Perseverance, secret of all triumphs. – Victor Hugo
In Greek mythology there was a bird that could live for a long time and could also be regenerated or reborn from the ashes of its predecessor. This bird is a phoenix.
There’s a cozy little café near Clarksburg that represents much more than the sum of its menu items. Over decades it has become a local landmark and, like a phoenix, rose literally from its own ashes to become bigger and better than its former self. After thirty years of raising eight children, putting them through college and postgraduate schools, and owning and operating Shorty’s La Amistad (The Friendship) Café, Gilberto and Juanita Lopez’s restaurant caught fire. It took three years, but they were able to rebuild and expand this well known local landmark.
No blinking neon lights or valet parking here to entice the hungry traveler, although there is a vinyl banner identifying this small café about three miles west of Clarksburg. The locals know it only as Shorty’s, and, unless you were looking for it, you’d probably whiz right on by.
On the day I visited, the weather was cold, damp, and gloomy with the morning fog beginning to lose ground to the promise, or at least the hope, of blue skies to come. Welcoming warmth and the amalgamated aromas of chicken frying, sauces simmering, and refried beans wafting into the seating area from the kitchen greeted me even before Gilberto ‘Gil” Lopez, Jr., the fifth child of Juanita and Gilberto, Sr.
Gilberto, Sr. or Shorty, as he’d been known since his days of working the fertile Delta fields, passed away in 2009. But Juanita, now in her early eighties, is still performing her kitchen magic as she has been doing since about 1972 when they first rented the café. While the more gregarious Shorty was great at running the front of the café and mingling with patrons, Juanita was more than happy to stay in the back creating the delicious food that keeps people returning for more. To this day she prefers to be in back quietly doing what she enjoys most.
Juanita, her son Gil (now an attorney living in Sacramento), and I sit in a relatively quiet corner of the cafe and chat amid the musical notes of dishes and silverware being bussed from tables as the breakfast crowd thins out.
“Shorty” and Juanita immigrated from Mexico in 1950 and soon found their way to the Delta because they had heard of job opportunities there.
All seven of Juanita and Shorty’s children, and a niece, were raised in the Delta. For a while they lived in Courtland but settled in Clarksburg in 1954 once their oldest daughter started elementary school. All the Lopez children attended Clarksburg Elementary School and graduated from Delta High School, going on to higher education and successful careers. To make sure that was possible, Juanita and Shorty worked the café long hours and seven days a week.
“Our parents opened the cafe in 1972 after about twenty years of working the fields,” recalled Gilberto, Jr. “They rented at first until 1975 when they purchased the café situated on a 5 acre parcel of land. Our parents only had about $3,000.00 saved at the time which was not enough as a down payment. However, with Jim Yelland’s (Shorty’s previous employer for a number of years) recommendation and the financial flexibility of the owner, my parents were able to buy the property,” he said. “Although the wherewithal was Shorty’s and Juanita’s, Shorty’s previous employers played an important role in helping them with credit references and such.”
Juanita adds, “When we rented La Amistad Cafe (now Shorty’s) from the owner, they only sold chili beans. I asked my husband about adding menu items but he wasn’t sure. ‘What if they don’t like it?’, he said. Well, they did!”
In November, 2002, the unthinkable happened. The cafe caught fire and burned nearly to the ground. “We felt sad,” says Juanita, “but we did not dwell over it. We treated it as if it was a normal life experience. When we reopened, it felt good and we were happy because it was bigger and, with God’s blessing, we were going to be fine.”
Gil continues, “After the fire, our Mom and Dad felt horrible. It took them completely out of their norm. From 1972 to about 2000 they were working 7 days a week and would only take a few holidays off during the year and about 2 weeks during Christmas. Our dad would be at the cafe at 5:00 a.m. or earlier and our mom at 6 or 6:30 a.m. They would return home sometime between 8 p.m. to 11 p.m. depending on the time of year.”
“It wasn’t easy to get the cafe back up and going. On the night of the fire, I remember asking my dad where the insurance papers were. He just looked at me and shook his head no. It turned out that our parents had stopped paying the insurance two years prior because it was getting too expensive. They had saved a little bit of money, but not nearly enough to rebuild the cafe. After helping all of us through college, there wasn’t much left.”
“Finding financing was difficult, too, because of our parents’ age at the time. Fortunately for us, though, we found Tom Backer, a lending officer with the Bank of Stockton. If it wasn’t for him, we probably would not have found financing. He had been to the cafe a number of times prior to the fire and knew about our parents and things they have done. He took the risk and spoke to his bosses on behalf of our parents and convinced them to provide the financing. It was a long three-plus years, however it was well worth it to see our parents back at work and happy,” Gil says.
“When we were kids my mom was the one that kept us in line,” Gil says of their childhood in Clarksburg. “There were consequences for our actions, whether it was for our conduct or something dealing with our education. Our parents taught us to be good people, however none of us were perfect. If there was something our mom felt was not right at school — our grades or our conduct — she would not hesitate having a meeting with our teacher or principal if needed. One thing we all knew going into a meeting was that our mom would first ask the teacher, ‘What is my child doing wrong?’ She would put the onus on us before anyone else. Our parents always stressed that education was our number one job and our father would have discussions with us about any issues we may have and give us advice and direction.
The Clarksburg community is what helped our parents to keep us in line, out of trouble, and focused on our studies and was a great place to grow up. There is a twenty year difference between the oldest to the youngest child with our childhoods beginning in the 1950’s through the late 1980’s and all of us enjoyed growing up in this small community.”
“Yes, there were some hard times, too,” Gil says. “Around 1971 our Dad lost his job as foreman of the irrigation crew after having worked for the same employer for many years. His employer had decided to retire and he could’t find work, so just after our youngest sister was born — I was 6 at the time — my father, two of my sisters, my grandmother, and I went to The Dalles, Oregon, to pick cherries for two months in order to bring money into the family. While the rest of my family stayed home, we literally lived in the cherry orchards. Our Dad would park the car about 10 to 12 feet from the cherry tree and use 2X4’s, rope, and a tarp to make a tent. This was our home for two months. Being only a small child at the time, I didn’t realize those were tough times for our parents. I was picking cherries for fun and probably eating more than I put in the bucket. But for my sisters, Silvia and Maruca, teenagers at the time, they were helping our parents put food on the table. We were poor financially, but rich as a family working together. It was about eight months later that the opportunity to rent the café presented itself to our parents.”
“The Delta is an absolutely wonderful place to raise a family and our parents are grateful to the Delta community. Unfortunately, there were times where each of us experienced discrimination to some degree. However, when we would discuss a situation we experienced to our parents, they would basically tell us not to pay attention to that, to just go forward and keep doing what you are doing.”
“Our father had a way of keeping life in perspective. If someone had taken something from the café or around the house, he would just say, ‘Well, they must have needed it more than we did.’ Then he would tell us all, ‘Sigue Adelante.’ (keep going),” Gilberto recalls.
Parting thoughts –
After hearing their story, the word perseverance comes to mind. Shorty and Juanita immigrated from Mexico and worked twenty years in Delta fields and, while raising eight children, found a way to purchase this little café and become self employed, all the while stressing to their children that education is the most important thing.
In parting and almost as an after thought, Gilberto said, “One day my parents were driving in Sacramento with my older sisters in the back seat of the car. My sisters were very young at the time and when they drove in front of Sacramento City College, my dad stopped the car, turned to looked at them, pointed to the school, and said in Spanish, ‘You’re going to go to this college.’ Well, we didn’t go to Sacramento City College, but we all did go to college and graduated.”
Education was the key for the eight children raised by Gilberto ‘Shorty’ and Juanita Lopez, of Clarksburg in the California Delta.
The way I see it, this is the culmination of the American dream.
Rich Turner explored, photographed, and aerial photo-mapped Antarctica as a Navy photographer, was a newspaper photojournalist for 19 years, and has operated his own fine art photography studio since 1990. “Delta Grandeur”, his traveling exhibit, is now touring California museums and libraries. His his most recent passion is spreading the word far and wide about what an amazing place the Delta and Greater Bay Area is. With the help of very talented writers, artists and photographers, publishing this magazine seems a good way to do that.