There are two things Gloria Arteaga, the owner and life force behind Nolita's Cafe El Portal, remembers most vividly about growing up in the town of Huitzuco in the Mexican state of Guerrero. One is the smell of freshly tilled soil as she and her six siblings worked the land with their father. The second is the thrill she felt each year when the first green shoots of corn became visible. "I would run to my father and say, 'Look, Dad, baby corn!'," she said. Though she now lives in New York City, far from the fields of her hometown, the smells, sights, and emotions tied to her childhood remain fresh and close.
Those memories also include her mother; Arteaga cooked alongside her when she wasn't in the field with her father. Though her mother taught her techniques, such as making fresh corn tortillas, and passed along recipes, Arteaga also credits God with giving her the don that has allowed her to support her family and herself and to make a life in New York. "God gave me the gift of cooking because He knew I had a lazy man," she said.
If there is one thing there's no room for in Arteaga's life, it's laziness. Before she left Huitzuco for the United States, Arteaga had two restaurants, one where she served comida a la carta and the other specializing in seafood. That was in the 1960s. Through the restaurants, Arteaga was able to support her six children, but in the 1980s, she decided she needed to make a move... a big move. “I didn't want my daughters [she has five of them] to marry a man from our town," Arteaga said. "In 1986, I moved to New York and worked for a year, doing everything from babysitting to cleaning skates. In that year, I saved up $16,000; then, I brought my children here.”
Sixteen thousand dollars isn't much of a cushion when you have six kids, especially if you're moving to New York, you're the breadwinner, you don't have a job waiting for you, and you don't speak English. Arteaga, however, was never scared. “God made me a brave woman,” she said. “There was never a moment in my life when I said, 'I'll try' or 'Let me see if I can do this.' No. I have always said, 'I'm going to do this' and I do it. The challenges are what make life beautiful.”
Next, Arteaga opens her first NYC restaurant...