to fill a plate and she refuses to give anyone less than two pupusas, thick tortillas stuffed with cheese and meat, which are a typical dish of El Salvador. Dora has been cooking them all day.
Neighbors fill the yard at dusk. They do not speak Spanish, but they know the Chicas family well and seem to already be familiar with their cooking. Dora loads up a plate for someone homebound, and a neighbor takes it back to the woman’s home.
Still grilling meat at 10 p.m., José watches the dancers, who have come onto the concrete patio under the string lights to dance the bachata. He and Dora don’t dance, their kids explain to me, but they smile and laugh as they watch the young people. Dora records the dancing on her phone, intent on not missing a moment.