Food Fight!

The orders are coming in fast--so fast that Lupe Nunez has to do a little sideways skip as she keeps piling on the beans and rice. She passes each plate to her brother, Porfidio Marin, who adds the meat and then hands the finished dish to the waitress, who doesn't seem the slightest bit concerned that everything is falling behind.

After all, this is La Bonita, the oldest continuously operating Mexican restaurant in Denver, and its owner, the eighty-year-old Nunez, has been in charge since she opened the doors at her first location on Larimer Street in 1945.

But this spot, at 3380 West 38th Avenue, is Nunez's sixth location, and it very well may be her last. After a series of complaints filed against La Bonita by some of its new neighbors, who contend that the place is a nuisance, and through a series of errors that resulted in the loss of La Bonita's cabaret license--and thereby its ability to offer music and dancing to the Latino community--La Bonita is one macarena move away from going belly-up.

Not only does Nunez owe $94,000 on a bank loan, but she's $190,000 in debt to the city. And that's after Denver foreclosed last August on the collateral backing its $300,000 Mayor's Office of Economic Development loan: the house of Nunez's eldest daughter, Mary Ellen Casco, who's 55 and wheelchair-bound. After the city took her house, Casco moved into her mother's home--and now they're hanging on to that house for dear life.

"I can take it," Nunez says. "It's just that my daughter, who signed for the loan, she shouldn't have lost her house. I can live with my own mistakes and pay for them, but it tears me up to have somebody else like my daughter get hurt."

So Nunez is trying to sell La Bonita, but so far, potential buyers have balked over the lack of a cabaret license--and the neighbors who will fight against any license reinstatement at the 39,200-square-foot facility. "This building is so big, you have to have live music and DJs to make it work," Nunez says. "I thought this would be a good place, but I didn't realize that the music would be such a problem. And I didn't know that some of the neighbors would hate us so much and that they would work so hard at shutting us down."

Nunez and several of her family members, as well as most of her employees, claim the complaints about their cabaret business have been racially motivated rather than connected to any wrongdoing on La Bonita's part. "It's this one woman who has been doing most of the complaining," says Nunez, "and she and her husband have a reputation for being prejudiced against Mexicans."

Lois Welch is the neighbor who's done most of the complaining, but she denies that she and her husband are racists. In fact, Welch says, they don't want to see Nunez go out of business. "I've had no problem with any of the restaurants that have been in that space," she adds. "And I've never heard that from any of the other neighbors, either. I think they play the race card when they can't think of anything else. Really, the trouble only started when they tried to make it a dance club instead of just a restaurant. Lupe's other restaurants were so popular, I don't know why she didn't just stick to that."

A better question would be why she didn't just stay at the 1361 Court Place location that had been La Bonita's home for almost thirty years. Nunez says she moved because business had dwindled, especially at dinner and late at night on weekends, when the dance floor that had once been standing room only began to sit empty. "People didn't want to go to that part of town anymore," Nunez says. "They want to go to LoDo. Slowly, people stopped coming, until it was only my most loyal customers who stopped in."

As for why she chose the gargantuan Plain View Inn as La Bonita's next home, Nunez offers two answers. First, a good friend of hers, an investment specialist, she says, convinced her that she could make the space work. "He was so supportive, and he really believed in me," she adds. "He's known me for years, and he walked through the building with me and said I could do it." The other reason is that she has lived in that northwest Denver neighborhood, raising her ten children in a house just down the street from the Plain View, for forty years. "This neighborhood is mostly Hispanic, and I thought they would want to come here and eat and dance," Nunez explains. "Even though the building is big, the plans I had for it would have worked if we'd had more business. It would have worked if we could have kept the cabaret license."

But a dance hall wasn't part of the deal when Nunez presented her business plan to the Mayor's Office of Economic Development three years ago. Instead, she intended to put in a pool hall. On the basis of that plan, MOED lent Nunez $300,000, with most of that money going to the purchase of the building, according to MOED's deputy director, Bill Lysaught.

After La Bonita opened in its new location in 1995, business was good for the first six months, Nunez says. "Then it got slower, and I needed to use all the space to make more money," she explains. "That's why I had to open the cabaret. This building is just too big for me."

Which is why several people, including Fred Corn, the former president of the West Highland Neighborhood Association and another vocal opponent of La Bonita's cabaret license, want to know why the city decided to make such a big loan to Nunez in the first place. "You'd think they would have gone in there and seen how huge the place is, how much had to be done to it," Corn says.

And if MOED couldn't figure it out, another city employee might have: Phil Marin, another of Nunez's brothers, is head of the inspectors at the city's building-inspection department. "Her brother was at all the meetings," Corn says. "You'd think he could have advised her to avoid that space, since he would know a lot about buildings."

Marin, who did not return Westword's phone calls, is not the only relative to get pulled into La Bonita's troubles. Nunez says the restaurant has created so many family problems that she's willing to let the place go--after over fifty years in business.

"Either way, I want it to be over with," she says. "But if I lose this, what am I going to do? This is my whole life."

Lupe Nunez and her first husband, Sam Zendejas, opened the original La Bonita Restaurant at 21st and Larimer streets in 1945. Soon after, another brother, Al Marin, came back from a trip to Mexico excitedly waving a recipe for a new drink. "It was the margarita," says Nunez. "I know that I was the first Mexican restaurant to serve a margarita in Denver."

Nunez also claims to have served Denver's first burrito, which was invented in California in the Forties by migrant workers looking for a way to carry their beans and rice out to the fields. "Not long after I opened, these women who were married to the men in a band that was playing down the street from us ordered burritos," Nunez recalls. "I said, 'What in the world is a burrito?' I thought it was something made out of a donkey. So one of the women came back to the kitchen and showed me how to make one, and they were on the menu from then on. And look how popular they are now."

Whether she was the first or not--so far, no one's been able to prove otherwise--Nunez has been one of the town's largest sellers of burritos and margaritas for decades. Customers also craved her huge tostadas, her guacamole, her refritos and, in particular, her homemade tortillas, which she continued to make by hand until this last move to West 38th Avenue. "Do you know, I didn't like to cook at home," Nunez says. "My husband was so skeptical of me opening a restaurant. But I quickly loved it, and I still do."

Nunez's recipes came from her grandmother, Timotea Flores, who had moved with her husband and Nunez's parents to Parson, Kansas, from Guanajuato, Mexico, in 1917. They were field workers, a term Nunez says is now used as an insult. "They were bean pickers," she adds, "and they were good people." Nunez, born Guadalupe Marin, came along in 1918; four years later the family followed the crops to Denver. Then they moved to Fort Collins, where her father, Feliciano Marin, decided to open a pool hall and get his family out of the fields.

The pool hall was such a success that the family moved back to Denver in 1934 to open La Bonita Pool Hall on Larimer Street. "That was long before anyone ever thought that area would be 'LoDo,'" Nunez says. The sixteen-year-old Lupe went to work that same year, for $4.50 a week, folding newspapers for a junkyard that recycled them. "I was so proud to be contributing to the family," she says. "By then, I was the oldest of ten kids, and we needed the money."

The next year, a woman whose kids she cared for told her about a good spot with the Works Progress Administration, set up to keep people working during the Depression. "But I had to be eighteen, so I told them I was so I could get the job," she recalls. "My mother and grandmother had taught me how to sew, and that's what I did there." Her first task was hemming cloth diapers, but she was soon making men's shirts from scratch.

"If I remember right, I got paid $75 every two weeks," she says. "And that was wonderful. When I got paid, I was so happy, because then I could take my family to the theater, which they loved. It cost five cents per person. Then we would go to the Rockybilt and buy twenty hamburgers for a dollar."

Because she was an accomplished seamstress, Nunez's talents were in high demand by 1942, when the soldiers serving in World War II needed bedrolls, parachutes, blankets and clothing. She was in charge of bedrolls. Not long after she started on the job, she met Zendejas, the handsome man who carried the cloth over every day. "We would have dated longer, I think," Nunez says. "But I was mad at my grandfather, so to get back at him, I got married very fast." Their first daughter, Mary Ellen, was born in 1943, and two years later they started La Bonita, named in honor of her father's pool hall.

Nunez bore five more children before Zendejas died of exposure on a trip to the mountains, after just eleven years of marriage. "It was one of the hardest things I've gone through," says Nunez. "And I had six children, and I didn't know what to do." Luckily, her grandmother and mother helped out in the restaurant, along with many other relatives. And it wasn't long before the feisty, petite, rojo-haired Lupe caught the eye of Rodolfo Nunez.

They were married for 21 years. "I think he got tired of so many kids," she says, laughing. By the time they were divorced in the late Seventies, they had ten total--five boys, five girls--and all of them helped out in the restaurant.

That restaurant had moved from Larimer to East Colfax in 1959; in 1965 it moved to 1361 Court Place, where it would spend the next 29 years.

It was at the La Bonita on East Colfax where then-governor Steve McNichols, Bill McNichols's brother, became a regular customer. Nunez still has the business card he gave her, and she's thinking about having it framed. "He was so nice," she says. "He and his wife used to come in for a late dinner, and then at 2 a.m. I'd say, 'I have to close,' and they would make their security guards go home. The guards always fought with McNichols, because it was against the rules for them to leave him, but they would leave, and he and his wife would sit in the back on packing crates next to the pop machine while I finished cleaning the kitchen. They'd drink and have a good time, and then my brother Al would drive them home."

Many other politicians--and a few celebrities, Don Ameche among them--called La Bonita their home away from home. There was presidential candidate Henry Wallace, who held a fundraiser at La Bonita during his campaign, former Denver district attorney Norm Early, former mayor Federico Pena and former congresswoman Pat Schroeder, who loved her food, Nunez says. "So many nice people have supported me over the years," she adds. "Even Wilma, the wife of Mayor Webb, used to come in all the time, and they were so nice to me. Now they stay away, I think, because of the trouble we're having. I've always felt, though, that people in this city have been good to me."

The City of Denver certainly was good to Nunez. She needed $534,000 to buy the Plain View building and its inventory, which included kitchen appliances and restaurant furniture. Vectra Bank had been willing to lend her only $94,000, but in 1994, MOED tossed another $300,000 into the kitty.

MOED lends money to minority-owned businesses in neighborhoods that have been identified as needing an economic boost. West Highland is one of them, and MOED's Lysaught says the business plan Nunez and her family presented seemed solid. "She'd had such success with her previous endeavors, and her family had several key members who came forward and said they were going to help with the restaurant and support Lupe," Lysaught says. "And frankly, she had an excellent credit history. The bank was willing to work with her, and they worked with us to get her the money she needed to make up the rest. She went through a rigorous review process from both us and the bank, and we only lend where the project seems desirable."

Putting a Mexican restaurant into the Plain View--a longtime northwest Denver Democratic watering hole that had, at various times, served Italian and Chinese food--may have seemed like a desirable project, but Nunez quickly realized that the building was too big to support her restaurant. Not only was the dinner business as bad as it had been downtown, but the lunch business was even worse--and the few pool tables she'd installed in the restaurant didn't help. So rather than expand the pool hall into the warehouse section of the building, Nunez decided to put in a dance and banquet room to bring in the crowds.

There certainly was plenty of room for a dance club. Originally, the building had housed a car dealership; subsequent tenants turned the display room into a storage area. "It was so full of junk when we took it over," Nunez says. "It took us weeks to hand-carry everything out of there, and it was so filthy." She applied for, and was granted, a cabaret license--with no opposition from the neighborhood. "Why would we?" Corn asks. "We wanted to see a local business thrive, and there was no indication that there would be any problem."

Nunez spent thousands of dollars painting the cavernous room, putting in a dance floor, a DJ booth and a disco ball and filling the space with tables and chairs and two bar areas. Locals soon began booking the place months in advance for their graduation parties, wedding receptions and business functions, and Nunez began to breathe easier about her loan payments.

But not for long. The police started getting complaint calls from neighbors in February 1996, barely two months after Nunez's dance hall opened. Although the restaurant portion of La Bonita sits on 38th Avenue, the dance hall is behind it, closer to the alley between 38th and West Clyde Place and closer to residences.

Lois Welch lives right behind the restaurant. She's been there for 35 years, long before the La Bonita building was converted from a car dealership to a restaurant. "We never had any complaints, really, about it when it was the Plain View," Welch says. "Now, the second tenants, the Italians, they started having trouble toward the end, but nothing like what was going on at La Bonita."

And what was going on at La Bonita was way too noisy, according to complaints filed with the Denver Division of Excise and Licenses. The police were called out no fewer than twenty times in a ten-month period to talk to neighbors, many of whom, like Welch, live on West Clyde Place.

"We were willing to tolerate the drunks wandering around the neighborhood, parking on our street, honking their horns, screeching their brakes, throwing garbage on our lawns," Welch says. "And most of the neighbors didn't want to get involved, anyway, 'cause they were scared there'd be some sort of retaliation. So I sort of became the leader, and I only called when the noise became intolerable." The bass vibrations from the dance-hall speakers were sometimes so strong, she adds, that they caused both her stove and her dishes to vibrate.

In June 1996, Tom Cowan, from the city's Environmental Health division, came out to measure the decibels and issued La Bonita a citation for unacceptable noise levels. Cowan recorded 51 db inside Welch's house; after 10 p.m., the allowable decibel range outside of an establishment is between 50 and 58 db.

After Cowan's visit, Welch says, the noise was quieter for "about a month, and then it went right back to where it was."

By this time, Denver City Councilman Dennis Gallagher had gotten involved. An employee in his office at the time, Lisa Ferreira, was then the vice president of the West Highland Neighborhood Association, which had been trying to call attention to the problems neighbors were having with La Bonita. Gallagher stopped by to check out the situation. "I myself have been in the alley behind your business and across West Clyde Place," he wrote Nunez on June 22, 1996. "I have heard the bass and the music coming from your establishment. This cannot be allowed to continue." At the bottom of the letter, Gallagher added this postscript: "I like your dance music. Let's keep it inside the building."

Nunez and Casco, who has a government job but does her mother's books at La Bonita, say they can't believe the music was as loud as Gallagher and the neighbors claim. "If it was so loud that it shook things in her [Welch's] kitchen, why wouldn't it have shaken things in my restaurant kitchen, too?" wonders Nunez. "And how could anyone have been in that room if it was so loud? It would have made my customers' ears bleed."

Still, complaints about excessive noise levels kept coming in to the city for nearly a year. On March 10, 1997, Gallagher sent another letter to Nunez, this one in response to her note suggesting that Welch and the other neighbors were "harassing us" and that the complaints were "racially motivated." Gallagher wrote, "On numerous occasions you have met with the neighbors, representatives of my office, of WHNA and of the City. At all of these meetings the message has been very clear: turn down the music, instruct patrons to not create disturbances in the parking lot, direct traffic away from the neighborhood, maintain security lighting and hire off-duty police officers."

Nunez insists that she did install lighting around the building, that she did tell her patrons to be quiet, and that she did turn the music down. But on April 16, 1997, Excise and Licenses ordered her to appear for a show-cause hearing, after which department director Beth McCann issued an order suspending La Bonita's cabaret license until August 31. The suspension was for "violation of the revised Municipal Code 477-7350," or repeated offenses of disturbing the peace. Although La Bonita was allowed to keep its liquor license, the suspension also referred to Section 6-35 (A) of the Colorado liquor code, which states: "No licensee, manager, agent or employee of a licensee shall permit within or upon the licensed premises...any disturbance, any undue noise, nor other activity offensive to the residents of the neighborhood in which the establishment is located."

McCann did, however, list five dates that were exempted from the suspension because of parties that had already been booked: April 25 and 26 and May 2, 3 and 31.

But on June 5, Lois Welch woke up to the throbbing beat of music coming from La Bonita's dance hall. Incredulous, she called the police. Officer Michael Mosco went over to the dance hall, where, according to the report he filed with Excise and Licenses, he told the DJ to shut the music off and asked Nunez's daughter for La Bonita's permits. Casco said that "her mother had it," Mosco wrote, and that her mother had gone home for the night at "around 10 o'clock."

Casco now confesses she made the decision to go ahead with the party knowing La Bonita had no permit. "They were already booked," she says. "It was a graduation party, and we had forgotten that they'd had it reserved since January, and I couldn't tell them that they weren't allowed to have it. I thought that since there were all these dates that were okay, one more wouldn't hurt."

She was wrong. On August 31 Excise and Licenses revoked La Bonita's cabaret license permanently. While the restaurant's liquor license can be transferred to any new owners, they'd have to reapply for a cabaret license. "The new owners will have to have a public hearing, and the neighborhood will have to be notified so that they can come and voice their opinions on it," says McCann. "It's hard to say whether the neighborhood will let them."

"Anyone would be crazy to buy this place without knowing for sure that they would get the cabaret license," Nunez says. "They would probably lose their houses, too. And their business."

The majority of MOED's loans are made to retail and manufacturing establishments, says Lysaught, which could account for a default rate that he pegs at only 7.5 percent. Of course, MOED's usually lenient--and often criticized--repayment terms also contribute to that low figure. "I'm happy to say that we get most of it back," Lysaught says of the MOED money. "I think if our loan loss were any lower, then we wouldn't be taking the kinds of risks we have committed ourselves to taking with this program."

Restaurants, however, are notoriously risky businesses and so account for only 8 percent of MOED's loans over the past twenty years. "We look at restaurants as specifically good for improving the economic well-being of a neighborhood," Lysaught says. Tosh's Hacienda in Five Points, for example, received the largest restaurant loan ever awarded by MOED, $470,000, and Lysaught says the money was put to excellent use. "That has really been a pivotal point in that neighborhood," he adds. "Imperial, down on Broadway, is another one that we loaned to and have felt that not only were we repaid the money, we were repaid in the unbelievable improvement to the area around it, in large part because of the restaurant. And that's what we thought would happen with La Bonita, too."

But had MOED thought about it very hard, neighbors suggest, the agency might have realized that Nunez was shouldering an unrealistically heavy burden--and debt load.

From the start, Nunez had trouble making her MOED payments. She contacted Jim Martinez, an assistant to Mayor Wellington Webb. "I recommended to Lupe that she get a business manager and a lawyer to help her work this out," Martinez says.

After reviewing Nunez's business plan, Martinez says, he agreed with MOED's initial assessment that it was workable. "Lupe had a pool-hall-type recreational area in the plans, and they were going to make their money by catching on to the craze of playing pool and having a beer. So with pool tables, the restaurant, and a beer-garden/patio-type thing in the plans, it looked like they had thought of ways to fill the space," he explains. "They were going to be like Wynkoop, you know, and if you look at that place, you can see where you need a lot of room to play pool. So that building seemed to be perfect."

So did the location. "We're talking about a highly Hispanic part of town," Martinez adds. "They thought people would know her and would want to support her."

But knowing people could have been the problem. Councilman Gallagher says Nunez may have relied too heavily on her contacts with the city, including her brother, Phil Marin, and the business manager and lawyer whom Martinez advised her to hire: brothers Stephan and Andrew Andrade--who happen to be related by marriage to Martinez's wife. Martinez confirms that he recommended the Andrades, who are indeed related to his wife, but, he says, "If my recommending people who happen to be twice-removed third cousins of my wife to do pro bono work for an eighty-year-old woman who's about to go to debtor's prison is wrong, then so be it." Still, Gallagher accuses Martinez of using his pull at the mayor's office to keep La Bonita open. "I think it's a shame that Lupe thought her friendship with Martinez meant that she could get away with these things," Gallagher adds. "She thought that he would protect her and that she had an in. I think the neighborhood tried hard to be fair about this."

But Martinez claims that Nunez was having problems long before he met her and that Gallagher didn't do anything to try to help the situation. "If they want to play racial politics, that's up to them," Martinez says. "I sided with Lupe, number one, because she was in over her head and she needed someone, and number two, because I have to protect the city's investment. I could never find a day or time or place where Gallagher's office came in and said, 'How can we help?' My bottom line is making the situation work, and I don't know how it turned into a Gallagher-versus-Martinez thing."

As the predicament worsened, however, Martinez says it finally came down to leveling with Nunez. "I said, 'Hey, this is real. You are really going to lose this if you don't fix these noise problems,'" Martinez says. "I think the city did what could be expected of us to help Lupe out, but the truth is that she never had two feet on the ground from the start." Ultimately, he says, Nunez "took on too much, and she knew it. She kept at it because she didn't want to let the city down."

And the city made every effort not to let Nunez down, Lysaught adds. "We've for years supported the Small Business Development Center at the Greater Denver Chamber of Commerce," he says. "We make a financial commitment to them, and in exchange, their people go out and work with our clients." The person the SBDC sent out to work with Nunez was Stephanie Herrera. Citing SBDC's confidentiality rules, Herrera says she's not allowed to discuss specifics regarding La Bonita, but she does acknowledge that she worked with Nunez from the time the restaurant started having trouble, six months after it opened, until Herrera resigned from the SBDC in September 1997.

"I was over there a lot," says Herrera, who now works as an economic-development specialist for Del Norte Neighborhood Development Corporation. "When I say a lot," she adds, "I mean a lot."

But it wasn't enough to save La Bonita.
"I'm telling you, this whole thing makes me sick," says Mark del Hierra, a neighbor who bartended at the Plain View through both previous ownerships and who still volunteers his time at the bar and anywhere else Nunez needs him to be. "These nice people, and to watch this going on...Lupe wouldn't hurt anyone, and she'd give you whatever she had. It's like the city just threw this money at her, and then they washed their hands of it."

And the city wasn't alone. Many of Nunez's family members, who'd come on like gangbusters during the loan application process, slowly disappeared from the day-to-day operation. "For a family-run business, it's pretty sad how this family has acted," Lysaught says. "There were all these promises made when Lupe first came to us, and all these family members stepped forward and pledged their support. One was going to be the treasurer and handle the money, one was going to take care of managing the staff. Where are they now?"

A La Bonita regular is asking the same question. The gruff, chain-smoking, sixty-something patron (who asked that his name not be used) says he's been eating at La Bonita since he was a kid. "Let me tell you something," he says, jabbing at the air with the still-smoking stub of a cigarette. "There were family members who came in and told Lupe that they were going to help her out and that they would work for free, and then they stole from her. We caught some of them. Some of us customers here are here all the time, and we would watch these supposed friends and family not ring up drinks and pocket the money. We even called a couple of them on it. With family like that, who needs enemies, you know?"

Casco has helped out at La Bonita most of her life, despite a 1979 car accident that left her paralyzed from the waist down. She admits there's been some friction with family members. "They think that since they're working here for free, then they're entitled to help themselves to food and cash," she says. "It's hurt us, yes, but what can we do? It's family." And some friends, she adds, have truly been a help--like Jose Santoyo, a waiter at La Bonita for 28 years.

Although they disagree as to how Nunez got in this fix, almost everyone who knows her agrees on one thing: that it's awful for someone her age, and with her long Denver history, to be in this painful position. "We're very willing to put Lupe on a very long-term payment plan," Lysaught says. "We have people who are making payments over a twenty-year period. We don't want people to be punished for a business failure."

Personally, Lysaught adds, it hurt to have to take Casco's house. But his first responsibility is to get the city's money back. "We were the only lienholders on Mary Ellen Casco's house," Lysaught says. "But we're really subordinate to the bank, so they get first dibs on collection."

And that means Vectra Bank has the power to foreclose on Nunez's home. An officer of the bank's special-assets department (who also asked to remain anonymous) confirms there's a potential buyer for the house but says the details have yet to be worked out.

As for any possible sale of La Bonita, he adds, "I honestly have to tell you, I don't know. All I can say is that nothing concrete has come together yet."

It's after lunch on Thursday, and Nunez is taking a brief rest before it's time to get ready for dinner. The restaurant is open every day but Monday, and six days a week she comes in before breakfast and doesn't leave until 10 p.m., after all the cleaning up from dinner is done. "I clean my house on Mondays," she says, and four of her great-grandchildren--she has 22 grandchildren, 22 great-grandchildren and three great-great-grandchildren--nod in acknowledgment. "She never stops," says one of the twins.

Family members come and go throughout the afternoon, stopping by to say hello and grab a few tacos or some beans and rice. "My mom's the hardest-working woman I've ever known," Casco says, as Nunez gets up to fetch something for one of the children. "I don't know what it is that keeps her going."

"Chocolate," answers Nunez, who confesses to a serious habit. She points to a two-foot-long box of Valentine's candy sitting on the table. "You'd better grab a piece now if you want some." She's not allowed to eat quite as much of it since her mild heart attack last August, when the stress of the whole business finally got to her.

"We've had good days and we've had bad days," Nunez says. "You know what were the good ones? Our Christmas parties. We used to have the whole family in my house, and we'd start opening packages at eleven in the morning, and we'd be done at seven. It would be a potluck, and there'd be so much food and wrapping paper that it would take us days to clean it up." Adds Casco, "Mom always insisted that we go from youngest to oldest when we opened gifts, but then she'd be so mad when she was opening hers at seven o'clock."

But because of the bad blood over La Bonita, the family doesn't celebrate Christmas like that anymore. "I'd just like this all to be over and forget about it, get on with my life," Nunez says. "Of course, I always thought I'd be leaving a successful La Bonita to my grandchildren...," she trails off, and then sighs. "This waiting is killing me."

Her tiny frame starts to slump down in the booth, and tears well up in her eyes. "I'll be okay," she says, waving off relatives who want to console her. "Maybe I will be able to open up a small La Bonita again someday. What else am I going to do?


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