When I stopped by Rosa Linda's Mexican Cafe last week for lunch, the restaurant was empty.
When I returned this past Monday, it was jammed. The Colorado Forward Obama campaign RV was just pulling away — with a lot of Rosa Linda's to-go food and Governor John Hickenlooper inside the vehicle. Romney campaigners have eaten at Rosa Linda's several times over the last few days, too.
This unanticipated boom in business couldn't happen to a nicer family.
Even if it almost killed them. Literally, if you believe some of the death threats that the Aguirres, the owners of Rosa Linda's, have been getting since the story first broke — on westword.com — that the family had refused to become a Romney campaign stop. Some callers told them to go back to Mexico. Other cranks accused them of making up their Romney account as a stunt, or at least spilling it to Westword to get some press (still others charged the Romney camp with leaking the story). But while the Aguirres have ink, as well as green chile, in their veins, the smartest, most media-savvy marketing person in the world could not have come up with a gimmick like this.
On October 2, at the same time I was eating in the almost empty Rosa Linda's, Mitt Romney was gearing up for the next night's presidential debate at the University of Denver — fortifying himself with a burrito, extra guac, at the Chipotle in Stapleton, while cameras clicked away. Like Rosa Linda's, Chipotle is a homegrown concept — but over the past two decades, founder Steve Ells has grown Chipotle from one outlet near DU to a worldwide empire with more than 1,300 restaurants. Rosa Linda's has never grown outside of northwest Denver. It's never left its original space in a part of town that was far from desirable when Virgil and Rosa Linda Aguirre opened the restaurant back in 1985, even if it was just labeled one of the country's "hippest hipster neighborhoods" by Forbes.
But Denver has been enough for this family. It's their community.
You can see why Rosa Linda's would be such a great backdrop for a campaign stop — whether or not Romney was along for the ride. Virgil and Rosa Linda are both converts to Mormonism; four of their five kids are practicing Mormons. The youngest grandchild is often in the restaurant — perfect for a politician who wants to kiss a baby. (Hickenlooper did on Monday, when he dropped in for grub on a voter-registration drive.) And in an election where the Latino vote could be crucial, unlike Chipotle, Rosa Linda's is actually a Mexican Mexican restaurant. So it wasn't surprising that a Romney supporter would approach Rosa Linda's about getting involved, maybe as a campaign stop.
The surprise was that the family declined. Although they certainly could have used the (positive) publicity and are active in local causes and campaigns, they didn't want to become a photo op in a national race. "A presidential campaign divides a nation," says oldest son Oscar Aguirre, who posted an item on Facebook back in August reporting the request — and the family's response.
We included that Rosa Linda's item in one of our posts reporting on Romney's stop at Chipotle.
Linking the two led to rumors that Rosa Linda's had refused service to Romney last week. The prank calls started coming in, then the demands for a boycott, then the death threats. The night of the debate, Oscar sent his parents home and stayed alone in the restaurant, a friendly cop car parked nearby. And he posted another message: "I (Oscar) would like to apologize to EVERY ONE WE MAY HAVE offended concerning Governor Mitt Romney, and the article in westword. We did not refuse him service yesterday — THAT IS FALSE! As stated in the article, when we were contacted by the campaign of candidate Romney on August 6, by a former Mormon missionary that he would like to bring the candidate here...it was presented to us that he wanted to do a political stump here....We did say NO because we are not Republicans, nor are we Democrats. We will welcome any sitting President of the United States, but we did not want to be a campaign stopping place...."
Twenty-four hours later, though, if Romney or any other politician had stopped in to eat, they wouldn't have been able to get a seat. The place was packed, with a line out the door. It was packed full of TV cameras, full of people who'd heard about the controversy, full of people who wanted to show they supported the family — or at least opposed the hate that was spilling over. A few regulars and other volunteers were helping clear plates. The family members who run the restaurant were giddy, but exhausted.
On Friday, they all sat down together. "Let's work as a family like we are now," Oscar remembers his father saying. "If they see us serving as a family, we'll make our community stronger."
For the Aguirres, it's always about the community.
In many ways, they are the community.
Virgil Aguirre moved to Denver in 1961, not long after his father, Beto, a longtime journalist who had his own newspaper, was strongly encouraged to leave Mexico — or prepare to dig his own grave. The eldest of eight kids (only four of whom survived), Virgil had worked for his dad on the paper in Mexico, and worked with him again on the paper that Beto started in Denver.
In 1970, Virgil married Rosa Linda Garza, who'd come to Denver to visit her sisters in 1967, met Virgil at a dance at La Fiesta, went back to Mexico, then moved to Denver for good in 1969. As she told Westword's Robin Chotzinoff in 1994, "Virgil's father was a very strict man, real proud. I thought, okay, he can have his newspaper. I just wanted his son." But the newspaper did not make enough money to support their growing family, and Virgil quit the business. "I gave up and went to work in construction," he explained in that same cover story. "I thought, I will bury my pen ten feet underground and just make a living. Everyone thought I'd last about three hours, but I lasted thirteen years." He lasted until the economy went sour and the construction work disappeared.
He looked, but couldn't find another job. Rosa Linda had — but they were volunteer posts, working in the community. Virgil decided they should go into another family business — Rosa Linda's sister owned El Noa Noa — and name a restaurant after her. "I thought, everyone knows her, it will be easy," he says. "It wasn't." They worked long, hard hours; so did the kids. At fourteen, Oscar would do his homework at the restaurant, then wait on tables, then help Virgil clean the place at closing time.
Somehow, the restaurant survived, and the family was able to make the balloon payment on the building that soon came due. And Rosa Linda, who'd converted to Mormonism as a teenager (Virgil converted when times were tough in the early '80s), did what she'd promised God she would do in thanks: She fed the needy at Thanksgiving.
That first Thanksgiving, the family served a hundred people. The tradition, like the Aguirre family itself, grew. Last year they fed 5,500 people. And this year?
"It's called Rosa Linda's annual feast," says Oscar, who over the years has served in the Army, gone to culinary school and returned to the family restaurant. "But it's the community's feast."
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For the Aguirres, the big date next month is not November 6, but November 22. They're starting to stockpile the ingredients for the green chile and turkey they'll be serving at the Thanksgiving feast. They're arranging to use ovens next door, in the restaurant that will be opening soon in the corner space of their building. And they're organizing volunteers — suddenly a much bigger list than they're used to, as people continue to ask what they can do. In the past, such familiar names as Congresswoman Diana DeGette and Senator Mark Udall have helped serve the meal; if Barack Obama or Mitt Romney wanted to stop in this time, Oscar says, they'd be welcome, too. Although it might be tough finding them a place on the line.
All of this outpouring of support has given Oscar an idea. He's asking people who want to help with the feast to "look within their own communities for seniors, single moms, veterans who need a meal, and get us their name/number/address." And then on Thanksgiving, the Aguirres will package up meals for these people, meals that volunteers can deliver. "We as a community can reach out so much more," he says.
"We are family," he concludes. "A very extended family."
Let us give thanks.