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He had a dream

“If an idea is not at first absurd, then there is no hope for it.” Albert Einstein.

Remember way, way back when you, with your childish voice, revealed to your family your dreams? Dreams like becoming a famous singer or scientist or fireman or astronaut? You waited for their response. Was it one of encouragement … “Go for it, Kid!” … or was it one where barely concealed titters were hidden behind cupped hands? What, we wonder, became of that vision? For most of us life simply got in the way.

Certainly there were no illusions of grandeur in the mind of teenager Mario Molina. In his small town of Meoqui, Mexico, 45 miles from Chihuahua, grandeur of any kind was inconceivable. After all, there were nine siblings to feed on his father’s small and unreliable income as a small machine repairman. In truth, the family caught only glimpses of their absentee father, leaving their mother to care for her children as best she could as a housekeeper and laundress.

Life there was tough. Really tough. Worst of all, it held no chance of ever getting better. Just trying to survive was what was uppermost in the Molina family’s thinking. All, that is, except Mario. Even though he could not give an actual name to his vision, he knew in his heart that there had to be a more fulfilling life. He also knew there was only one way to make that happen. Himself!

So, in 1980, Mario decided to strike out on his own. Pause and reflect on this. What would your family’s reaction be if you told them you were leaving home while still in the sixth grade? The uproar would be deafening. Not so in the Molina family. Adios. One less mouth to feed.

With empty pockets and a heart full of hope, Mario began his quest. It boiled down to putting one doggedly determined foot in front of the other. He walked north. He walked and he walked, receiving help from sympathetic people along the way who looked upon this resolute young boy with admiration. Doing day work for food and a place to sleep, his path took him all the way to New Mexico.

His first real job there was on a ranch, where he was paid $20 a day to round up horses and cows for branding. It was a one-man (boy?) job with no help from anyone. After five months of working from sunup to sundown, Mario realized he was barely earning a living. Discouraged, he knew this was surely not the dream he was seeking.

He went on to Texas, where he found work digging and sacking potatoes and onions. He lived in a bunkhouse with 40 occupied cots lined up like grungy picket fence posts. His boss soon discovered that Mario was having trouble lifting the 50 pound bags of vegetables and moved him indoors, where he was assigned the job of housecleaning. Though it was unquestionably easier work, in reality it earned him almost no money. Mario had to move on.

Heading ever northward, his next job was working in cotton fields. Once again, it was an undertaking without a future. Keep in mind that Mario had accomplished all the aforementioned while he was still only 15 years old.

His fortunes turned, however, when a man took notice of how diligently Mario worked. Feeling compassion for the likable young lad, he offered him a job as a dishwasher in a Chinese restaurant. Mario had never heard of Chinese food, but he grabbed at the chance to earn $500 a month, plus a bed and food. He spoke neither English nor Chinese, but it didn’t take long for him to realize he didn’t need a language to wash dishes. In no time he was an expert.

Mario’s boss soon noticed that he was also clever with a knife. So, as he was turning 16, Mario learned the art of cutting up vegetables. He did not stop there. Next he moved to a large grill where he fried as many as 30 steaks at a time. He marvels still at how he learned to remember which ones were rare, medium or well done, a skill he developed on his own by touching the meat to determine its readiness.

For the next 20 years, Mario worked in Chinese restaurants in Texas and Oklahoma, finally moving to Minnesota, where he worked at the Kahler Plaza Hotel in Rochester. His first winter was daunting. Unable to ride his bike in the snow, the only other way to get to work on frigid winter mornings was by Yellow Cab. But often the cabs wouldn’t start in the sub zero temperatures, so he was left with no recourse other than to walk the two miles to work and back.

Minnesota held another revelation. It seemed to Mario that in the north he had finally arrived at the honest-to-goodness “real” America. It had to be, he told himself, for there were no other cultures here. Every time he turned his head, he saw only Anglos. And to his surprise, those folks loved Chinese food! This made him wonder if they might also love Mexican food? The thought stayed with him as the years passed. He married and had two children.

His next job shift was a 17-year stint as a heavy machine operator with McNeilus Trucks in Dodge Center, Minnesota. Six screws and a steel plate in his right forearm attest to the strenuous work the job required. But in spite of everything, he held onto his dream, knowing that every job was the glue that held his vision together.

Mario simply could not shake the question of whether or not the folks in Minnesota would eat Mexican food? Would he dare to find out? After all, by now he was an expert cook. One memorable day he stepped bravely into his dream when he purchased a used taco truck in Rochester. At last he was in business! His own.

After four years of long days and mountains of tacos, Mario finally had enough savings to turn off the key to the truck and open a real brick and mortar restaurant. Guess what he named it? “El Sueno.” The Dream.

Since then, things in Rochester have gone well for Mario. Well enough that when he discovered Austin, his dream expanded even further. Could he possibly open another “El Sueno” here? It was an enormous risk, but then Mario was a man who knew all about risks. Serendipity spoke loud and clear when he spotted the empty Wendy’s building on 18th Avenue, Northwest. Mind you, Mario was not looking for a handout. He had always done everything on his own … with his own sweat and blood. To realize this new plan, he would have to do it all over again.

This week I was turning right off of north Highway 218, on the corner I passed La Nails. That’s when I noticed something I had not seen before. Two narrow vertical flags were fluttering in the wind. I looked again. A Mexican restaurant was sandwiched between the nail salon and the laundromat! I had to check it out.

I stopped and went inside. I was immediately met with a spanking clean interior, newly painted in a soothing adobe orange. The place virtually sparkled with meticulous freshness. Greeting me at the counter was a middle aged man whose smile instantly drew me in. Indeed, it was so bright, the room barely needed the overhead lights!

It took only a glance around the restaurant to realize there wasn’t another customer there. The emptiness was disturbing. I asked the man how long he’d been in business and he replied several months. The problem was, he explained, people didn’t know his restaurant was here because he did not have a sign to tell them. Only the cloth flags. The truth was that he had not yet earned enough money to afford a real sign. The staggering $10,000 purchase price was beyond his means. He went on to say that he also could not yet sell beer because the cost of obtaining a beer license was $400; money he does not have.

By now I was captivated. Who was this man, this gutsy person who alone and on a shoestring had opened a business in Austin? But, then, you of course know he was none other than, Mario Molina. Now decades from the desperate life he had left behind in his tiny Mexican village, he had made his way step-by-step to Austin, Minnesota. He named the new restaurant “El Sueno 2.” (The Dream No. 2.) After signing a rental lease on the old Wendy’s building (which blessedly included all the furnishings), he set about cleaning and painting. With no financial backup, he was only able to embellish the restaurant with the few decorations he already had. And it worked. “El Sueno 2” has a welcoming atmosphere, a sunshiny place to relax and enjoy a delicious meal.

While his wife is running the Rochester restaurant, Mario has further plans for this new one—his taqueria. He envisions high arched booths with colorful Mexican pottery dancing across the walls. Being the patient man that he is, he knows this will happen one day. But just not today.

I asked Mario to sit with me as I ate dinner. About one minute into the conversation, I realized what a treasure Austin has in Mario Molina. Isn’t he, after all, the epitome of the American dream? Isn’t he, after all, exactly the kind of admirable self-starting, self-sufficient, pulled-up-by-the- bootstraps kind of businessman we want in our community? Isn’t he, after all, an excellent example for us all?

What he dreams of now is for Austin to give him the opportunity to prove himself. This is where you come in. “El Sueno 2” is opened Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Mario caters and is able to host groups in the restaurant’s party section. All you need to do is stop in or call either Mario’s cell phone at 507-951-9520 or the restaurant’s phone at 507-433-7843. I guarantee that his warmth and determination will draw you in. And after your wonderful meal, don’t forget to top it off with Mario’s heavenly deep fried ice cream!

Quite honestly, I can’t think of anything more fulfilling than helping someone achieve his dream. Besides, isn’t Austin now a part of Mario’s?