Fidel Montanez: “I like my privacy, that’s why I never moved out of Eden Gardens. I could go to Rancho, but who the hell wants to be living up there with all those highlights?"
The residents of Eden Gardens watch from the roadside as the cars wind their way around the potholes and up the main street. The nightly procession — gilded with Mercedes and BMWs from Del Mar, Rancho Santa Fe, and La Jolla — leads to four restaurants, and the greatest portion of cars will stop at the one owned by Fidel Montanez. Customers wait here two or more hours for a meal on a busy Friday or Saturday night, consuming gallons of margaritas as they do so; winsome young girls dressed in red and black will crash repeatedly through the kitchen doors carrying dinners — as many as six or seven hundred in a night. Novitiates will wander from room to room through passages they liken to catacombs, asking in awe, “Is it true this used to be a barber shop?’” And all through the night the cash registers will sing.
In flight from the Mexican revolution, about 1914, a young couple — the woman no older than sixteen or seventeen — left the poor, dry mountains of their homeland in Zacatecas and crossed into Texas. At the border they paid two cents for themselves and a penny for their baby daughter to be “dusted” for fleas, ticks, and lice by the U.S. Immigration Service. Dusting was common practice throughout both Mexico and the American Southwest during infestations of such pests, but this family’s tale would be retold and remembered by one of the couple’s future sons as an early example of discrimination against Mexicans.
Antonia and Ypolito Montanez wound their way through New Mexico, Colorado, and Kansas before finally coming to California and settling in Carlsbad. There they put the finishing touches on the family started back in Mexico and in April of 1935, when Ypolito was fifty, Antonia gave birth to a boy they named Fidel. He was the youngest of four sons and seven daughters.
Ypolito never spoke a word of English, nor did he attend a day of school; he came to Carlsbad without money or land, yet before he died he had come to own half a city block. He also raised a son who would own land in two states, travel the globe, and serve on the boards of directors of the Scripps Foundation and a local savings and loan — an individualist who followed the storybook American success formula and “made it” through sheer determination and a phenomenal capacity for work. Continual work has kept Fidel lean all his life, but at forty-six, and with the success of his business, he is beginning to show the first signs of a paunch. He has a flattened nose, closely cropped black hair, a thin moustache, and tiny black eyes capable of projecting an eviscerating glare — the no-nonsense eyes of a man who believes that “nobody else is going to do it for you. Nobody.”
Fidel Montanez was born in an old and tiny house on Carlsbad’s Madison Street between Palm and Chestnut. Lemon and orange trees took up most of the space between the few houses, and for a small boy the neighborhood was virtually self-contained, with both school and church only a few blocks away. The family moved around the corner to Roosevelt Street when Ypolito started buying up the parcels of his half block — purchases accomplished through the marshaled effort of the entire family. Every summer they would head north to the central valleys to pick crops —grapes, figs, tomatoes, cotton.
Ypolito was a hard worker and the earnings from the seasonal pickings were bolstered by the proceeds from a regular job and the sale of flowers and vegetables he grew for the L.A. markets. Fidel was the only one of the eleven children to help with this enterprise; the others were all well on their way to becoming adults and had jobs of their own. This childhood spent at the tail end of a family much older than he — a family he watched splinter apart as its members grew up and went their separate ways — seems to have had a profound effect on Fidel, and because of it, says one of his sons, he would become preoccupied with preserving a feeling of unity for his own family.
Fidel’s childhood spawned another yearning and it revolved around the Carlsbad Royal Palms Motel. “It used to be a private home,” he remembers. “They had a big Olympic-size swimming pool and we used to sneak over there and swim all the time.” In the mind of the boy whose family, says a friend, “had to count their tortillas at mealtime,” the opulent hacienda seems to have represented the very image of wealth and splendor, and, like some Mexican Gatsby, he determined some day to own his illicit boyhood swimming hole.
For such dreams Ypolito’s vegetable farm was not a promising point of departure, and when he was a junior in high school Fidel resolved to join the Air Force. He was underage, but overcoming that obstacle was easily managed; his father neither read nor wrote English, so the son was accustomed to signing all paperwork. Fidel never did finish high school but he came to feel the military was a place where you could “self-educate yourself — you go in and there’s nobody to baby you.’’ He also got to see the world beyond Carlsbad for the first time. “Up until he was seventeen he never got to see anywhere but Tijuana and Los Angeles,” says one of his sons. “Anywhere else he wasn’t even sure was on the map.”
After a two-year tour of duty, Fidel had difficulty finding employment and he wound up working in the civil service at the Camp Pendleton commissary, a job which lasted about a year and a half before he got fed up and quit. The civil service was not at all to his liking, particularly the monotonous, time-clock routine.
Following the civil service, Fidel started working for a man who operated a concession to cut hair at Camp Pendleton. Pay was fifty cents a head, and the faster you worked the more you earned. “I used to make good money,’’ he recalls. “It took about a minute. We’d make two rounds, one with a clipper then with an outliner to come back around. We never used scissors.’’ He felt, though, that this “was not really being a barber, it was just cut, cut, one way and that was it. There was no future; it was just something to get ahead.” Fidel started going to school to get a license and become a real barber. The CalVet plan provided him with tuition and expense money, but he had to keep cutting hair at Pendleton because of some newly incurred responsibilities.
Martha Rodriguez was a Carlsbad girl who had known Fidel all her life. Her parents were also from Zacatecas and spoke only Spanish. Like Fidel, though, she had picked up English and spoke both languages fluently. Talking, in fact, is something Martha loves to do; she will graciously sit a guest down, look earnestly into his eyes, and spin stories for hours on end. A short, portly woman with dark curly hair and proud, appealing facial lines, Martha is stout not only of frame but also of spirit; she had an ambition and willingness to work that matched Fidel’s, and in January of 1956 they wed. Fidel became a father in May of that same year. Martha, however, did not then become a mother.
Born to a San Marcos woman, Richard Montanez spent his formative years with his mother and stepfather before moving in with Fidel and Martha at the age of eighteen. Richard visited his father regularly as a child and he grew up a full-fledged member of both families, never thinking of himself as illegitimate; illegitimacy, he says, conveys the notion of being unwanted, whereas “the love and affection and the caring from all the people I feel are important, it’s there — parents, godparents, grandparents.”
Richard may have received his father’s love and acknowledgment, but something almost as important was withheld him. In Latin families the father’s given name is traditionally passed on to the eldest son and the bearer of that name is granted both privilege and authority — so much so that, in the absence of the father, he can control family finances and bestow or refuse permission for the daughters to marry. Fidel Jr. was born to Martha and Fidel in October of 1956 and he freely admits to a “difference” in the upbringing of him and his brothers. It is a difference not lost on them; as regards the business, he says, they all feel he’s “a part of it, a big part of it…and I think my dad feels I'm a big part.”
Fidel cut hair at Pendleton two or three years until switching to Miramar. License in hand, he then moved to a shop in downtown San Diego, from there to Pacific Beach, then to Del Mar. Martha worked for a carnation grower during this time, and continued to have babies — Mark, Duke, Jay, and York, in that order, followed Fidel Jr.; in 1964 a girl, Tracy, was born. Martha says she lost as little time as possible to childbearing. “I’d come home the day my children were going to be born and thirty, thirty-five days later I’d have them baptized and be back working.” A “lady from Mexico, illegal,” was hired to care for the children at home — a house in Encinitas on Golden Road. This house was, in part, a wedding gift from Martha's parents and it would later prove a problem because it came with a stem injunction never to sell it. “We’re giving you this piece of property,” her parents told them, “but it isn’t yours. It’s your children’s. Your children should always have a roof over their heads.”
Fidel was intent on opening his own barbershop as soon as he could and he tried scheme after scheme to bring in additional money; he began a gardening service when he was twenty-three (a venture he considers the start of his business career), and Martha took in children on the weekend and peddled homemade hot sauce and tortillas around the neighborhood. To the greatest extent possible, all earnings were put aside for the purpose of a shop; everything else waited. For a long time the family slept on the floor.
Fidel started looking for a business site while he was cutting hair in Del Mar. He didn’t have money enough for a Del Mar location, however, so he opened his shop in Eden Gardens. In November of 1960, he rented what is described variously by family members as a shack, a home (because it had a refrigerator), or a two-car garage. It was, in any case, surrounded by weeds.
In the hills just north of the Del Mar racetrack, a tiny cluster of shacks, or jacales, began forming in the 1920s. The residents had come from Mexico to work on “the Ranch” — Rancho Santa Fe — and they first called their community la colonia. Local residents still tend to think of the colony, now a part of Solana Beach, as a distinct town, but gradually it came to be known as Eden Gardens. The barrio includes probably no more than 200 small homes in an area about a quarter of a square mile, south of Lomas Santa Fe Drive and west of Interstate 5. The main street, Valley Avenue, runs north and south and off of it, like tines of a fork, branch a few short streets bearing the names of the first settlers: Castro, Hernandez, Gonzales. These streets either dead-end into the massive bulwark of 1-5 (completed in 1966 and forever curtailing the barrio’s expansion), or they curve through the hills and connect with each other, as have the families that gave the streets their names. Everybody in Eden Gardens seems to be related, and bonds with an ex-wife’s brother-in-law’s cousin can be as strong as those between brothers. There are five businesses along Valley Avenue: Baker Iron Works and four Mexican restaurants. About halfway down the avenue, the Bluebird and the Market Cafe, both small eateries, sit next door to each other, Tony’s Jacal and Fidel’s are at the northernmost end of Valley Avenue, also side by side. The Bluebird and Tony’s vie for the honor of being Eden Gardens’ oldest restaurant; Tony Gonzales established his Jacal, which started as part of his house, in 1946. The restaurant was a success and Tony was eventually able to move out of the restaurant and build an adobe manor — complete with trimmed front lawn and a magnolia tree — across the street from his business. The Bluebird has been in business off and on for more than forty years and its owners, the Rincon family, have intermarried with Tony’s family and members of both families work in each restaurant. (However, an employee at Tony’s says they don’t have much to do with the people at Fidel’s or the Market Cafe, which opened in 1970.)
Today much of the character of the old barrio is disappearing. Condominiums are springing up on all sides, and at twilight the lush vegetation, the streets without sidewalks, the mothers and children strolling along Valley Avenue, and the groups of young men conversing in the evening air can combine to give visitors an impression of idyllic tranquility. But when Fidel first came to the Gardens, dirt roads were the only link to the outside world, and the word most commonly used to describe the place was “rough.”
The main sources of employment were the racetrack, the local restaurants, and nearby golf courses. Life was characterized by a self-perpetuating cycle which exists to this day. “You see a Mexican father working his butt off,” says Fidel’s son Mark, “and maybe making $110 a week, and a family of five. Not that anybody deserves to get anything for free, but not getting anywhere with that kind of money. And that’s life, that’s it. There’s no ‘Next year I’m going to take this course’ or ‘Next year I’m going to get offered a better job.’ That’s it. And you see what they have to do to their son at sixteen — ‘Time for you to move out. You have to go. I can't support you.' ”
It was a chancy place to start a business, admits Fidel. “No question about it — the population was very small. But what the hell did I have to be afraid of? I had nothing to lose.” He discounted the warnings from old-timers about the difficulties faced by outsiders, but that his intrusion into the barrio really didn’t matter because they’d ‘ ‘ starved other barbers before. ’ ’ Fidel says he did take it seriously, though, when one “individual mentioned that he'd give me six months before I’d go broke, because he’d seen it over and over. To me that was great, because that was a challenge — life was a challenge as it was, raising five or six kids — and I thought, ‘Well, I’ll make it seven months.’”
Frequent and violent fights were another characteristic of the community, and while ascribed by Richard to social and economic causes (“If people don’t have the things they think they should have, then there’s going to be fighting, and a little alcohol tends to magnify those attitudes''), Fidel Jr. points to the fights as one sign of a flourishing drug trade with a continuing legacy. “Eden Gardens used to be a drop for heroin,” he says, “so you always had a lot of trouble. I lost most of the kids that were going to school with me to that drug. I think I have two or three left that I knew, that 1 still know. A few have died, the majority are in jail, the rest are either in an institution somewhere or they’re on the street in Eden Gardens. When I drive through, they’re standing on the comer, they’ve been standing there since we graduated in ’74.”
It was into this environment that Fidel interjected himself with an almost frantic urgency. Shortly after opening his barbershop in Eden Gardens, Fidel bought the shop of a deceased South Oceanside barber; he and an employee cut hair there in the daytime, and evenings Fidel worked alone in Eden Gardens. He also began cutting hair regularly at the old San Diego Military Academy, located in the hills above the barrio, and in 1962, as if he hadn’t enough to do already, Fidel put a beer bar in the Eden Gardens barbershop.
This bar, the first in an unending series of modifications and expansions, was built of concrete block and two-by-twelves — a sturdiness made necessary because, as Martha recalls, ‘‘there were so many fights and he didn’t want it knocked over.” Along with construction workers from Interstate 5, residents from Eden Gardens formed the bulk of this energetic clientele, though the cliquish nature of the barrio remained strong as ever. One person familiar with the times says the locals ‘‘would come, have their beer, and before they would leave, they would say something bad about Fidel.”
To keep all these business endeavors running, Fidel left his house in Encinitas at five-thirty or six in the morning and headed first up to Oceanside. In midafternoon he would drive to Eden Gardens and work there until closing the bar at 2:00 a.m. All Fidel’s earnings were plowed back into his business, and when at one point his car stopped running, he hitchhiked from job to job because he couldn’t afford money for repairs. At the end of the day, says Martha, if he was lucky he would bum a ride from a customer at the bar. But after four or five months he confessed to his wife that he “just had to break down,” and for $225 he purchased a dilapidated Ford.
With the advent of the beer bar, he started spending more time at the Eden Gardens location and it wasn’t long before he was in the food business. The story, as Martha tells it, has the smooth gloss of numerous repetitions. “I would pack him a lunch and he would say, ‘Honey, pack an extra one. I always have a customer there that — I hate to eat my lunch and he watches me.’ So I always packed an extra sandwich or an extra burrito. Pretty soon it got to be like ten sandwiches, then fifteen sandwiches or fifteen burritos. Then one day he came home and he said, ‘I’m so tired of cold food. I bought a little plate, make something warm and I’ll heat it up myself.’ Then, ‘Send four bowls.’ Then it got bigger and bigger. Then I guess the health inspector came out and said, ‘Fidel, you can’t do this.’ And Fidel said, ‘I’m not selling it. These are just my friends.’ It was like a men’s club where the guys would come in and gossip and chat and discuss the news, their families, and this and that.”
Whether or not he was selling the food, the health inspector’s visit prodded Fidel to take a step he’d already decided was necessary for other reasons. Bringing in food, he figured, would reduce some of the beer hall atmosphere so conducive to the fights he regularly had to break up. The new kitchen, in the first of what would be five different locations, went in where the barbershop had been, the barbershop went into what is now a women’s bathroom, and they began serving food to a few outdoor tables. The year was 1964.
At this point Fidel told his wife he needed her in the restaurant. The two of them would prepare their meats and vegetables at night; during the day she would cook and, she says, “When Fidel wasn't cutting hair, he would come in and wash dishes or he would be the waiter." Martha used recipes learned from her mother. The original intention was just to serve beans, tacos, and enchiladas, but to satisfy demand they soon found themselves Fixing came asada, chili verde, chili rellenos — “the whole thing.” Martha had even started out making tortillas by hand until she could no longer keep up with customers, who would wait to eat them as soon as they were made.
That same year the Eden Gardens property was put up for sale and Fidel was offered first chance to buy. “I wanted it so bad,” he says. “I was involved, where was I going to go with my business?” And when he was asked whether he could afford the purchase, Fidel’s reply was inevitable. “I says, ‘I can handle it.’ And I couldn’t handle another payment if I had money coming from the sky. But I says, ‘I can, 1 will handle it,’ ” and the family’s budget was again tightened to finance the business. The early development of the business was funded exclusively in this manner (one of the first expansions was paid for with money hoarded away over a seven-year period and stashed in a cardboard jewelry box, a coffee can, and a Mexican piggy bank). Fidel simply had no other source of money, as he learned when the original owner of his property, to whom he made payments, died and Fidel had the opportunity to pay off his mortgage at a substantial discount — except that he couldn’t borrow against his shoestring operation. “I tried all over, night and day,” he says. “The banks wouldn’t give me no money. They only lend money to people that don’t need it. I went to Bank of America and they refused me. And any of the others, they wouldn’t. They weren’t going to lend me money — it was like trying to pull teeth. It made me furious. Furious. But what can you do?”
With all the running around, Fidel was only seeing his children a few spare hours per week. A decaying house sat on the lot with his newly purchased garage turned barbershop, and in early 1965 Fidel moved his family into this house so he could gain some time with his family and consolidate his schedule. This decision was made with considerable anguish as it entailed selling the Encinitas home, which was covered not only by the understanding with Martha’s parents, but also by a Cal Vet loan with payments of only seventy-two dollars a month. Expediency won out in the end, though. Martha never discussed the sale with her parents, telling herself, “I’m going to sell it to better myself.” But in truth, she says, “We were coming to nothing. It was a very old home, decrepit — when you were sitting in the bathroom you could see outside through cracks in the wall. It was in horrible condition, but Fidel says, ‘We'll work with it.’ ”
The first improvement was a paint job — surplus army-green paint put on in one night. “We gave the kids each a brush,” says Martha. “Fidel got a roller and hit the high spots, I got the middle, and the kids got the bottom. People laughed when they saw what we did.” The paint turned black, Fidel winces, “because the wood was so dry. I says, ‘Ah shit — as long as it holds up for a while.’ ”
House and garage were soon connected and the restaurant began steadily creeping into the house, the family’s living quarters receding before it. The shells of three separate houses, plus the original garage, are incorporated in the present building. One of the houses was built specifically for the family in 1972 and lasted about three years before succumbing to the growth of the restaurant, but the other structures were simply taken over as the need and opportunity arose. The restaurant’s interior bears witness to this amalgamation and rooms branch off rooms in a wholly haphazard fashion; every part of the restaurant has done past duty in other capacities, be it kitchen, bar, lounge, storage room, or office, and the references employees use for some sections recall functions long since discarded, such as “the bedroom” — once Mark’s bedroom.
Fidel’s is an efficiency expert’s nightmare (a rough schematic of the layout would have an hourglass shape, and the narrow corridor connecting the two halves is generally clogged with bewildered customers and busboys bearing trays of dirty dishes), the place is dark and much of it has an almost subterranean feel, but it exhibits an “authenticity” which enchants patrons. The restaurant is continually in a state of change, walls are forever being knocked down and moved, rooms enlarged or closed off, windows relocated, traffic flows altered. The incessant remodeling seems to have become an end in itself, one means of channeling an extraordinary restlessness, but it began as a way of accommodating an expanding business. One early customer told Martha he was sure their walls were on wheels and he asked. How can you move them? “We did the cooking in the daytime,” she says, “and in the night we would move walls.”
The endless transformations did not go unnoticed by local residents. The population was not only small, it was also very closed. There were sharply defined rules of acceptance and exclusion, and newcomers definitely were not welcomed. “My husband was not accepted,” recalls Martha. “The leaders of little towns, or the main families of little towns, and at that time here that was Tony, they set little rules and they don’t want to invite you in. Tony is up here and there’s nobody that can climb.” Tony died in 1974, but not before Fidel and Martha learned some of the “little rules. ” A local patron once happened to see the blueprints for yet another planned remodeling of the restaurant and he told them they could not have a tile roof “because Tony’s has a tile roof and whatever Tony has, nobody else can have.” But Fidel went ahead with his red tile roof; he also put in an outdoor patio, another feature of Tony’s Jacal.
In other respects as well, the early days of the restaurant were not like they are now. “I remember times when we had seventy-five people and had to close the doors because we ran out of food,” Mark recalls. “To tell people we’re out of beans, we’re out of rice, or we’re out of everything — it was frequent. He didn’t have enough money to buy that type of inventory and hold it in hopes that it would turn over. Or in the summertime when it got so hot in the kitchen — we tried to turn off the lights, but we couldn't afford blowers and we'd have to close the doors. Sometimes we had to close when it rained because the top section had so many holes in it that it would be impossible — the water came down too fast.
A picturesque history of the business on the restaurant’s current menu mentions that from the very beginning the whole family helped out “in one way or another. Washing dishes, cutting vegetables, cleaning. Sometimes standing on boxes. . . .” Yet the abbreviated account makes it difficult to grasp fully the extent of this “helping out ” When they were kids, remembers Mark, their presence in the restaurant was required, and time for playing with friends was the scarcest of commodities. “Whether it was to open the door or just stand there and smile at somebody,” he says, “you had to be there.” Work schedules were similar to that which Jay started when he was twelve years old and maintained until he graduated from high school two years ago: in the summertime he would work the lunch shift from eleven to three, maybe go to the beach, then work the dinner shift from four-thirty to eleven or whenever he was able to quit; in the winter he worked the night shift every day after school.
Reprieves from this schedule were a hard-won affair, as Mark discovered when he wanted to play high school football. His father at first said no, recalls Mark, because it would leave him too tired to work. But after much argument it was finally agreed that if he could handle them both, fine; if not, he would have to drop football. It was not until he made all-league that he finally won the support of his father. “He saw me become something in it, so I guess he didn't think it was just a waste. The biggest thing for my father during that time was, ‘You don’t have a day to waste in your life. You don’t have an hour to waste. You've got to be willing to put into this business a hundred percent of your mind and your ability.’”
What drives or compels a person is often a mystery. For Fidel money, and the means to rise above his beginnings, undeniably had something to do with it. But Fidel’s sons maintain that early on he became obsessed with building the restaurant as a mechanism that would hold his family together in a way his father’s family never had been. “He did it,” says Jay, “because if the restaurant was there, we would all be there with him. It wasn’t the money, but having a business where everyone could be there. He had it worked out in his mind that we would all be content doing something in his restaurant, in his world.”
Martha’s motivations are easier to understand. She says she “was driven by position. I always wanted to be married to a Señor. It wasn’t only going to be Fidel, I wasn't going to be satisfied with that. I wanted for people to look up to him and say, ‘Señor Fidel.’ ” But she also wanted “a house with a swimming pool, a Cadillac, a diamond ring, and the ability to travel all over the world. I guess those things to me were money, symbols of money … And it all became a reality.”
As Fidel Jr. remembers it, it happened almost overnight, and he dates the transformation at the fall of 1973 when, instead of tapering off as usual after a busy summer business just kept on going. But the turnabout was not the result of some miraculous alchemy; rather, the scrimping and saving had begun to pay off and the family could start relaxing the discipline. Prosperity was in sight.
The restaurant's menu says “the food is prepared daily in our kitchen by Martha,” but that chore has long been performed by members of the restaurant’s staff of nearly one hundred. The kitchen crew is almost I entirely Mexican and they prepare enormous quantities of food in a marvel of unmechanized labor. In the mornings, employees can be seen with tears in their eyes while slicing piles of green onions; at all times of the day huge stacks of tortillas stand on tables ready to be quartered and fried into com chips; in the cold lockers, plastic garbage buckets filled with shredded lettuce sit side-by-side with great metal vats of thick, brick-red hot sauce, vats which frequently prove a source of amusement when a new dishwasher cleans one for the first time. The metal, steam, and hot sauce dregs can produce fumes strong as ammonia, but if the man is macho, he will affect as unperturbed a manner as possible — though bursting with sweat and ready to swoon.
Fidel's is justly famous for its tostadas supremas, monsters created, with the rest of the finished dishes, behind a bank of cafeteria-style stainless steel. When an order for one comes in, a fried flour tortilla is smeared with refried beans, heaped with shredded meat — chicken or beef — then passed on to be covered with lettuce, scoops of sour cream and guacamole, deftly sprinkled with handfuls of green onions, tomatoes, and, finally, topped with crumbled Jalisco cheese. When the production line is up to speed, this process takes only a few minutes and its completion is heralded with the loud cry of "platos!!" whereupon the food is taken out front to be served — usually by Anglos. The schism between ethnic groups is striking, but solely attributable, says Jay, to the ability to speak English. The English speakers handle the money and the Spanish speakers work amidst the clatter of dishes and the ever-present smell of cooking lard.
Martha continued working in the restaurant long after it was necessary but she finally quit in 1976. All her cooking is now done in the kitchen of her own home. After yielding addition upon addition to the restaurant. the family moved in the spring of 1975 to a house two doors away — after doing substantial remodeling; they tripled the floorspace and added a pool, Jacuzzi, and gym. Inside, they laid Mexican tile floors and built fireplaces and brick archways between rooms; the kitchen is now stocked with gleaming appliances and huge polished copper pans; throughout the house doors are left wide open to allow for a constant flow of children, friends, and helpers from the restaurant who come to work as maids.
The house’s exterior is white stucco and red tile to match the restaurant, and it is surrounded by parking lots front and back to provide room for Martha’s Cadillac, Fidel’s Porsche, and the constantly changing fleet of cars owned by the kids — a trend initiated by the new Thunderbird Fidel Jr. received at sixteen. Their father used to buy them “a lot of cars,” says Mark. “Before I was eighteen I had already had five cars. ... I turned fifteen and he got me a car. He wanted to make up for things I didn't get when I was younger. He never was able to go fishing with us or to a baseball game, or any of that kind of stuff. All his mind was business, business, business. I used to think about it a lot. I used to think, ‘I don’t have a dad, I just have a father that works a lot.’ ”
Martha is not yet reconciled to her symbols of wealth. “I’m ashamed to wear my diamond ring,” she says. “I’ve never used my fur coat — I have a little fur that I never use I’m not afraid it’ll get stolen. I’m just afraid that people would like it and they can’t afford it.’’ But Fidel wears a solid-gold Rolex these days. He does continue to work in the restaurant, though — when not visiting his cabin in Washington State or playing the horses at Del Mar.
One typical workday this past summer, Fidel took a small pick-up truck and delivered bottled margarita mix and cans of cubed beef stamped “Product of Paraguay’’ to his two other restaurants. He wore blue canvas boating shoes, white pants, and a blue shirt with a V-neck which exposed a gold chain. After gassing up in Solana Beach, he headed out Via de la Valle toward Escondido. Passing Rancho Santa Fe, he commented to a passenger that most of the people there were “born with a silver spoon in their mouths’’ and they don’t know how to take care of themselves, “they can’t even water their own plants — they put on too much water. What they know,’’ he said, “they know only from books.’’
Fidel's Escondido restaurant is on Escondido Boulevard just north of Washington. Fidel bought the building, which was once a coffee shop, and remodeled it to resemble his original restaurant — white stucco, red tile, a dark interior partitioned into rooms hung with serapes and bullfight posters.
On the front door that day was a notice advising that the restaurant would be closed for an upcoming holiday. This was news to Fidel, and when he asked about it, Richard, who was filling in for Fidel Jr., current manager of the Escondido branch, told him Fidel Jr. was responsible for the closing. Fidel unloaded the truck then took off for his Carlsbad restaurant where he found Fidel Jr. and told him he wanted the Escondido branch open for the holiday. The employees had already been told they could have the day off, replied Fidel Jr., and most of them had already made plans. “Well, you do something,” said Fidel. “I don’t care if there’s arguments. We’re talking about $2000 or some arguments. You put up with the arguments.’’ It proved impossible to reassemble a staff, however, and in the end Fidel Jr. and his employees got the day off while his father lost money.
Mark was managing the Carlsbad restaurant at the time and he was also having problems — of a different sort. Some lady, he told his father, was sitting in the patio “and a bird shit all over her. She had a white blouse and she said, ‘This is not going to come out.’ She had it all over her hair and she was making a scene.” The woman wanted a new blouse but Mark told her they’d take care of the cleaning and that was it. “If it was the restaurant’s fault, okay, but,” he shrugged, “if it’s nature…”
After conferring with a carpenter working on an alteration in the bar (there was a long discussion on the appropriate size for the enlargement of a service window), Fidel traded cars and drove his Porsche back home to Solana Beach.
With the visible accumulation of wealth, many things have begun changing for the Montanez family, among them the dynamics of prejudice. Ted Gildred is a son of one of San Diego’s oldest and wealthiest families. He spent his youth in Latin America and when he started developing Lomas Santa Fe in the late Sixties he took a natural interest in the nearby barrio of Eden Gardens, an interest which resulted in a lasting friendship with Fidel. In 1978 Gildred, now chairman of the board of Torrey Pines Bank, was serving on the board of directors of Rancho Santa Fe Savings and Loan and he was asked if he knew of any Mexican-Americans who would be interested in joining the board. “They asked me for very practical reasons,” he says, “because they were getting pressured.” He talked to Fidel about it and when Fidel asked why he was being asked, Gildred told him outright that “they would probably like to have a Mexican-American — a few Mexican-Americans on their board.”
Fidel joined and he served until Home Savings and Loan took over in 1980. He says he enjoyed his tenure on the board but is unwilling to discuss the matter beyond stating that “it was quite educational.” It was also, as Martha recalls it, quite a revelation. “ Who is able to get a loan and who is not?” he would ask her rhetorically. “John Doe can get a loan and I’ll tell you why. He owns 50,000 acres over here and 10,000 over here, he lives in Rancho Santa Fe and he has a good position. . . .We can loan him money! But John Smith needs money to buy a car. We cannot give him money. They can give money to Mr. Doe because he’s got money; they can lend money to money, they cannot lend money where it’s needed.”
Through his presence on the board, however, Fidel was able to help facilitate matters for some people who might otherwise have had difficulty obtaining money. “Not that his being Mexican helped any to get other Mexicans loans,” says Gildred. “Fidel was very straight about that. He would never say, ’Yeah, give my raza a loan.’ If they deserved it, they got it; if not, they didn’t.” What did help, says Gildred, was the increased access; it helps tremendously if a board member can “personally vouch” for a borrower. “If somebody called and said, ‘Hey, are these people responsible?’ and Fidel could say yes, that gave the bank an inside track.” And Mexican-Americans from communities like Eden Gardens “unfortunately don’t have much of an inside track. So with him they did have a little more.”
No such compensation existed when he was asked, again with the involvement of Ted Gildred, to serve on the board of Scripps Memorial Foundation in 1979. “He was all excited about it at first,” remembers Mark, “and then he stopped and realized, ‘You know what? The only reason they put me on the board, besides the image of an established, successful, family man and contributor to the community, is because I’m brown, because they don’t have a Mexican on the board. They don’t want me, they don’t need me. I just fit what they needed and they took it.’ ” He resigned after one year.
Martha was “honored speechless” by Fidel’s membership on the two boards, but for Fidel the experiences seem to have been more uncomfortable than anything else, particularly the service on the Scripps board, on which sat members of the Copley and Jessop families, the sort of people who Gildred says “tend to think of themselves as the blue-bloods of La Jolla.” Fidel’s English at times comes only with difficulty, and one can easily imagine his uneasiness among people who, according to Gildred, “are educated and have had means for a couple of generations. . . . Fidel and Martha have been to cocktail parties hosted by the board of Rancho Santa Fe, or the hospital, and the differences in their backgrounds becomes suddenly apparent: they feel awkward, consequently so do other people, and consequently they don’t get invited to the parties and social events in, say. Rancho Santa Fe.”
Fidel reacts to this by proclaiming that he has no interest in Rancho Santa Fe anyway. “I like my privacy, that’s why I never moved out of Eden Gardens. I could go to Rancho, but who the hell wants to be living up there with all those highlights? Who needs it? I’d rather do my own little thing and be happy.” Eden Gardens, though, offers him as slight an opportunity for happiness as does Rancho Santa Fe; financial success has merely perpetuated his exclusion. Fidel is not accepted to this day, and candid residents will admit it's for one reason only: jealousy. The Montanez children feel the ostracism when they drive down the street and the “locals don’t all wave,” and though Martha sends gifts to the weddings, showers, and parties, she and Fidel do not attend because they’re “too busy.” Richard, just returned from vacationing in an ocean-front Hawaiian condominium with four of his brothers, acknowledges that success has “severed the ties” between them and the rest of Eden Gardens. “We do things so much differently than everybody else here. None of the other families can hop around like this family does — you know, go here, go there, do this, do that.”
Money has also distanced Fidel from his oldest friends, the friends he grew up with in Carlsbad. “They were a tight little group,” says one of his sons, “and now if he was to go to one of their parties, he’d be there and they’d be talking about how it’s getting rough right now — ‘We’re going to have to move, we can’t afford this, we can’t afford that’ — and he’s just back from Europe and just got a new car. He would feel weird. He’s caught in the middle.”
Despite Fidel’s skeptical attitude toward book learning, one of his most compelling dreams was that his children would get an education. One would be a doctor, one a lawyer, one a politician. It was a dream he now says is “down the tubes.”
Fidel’s older sons have all tried going to college at one time or another, most often at MiraCosta, but each time the attempt has been short-lived. In school they have tried to maintain the same lifestyle they have been able to finance with their salaries of up to $18,000, and as the bills begin mounting, rather than economize they have always chosen to quit school and return to work at the restaurants. Fidel has usually started them out with an offer of financial support, then withdrawn it as their profligacy has continued, thereby magnifying their need to return home.
But an even stronger factor has worked to prevent Fidel’s children from getting an education: they haven’t seen a need for it. Richard decided while he was still living with his mother in San Marcos that he didn’t want to go to college just for the sake of going, because that was the thing to do. But his brothers, he figures, were growing up as the business grew. “And as they got older, things got better. So maybe in the back of their minds it was, ‘Well, shit, who needs school? We got the world by the tail.’” In reference to his father’s dream, Richard says most successful professionals are intrigued or hooked by some interest in their occupation and “after they get out there they make a lot of money. So they feed their two purposes, not only their mind — they satisfy that appetite — but also the human need of having material things and money to do things. But a lot of times those people are hungry when they go in after it. In this particular case, though, there wasn’t any need to look, because there was always income — not in great quantities, but there was always income, enough to be comfortable. And the hardest thing in the world is to go out in the freezing cold when you’ve got a nice blanket by the fireplace. It might not be the best, but it’s definitely not the worst, and you know a lot of people who don’t have it as good as you. So why? Why go out in the cold?”
That question is the greatest source of frustration and unhappiness in Fidel’s life. “He’s not sure what would make him happy,” says Jay. “He wants us to leave, then we leave and he’s not happy.”
Much of the freedom Fidel now enjoys has come about as his children have grown old enough to assume the duties of managing the restaurants, which has meant anywhere from age sixteen on; and in North County, where the Montanez children have become virtual celebrities at the center of an ever-changing swarm of young rich kids from the coastal communities, managing at Fidel’s has a potent appeal. “The prestige you get from this place is a lot of fun,” says Fidel Jr. “It’s fun to be a manager, with good wages and days off. How many people get that? How many people get a good job offered to them, given to you? Not very many.”
Fidel Jr., now twenty-four, became a full-time manager when he graduated from high school, and life changed for him from that day on. After that, he says, “It was no more who’s who and what’s what, what you study or what you do. Everybody that was anybody bigger than me — these football players, these jocks, these straight-A students, these college people — that day there was no difference. The day I graduated it was straight to work, good work. And they would all come have dinner, see me, I was managing, I could buy them a meal. That sort of style.”
The jobs Fidel has “given” his children have proved hard to resist and all seven of them now work in the restaurants; the few attempts to leave have fallen to the same fate as those at schooling. Mark once tried working at Rancho Santa Fe Country Club but quickly discovered that he preferred “the opposite side of the fence. I didn’t want to be on that side anymore. And I’ve been fortunate that the door’s been open every time.” But with one stipulation:
“It’s always going to be his [Fidel’s] way. . . . You buck heads with him and he’ll tell you, ‘I don't need you.’ ” This happens fairly often and Fidel fires his sons with a certain regularity. In a recent two-month period, one son returned to work after waiting out a two-month “leave of absence” for incurring Fidel’s displeasure, another was fired for three weeks for misconduct at home, and a third quit — for one night. In addition to creating a managerial musical chairs, these “firings” have a corrosive effect on employee morale since the same or lesser infractions for nonfamily members result in immediate, permanent discharge. Mark recalls that the first time he got fired, it was for “something in the wind. I didn’t show up for work, or — oh, I was starting to take orders without yelling back, so he felt my concern for the business was no longer there. He gave me two months pay in advance and I went to Hawaii for a while.” Richard was also out of work when Mark returned, having quit over a policy disagreement, and the two of them decided on a bold step: they were going to open a restaurant. On their own, without their father. Mark was twenty, Richard was twenty-two.
Richard had a business acquaintance in Carlsbad and, as Mark tells the story, “this man was willing to sink in a lot of money. He wanted to open four restaurants in one shot. He was sending a Mercedes 450 SL after us, taking us to lunch, wining and dining us, telling us he'd like to see about getting us some good suits — he knew we were going to make him money. He was talking about contracts for $90,000 a year with profit sharing and all that.
“All this time we didn’t tell my dad. But the night before we were going to sign the contract, I said, ‘Richard, let’s go talk to dad, tell him what we’re going to do. ’ And my dad was hurt, we could see that he was hurt. And he said, ‘Why don’t you guys come over and let me read that contract before you sign?’ He read it and he goes, ‘Well, I could never offer you this much. I can promise you growth, but I can’t promise you a contract like this, with this sum. All I can ask you is to stay with me.’ ”
The two drove to the appointment with their backer in silence and when the time came to sign, they announced that though the money was more than adequate, they had decided to stay with their dad. Fidel hadn’t known what their decision would be, and on returning to Solana Beach they could see, says Mark, “that he was real let down. It was probably the biggest letdown he’d had in life, that we went out. We go, ‘Dad, we didn’t sign.’ He got a big smile on his face and he said, ‘Okay, tomorrow we’re going to go to the bank and we’re going to get Norte to open for you guys. ’“ They set up a line of credit and Fidel proceeded to obtain a lease on the site selected by the boys: the Carlsbad Royal Palms.
Fidel’s Norte opened with a bang in April of 1978. The Fidel’s name seemed magic. Mark and Richard were put in charge and Mark says their father opened the checkbook to them. They were making almost $700 a week, they bought a condominium overlooking the Del Mar racetrack, they both bought new cars — Mark a Porsche worth about $28,000. They also “started getting into new clothes — come to work in a new suit every day. We were in heaven.”
Their sojourn lasted eight months. The staff was inadequately trained, decision making was erratic — happy hours were scheduled and canceled from week to week, equipment was ill-chosen, and waste was encouraged because of vastly excessive budgeting. Business began floundering — Mark had to sell his Porsche — and Fidel finally was forced to intercede. “We blew it,” says Mark. “There’s no doubt but that we blew it.”
The problems were obvious: inexperience, a refusal to seek professional advice, lack of supervision, and most important, a schizophrenic managerial philosophy which inevitably developed because Fidel was still the boss even though the kids were “in charge,” and decisions were regularly countermanded, then counter-countermanded. Eventually the expansion was successful, though, business was turned back around, and Fidel’s Norte is once again booming.
Fidel provided the name and the money, Mark went along with the idea, but the prime mover in the expansion was Richard; it was he who nursed along both the idea and the actual restaurant. Richard is now twenty-five, and when he talks of the future he once envisioned for Fidel’s, the infectious, passionate enthusiasm of the entrepreneur is unmistakable. Norte was to be only the first of fifteen or sixteen. “I could see developing the business into a strong corporate structure, a force all by itself. It wouldn’t be me, it wouldn’t be my dad, or Fidel Jr., or Mark; it would be Fidel’s Inc.,” which he pronounces ink, as if he’d spent a lifetime on Madison Avenue. ‘‘I studied it, I dreamt about it: this is going to happen, this is going to happen, we’re going to expand here, and every six months we’ll revise according to income. I’d go out [socially] and what did I end up talking about? Work. I was really into it; I didn’t seek other forms of entertainment because I was content. Not only was it my work, it was my life. I didn’t consider it work because I was with it all the time.”
A year later Richard was back managing the Solana Beach restaurant and he started depositing funds for another expansion. Fidel’s East opened in Escondido in April, 1980. A lot of the mistakes made at Norte were repeated there either identically or in reverse, and for the same reasons. This time the venture was underbudgeted, but management was still erratic because Fidel continued to undermine any independent decisions but his own. Fidel’s East is currently losing money, but the industry standard is a year and a half to establish a new restaurant, and given that business has slowly begun picking up the past few months, it’s a safe bet that in time it, too, will start contributing to the Montanez money machine.
Richard’s dream was a corporate empire in which “everyone in the family had an opportunity to participate. But there would be no favoritism. The ones that worked got the benefits and the ones that didn’t got taken care of but didn't get all the mashed potatoes and gravy.” But after the Escondido restaurant opened, Richard realized “that’s just not the way it’s going to be right now. For whatever reasons, that’s just not the way it’s going to be.” The goals of family and business, he saw, would forever be in conflict. His father thought it selfish that Richard would want higher initiative and productivity rewarded with increased pay and authority, and it had become apparent that, in the interest of the family, certain of the brothers would always be propped up regardless of ineptitude — clashing with the interests of the business.
Richard withdrew from the business and a period of discouragement and apathy set in. He quit working for a while and when he returned a few months ago it was only in a relief capacity, filling in when his brothers took time off. Freed from any responsibility for the restaurants, he began “playing the racket of being a Montanez in North County — fun, dates, all the things you would like to be able to do.” But something, he says, is not right in his life. “Something's missing. Because in the position I’m in, if I do good. I'm okay, and if I do bad, I’m okay. If I'm in a bind, my dad’ll help me, and if I mess up at work, it’ll be over with — you’re still Fidel’s son so you’re picked up on your feet. I want to do something where I succeed or I fail.”
As soon as he can find a suitable site, Richard is now planning to open a liquor store and deli. His plans for the scheme are modest; he just hopes to be able to make a living. But the entrepreneurial spirit is again stirring, and if things go well, he figures he might be able to duplicate it and expand to more locations.
Fidel Jr. is afflicted with few of his older brother’s misgivings. “This is here,” he says, “and I enjoy it. My name is on top of everything and it’s kind of neat. I like what my dad's done; there’s so much here, you don’t have to go anywhere else to do it.” When the Carlsbad restaurant opened, though, he does recall being envious because Richard and Mark were doing it on their own.
Before the two rejoined the family fold, he remembers his father getting anxious. “He would sit there and tell me about it. and I felt kind of good. I felt bad for them, because they were getting themselves involved, but at the same time he was praising me. ‘You stuck with me. Don’t worry, okay? You and I, together.’ Always, that’s the way it’s always been. Even when I’m down he goes. ‘Fidel, you can do it. you’re the one. I know you’re the one.’ ”
Fidel Jr.’s goal in life is “to get it all done” by the time he’s thirty or thirty-one. The freedom, leisure, and money he views his father as possessing he wants sooner, much sooner. He sees two possible ways of accomplishing this: starting another restaurant, or getting “the three I have so they’re going to be supporting me." Fidel Jr. shows no signs of making an effort to start a restaurant on his own but he has a very clear notion of how the second alternative can be achieved. He has six years before he’s thirty-one; discounting his sister and younger brothers entirely, he figures that Richard has already decided to leave. Jay is soon to follow, and therefore Mark, his father, and himself are the only ones still left. And, presumably without reference to his father, his question is, “Who’s going to last? Who’s going to be in the lead?
“Before, everybody wanted it. Now, it’s not who wants it, it’s who’s going to survive it? Who’s going to take it? Who’s going to want to really have it?’ ’ And the denouement to that struggle, he predicts, will come in November and December of this year — “End of the year, who’s there, who’s not.” The kids are most often “fired” or get restless and take off when business slows down in the wintertime, but he says his father “isn’t going to be putting up with too much of ‘Who’s coming back?’ anymore. If they’re going to leave, they’re going to leave for a while. Because this is bullshit — back and forth, we don't know who’s the manager, who’s going to be head manager and who's not. Plus, my dad wants to step down now, step out. Somebody needs to fill that office, his time, his money, his decisions.” And according to Fidel Jr.'s analysis, when it comes to making decisions about the business, “Mark feels he don’t have to ask nobody, and Richard wants to make sure he’s not going to hurt anybody. I'm willing to follow through what he’d like to see done. I think he trusts me a little bit more.”
Nevertheless, Fidel Jr. says his father is obsessed with figuring out which of his sons is going to do what, how they’re going to do it, and whether or not they’d like to keep expanding. “He won't die for a long time. He can’t. He feels it inside: ‘If I were to leave, the place would fall down.' And until he loses that feeling, he probably won’t relax.”