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Mi Tierra

Mi Tierra is a San Antonio institution. What began in 1941 as a little three-table cafe for farmers and early-morning workers in the downtown market district has now expanded into a landmark restaurant that occupies an entire city block; it seats 500 people, is open 24 hours a day, and is one of four eateries owned by the Cortez family, now in its third generation. Tour busses clog the parking lot and waiting patrons spill out the door onto Market Square. The atmosphere is Christmas Fiesta all year long (photo above), the waitstaff  is bi-lingual and also multi-generational, and the food is the same as it was fifty years ago when I was an undergrad in San Antonio and my college friends and I used to go there for affordable, comforting Tex-Mex.

Besides the food and the atmosphere, though, a big draw these days, especially for tourists, artists, and history buffs, is the floor-to-ceiling mural that covers the back room walls. Called The American Dream, it was originally commissioned by Jorge Cortez to honor his parents, the founders of Mi Tierra Café. It celebrates the hard work and dedication of the family and staff who made their dreams for a better life come true — hence, the name. Over time, the mural has also  expanded to include key figures in Hispanic history and culture, and even contemporary celebrities with San Antonio ties such as Eva Longoria, Carlos Santana, and of course, the Castro brothers. Well-known muralist Roberto Ytuarte is the artist in residence who keeps The American Dream updated and restored.  When he’s around, he is more than happy to talk about the history behind his portraits and to discuss his techniques in detail, as he was last year with my grand-niece who is, herself, quite an emerging artist — at the ripe old age of 8!

Mi Tierra, “my land;” El Sueño Americano, “the American Dream.” Cultures, languages and contributions may differ, but the story has been the same for wave after wave of immigrants, for my people and yours, for well over two hundred years. Even those who came on the Mayflower came in search of a better life. From Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia and all the Americas people have come to the United States, because their dreams of freedom and opportunity were compelling and their chances of making it here were as good as the next person’s. People risked their very lives to come, and they still do. What greater testament to our greatness, our democracy, and our way of life than that?

America doesn’t need to be made great again, it already IS great. Anyone who has spent even a modicum of time outside of the US, especially in some of the more remote parts of the world, knows that. Having been to more than 30 countries myself, including many in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, I know first-hand how much people admire America and covet the freedoms we enjoy. And for the most part, they even like us!

Our technology, our economy, our medicine, our military, our universities, our standard of living — all are the envy of the world. We may be teased about being flag-waving workaholics, but even Europeans admit that in building our democracy, Americans undertook the grandest, greatest governance experiment in human history. We’ve had some rocky periods here and there, but so far, it has worked.  In welcoming all and building one nation with people from every corner of the globe, we have created a diverse, multi-cultural society that truly defines who we are by who we all are together: the melting pot, the tossed salad, the modern mosaic, e pluribus unum. If we lose our will to form our one people from our many, we will lose our collective soul.

This is Mi Tierra: the ethnic foods, the cultural celebrations, the traditional dress and customs, the churches, synagogues, temples, mosques, and meeting houses, the foreign words coopted into English, the intermarriage, the multi-lingual children, the integrated neighborhoods, the noise, the nonsense, the misunderstandings. .. all of it, all of us. This is My Land and I’m proud of it.

My prayer for the year ahead is that this will continue to be the Mi Tierra that I know and love, and that I can continue to be proud of us. Feliz año nuevo!

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