Luna's Texas Restaurant: The Story Of One Of Milwaukee's Longtime Mexican Restaurants
The near south side of Milwaukee has long been home to the city’s Mexican community, where food has always been an important part of the culture. Walking around, you’ll find a lot of Mexican restaurants, but what were some of the first ones like? That’s what one Bubbler Talk question asker wanted to know.
Here is the story of one family’s longtime restaurant.
Juanita Bustillos-Rodriguez's father Felipe Luna owned Luna’s Texas Restaurant on south 5th Street in Milwaukee's Walker’s Point.
“My dad has always worked in restaurants. Even at the age of 14, he started as a dishwasher,” recalls Bustillos-Rodriguez.
She says her father migrated to Wisconsin in the mid-1940s with his wife Josefa, and together they became farm workers.
“My mom and my dad met each other, they married and so she convinced him to come out and work because she said that the money would grow on trees and in the fields, which is not true," says Bustillos-Rodriguez. “But anyway, my father did not like the field work at all.”
Bustillos-Rodriguez says the main reason her parents stayed in Wisconsin was to seek medical care for her sister from the St. Vincent de Paul Society. When the organization learned that Felipe Luna had experience working in restaurants, they found him a job working at one. But Luna always had a dream to run his own restaurant.
One day, his wife Josefa Luna saw the Texas Restaurant for rent. The couple ran that Mexican restaurant for a while and then bought it in the early 1950s once business began to boom. Bustillos-Rodriguez says running Luna’s Texas Restaurant meant the world to her father.
“I remember him for many years, that I would go get ready for school and he would be sitting at the front table and drinking his cup of coffee and planning his day for the business,” she remembers fondly. “He was such a faithful, hardworking man. He never missed a day. He was always at his business. He was a very dedicated man.”
“You know what he would tell me? He said, ‘I’m building a future for you.'"
The story of Luna’s Texas Restaurant and others on the south side parallels the history of Mexican migration in Wisconsin.
Sergio Gonzalez is an assistant professor at Marquette University who specializes in the history of Latino communities in the Midwest. He says the earliest members of Milwaukee’s Mexican community, known as Los Primeros, came to Milwaukee during the early 1920s to work in industrial factories like tanneries and foundries. Some of them opened Milwaukee’s very first Mexican grocery stores, which had small restaurants. The first one opened in 1925 at Fifth Street and Florida Avenue.
The Mexican community in Milwaukee began to grow during the '20s, but many returned to Mexico when the Great Depression hit. In the 1940s and '50s, the next wave of Mexican Americans came to Milwaukee. That’s when Luna’s Texas Restaurant and other Mexican restaurants began to take off.
For the Luna family, running a busy restaurant meant everyone in the family had to pitch in. From the time she was 12-years-old, Bustillos-Rodriguez worked as a waitress. As a child, she says she didn’t always like having to work, but she now appreciates the sacrifices her father made to create a legacy for his family.
“You know what he would tell me? He said, ‘I’m building a future for you. You might not think so,' but he says this, 'What I’m doing is going to be for your future,'” says Bustillos-Rodriguez.
Luna’s Texas Restaurant was open for more than 30 years until shortly after Felipe Luna passed away in the 1970s. Today, Bustillos-Rodriguez’s daughter and granddaughter run Luna’s Mexican Restaurant in St. Francis, which pays tribute to the original restaurant and uses its recipes.
Family members say people still come in and ask about the south side Luna's Texas Restaurant. Bustillos-Rodriguez says her father would have loved to hear that.
“My dad used to say, ‘It’s your family, you gotta dedicate your time and make sure that your business is successful.’ When I see my daughter and my granddaughter working it, I feel very proud. I really do. It makes my heart just swell because I know that it's not an easy job. But it pays off in the long run because fifty some years later and my dad is still remembered. That's so special to me, you know what I mean? It's really special to me,” she says.
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