From illegal to successful, meet Marcelino Garcia

Chileno’s owner Marcelino ‘Chelino’ Garcia in his Bricktown restaurant. Garcia, who came to Oklahoma several decades ago, has seen his company grow from a single restaurant in 1990 to a chain of 11 today. Garcia also owns several other businesses, including a meat market and a tortilla factory. (Maike Sabolich)

By M. Scott Carter
The Journal Record
Posted: 10:05 PM Wednesday, June 15, 2011

OKLAHOMA CITY – Thirty-two years ago, Marcelino “Chelino” Garcia walked to the United States.

He was 15 and living in Baja California, and decided he wanted to see America. He walked for eight days, from Tijuana to Los Angeles.

Three years later, he returned to Mexico.

But Garcia didn’t stay in Mexico. Instead, urged by his brother, he decided to return to the United States, this time by swimming across the Rio Grande from Acuna, Mexico, to Eagle Pass, Texas. Once he hit Texas, Garcia was shoved into the trunk of a car with several other boys and driven to Dallas.

After the second trip, he decided to stay.

“The first time I came here I survived on very little food for two weeks,” he said. “When I got to Oklahoma City, I walked through a walk-in cooler full of food and said ‘Thank God. This is heaven.’ I was young and hungry 90 to 95 percent of the time.”

Then 18 and willing to work hard, Garcia took jobs where he could get them, toiling for minimum wage at several restaurants. Then, one evening, after offering to give a friend a ride to work, Garcia found his calling.

Garcia dropped his friend off at a Nino’s restaurant. While he was there, he was asked to stay and help out.

“I said ‘Yes, just tonight,’” he said. “Then I stayed there for the next 10 years.”

Garcia spent one night washing dishes. The next day he moved into the kitchen.

“I watched how they prepared the meals,” he said. “And I was in the kitchen the next day. Three months later, I was the head of the cooks. I learned little by little. The supervisor was very strict, but she saw that while I was young. I had a lot of energy and a will to work. She could see I wanted to learn, and she showed me the whole system of a Tex-Mex restaurant.”

For the next decade, Garcia worked six days each week, learning all the while. Four years after his one-night apprenticeship as a dishwasher, he was promoted to assistant manager. Two years later, he became manager.

A short time later, he went into business for himself.

“I opened Chelino’s and I wanted to serve authentic Mexican food,” he said. “But it wasn’t that popular except on Sundays. Then I switched to Tex-Mex.”

That switch, coupled with a positive review from a local restaurant critic, pushed Chelino’s to the next level.

“The paper wrote about the good food at this hole-in-the-wall place,” he said. “That was one Wednesday. My wife was pregnant and when I came back from the hospital, the restaurant was full of people.”

Over the next decade, Garcia’s restaurant grew from a single south Oklahoma City restaurant site to an 11-restaurant chain, with sites scattered across the metro area. Garcia also owns a bakery, an ice cream shop, a butcher shop and a tortilla store.

“When I got here, there were few Hispanics in Oklahoma City. Now the community has grown. I do this not about the money, but because I see a need and I want to try and help the community fulfill that need,” he said.

Hammered by Oklahoma’s harsh anti-immigration law, Garcia saw his business drop, and it’s never fully recovered.

“House Bill 1804 was the worst thing that ever happened to Oklahoma City,” he said. “Things have never gone back to normal.”

Things got worse when a group of armed Internal Revenue Service agents arrived at his office.

“They raided the office,” he said. “They took every little paper they found in my personal office. They were looking for $750,000. But they didn’t find anything.”

Garcia called his attorney and, eventually, the IRS backed off.

“They never charged me a penny,” he said. “But I spent $100,000 on attorney fees. That was bad.”

Later, Garcia discovered that an employee working at two of his restaurants was using a false name.

“I found out that my former kitchen manager was using a different name at a different restaurant,” he said. “He got divorced and got in trouble. It cost me a lot of money and a lot of time.”

Now, another decade later, Garcia has a different view of his adopted home.

“I think Oklahoma is hard on immigrants,” he said. “They have a tough view of Hispanics. But look, you have lettuce, tomatoes, onions, tortillas; who do you think did all that? All those are touched by the hands of Mexican people.”

And though he has a harsh view of the state – and the nation’s – immigration policy, for Garcia, the path that brought him to America and that helped him earn his citizenship was worth every step.

“In Mexico, never in my life could I have had any success,” he said. “Here, I enjoy what I do. I like to help other people. I like to see things grow. My businesses serve the needs that I see for the community. Those may be little things and maybe, for some people, they mean nothing. But they mean a lot to me.”

M. Scott Carter,
Capitol Bureau Reporter
The Journal Record
(405) 278-2838 – Downtown
(405) 524-7777 – Capitol bureau

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