Multi-American | How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

Business, love and survival: Four of L.A.'s entrepreneurial Latino families share their stories

And the bonus for those who attended: Free hot sauce.
And the bonus for those who attended: Free hot sauce.
Photo by Noe Montes Photography

It's not often that people get choked up during a business panel, but it happened on Tuesday night, when KPCC's Crawford Family Forum presented a panel on Latino family businesses.

The panelists were members of the families behind some of Los Angeles' most recognizable Latino-owned businesses: Tapatio hot sauce, Porto's Bakery & Cafe, the Guelaguetza Oaxacan restaurants and Gaviña Gourmet Coffee, all into their second generation and beyond of family ownership.

What made the conversation, which I moderated, surprisingly moving was how the panelists delved not only into their families' entrepreneurial history and success, but the ties that bind them together. At least for these families, the ties were strong enough to draw the second generation back to work with their parents, even after obtaining degrees in business, medicine and law.

All of the panelists, children of these companies' immigrant founders (some of whom were in the audience) attributed their parents' creativity and entrepreneurial spirit to a basic drive for survival, using whatever skills they had to provide for their families.

Perhaps Betty Porto, who remembers her Cuban immigrant mother baking cakes at home to sell as a way of putting food on the table, both in Cuba when times got tough and as a new arrival in Los Angeles, put it best:

"I think the first generation brings the work ethic," Porto said. "When you are a first-generation immigrant, there is no going back. What you bring is the work ethic and the hunger. The second generation brings the education and the sophistication and the way of using the American system of doing business, which is the greatest system in the world, in my opinion. I think that is their biggest contribution. But the work ethic, and this desperation to work and make something of themselves in a foreign land, that's something only the first generation has."

A few other highlights from the panelists' anecdotes:

Luis Saavedra, whose father Jose Luis Saavedra founded the Los Angeles institution that is the Tapatio hot sauce company, recalled days spent toiling after high school in a cramped 480-foot facility, helping make hot sauce along with his two sisters. (His father, a Mexican immigrant who began making hot sauce for friends and co-workers, started the business after being laid off from his aerospace job.) Like Porto, who went to law school before returning to her parents' bakery, Saavedra aspired to a different career, completing medical school.

While in the residency process, he began thinking about what might happen to the company his father has worked so hard to build. "I saw how hard he worked," Saavedra said. "I just felt it was a son's duty to help out your father as much as you can...either it wasn't going to grow, or the business was going to kill him, or he was going to sell it, and I couldn't accept that." Switching gears to work full-time with his father turned out to be an easy decision for Saavedra, now vice president. "It's been great working with your teacher, your mentor, your best friend," he said.

Bricia Lopez of the Guelaguetza restaurants was the first to tear up when she spoke of the bare-bones start of her Oaxacan immigrant parents' business. She, her mother Maria Lopez and her aunt would travel to Oaxaca to buy distinctive regional products, shipping them to Tijuana, where her father Fernando would pick them up and load them into his truck to deliver door-to-door to Oaxacan immigrants hungry for a taste of home.

"I'm sure everyone has a special connection to the food back home," she said, a connection that is especially strong for Oaxacans, a cultural minority in Mexico and among Mexican immigrants here. "I could not think of myself living anywhere I could not get my clayudas and my tasajo and my quesillo and my grasshoppers (chapulines), as weird as that sounds."

Lopez and her brother, Fernando Jr., have respective degrees in business and economics. After spending high school helping her parents, she never thought she'd go back to the restaurant business, but both have, experimenting with their own eateries before opting to focus full-time on their parents' restaurants. "Now," she said, "I see it as more of a calling."

Lisette Gaviña Lopez of Gaviña Gourmet Coffee, whose father is among the four immigrant siblings behind the Vernon-based coffee company, was another who became choked up when describing the origins of her family's coffee plantation in Cuba, which they lost after the 1959 revolution. Her father, José Gaviña, joined her from the audience to talk of the family's humble start in the United States, where he, his father and two brothers worked washing dishes and cleaning floors at a Los Angeles restaurant as they tried to get back into the coffee business.

"If they had an argument with the Gaviñas, they would probably have to start eating on paper plates, because we were the dishwashers," José Gaviña said. "(But) my father's dream was to get back into the business. He just had a passion for coffee."

Some of the panelists gave their parents' hard work - and the popular brands that resulted - credit for helping elevate the image of Latin American immigrants in the United States. Maria Lopez, who spoke from the audience, credited her two children with this also, saying her daughter was "proud to be Oaxacan."

"They have made Oaxacan food better known," Lopez said in Spanish. "They're helping us change the image of the restaurant. And also, I think, those of us from the south of Mexico, people used to look at us as though we were only good for working in people's homes...the restaurant has contributed to us being better recognized."

My KPCC colleague and business reporter Matt DeBord described the evening this way on his DeBord Report blog:

Business leaders, even family business leaders, are usually more than happy to talk about how they built their enterprises. But they don't usually talk about the process in such moving, personal ways. I think everyone who aspires to start a company, in any industry, should listen to what the panelists have to say.

On that note, the raw audio from the panel can be downloaded here.

And if you're interested in contributing to more stories on L.A.'s entrepreneurial immigrant families, check out KPCC's nifty Assignment Desk project.