For Cesar Leal, life in the United States “is like having a big table full of food and you’re just allowed to eat until you’re full.” It’s fitting then, that Leal’s livelihood in Waco, Texas, revolves around food. Originally from Mexico and now a U.S. citizen, the entrepreneur opened Leal’s Restaurant 23 years ago, and the business has grown to include a snack shop and a working ranch. “Being in America is like winning the lottery,” he says. “Even with someone like me, who has just a ninth-grade education, you can make it.”
His path to the American dream was not an easy one. Leal crossed the Rio Grande river illegally in 1980, after a number of failed attempts and run-ins with border patrol that left him with cracked ribs and a broken nose. “That made me want it more,” he says. One of nine children, Leal lost his father at the age of nine, and says his upbringing in Mexico was “rough.” The promise of the United States, he says, was worth the risk of crossing the border.
Life didn’t get easier once he arrived. In addition to the fear and uncertainty that comes with living in the shadows, Leal quickly realized that employers were comfortable taking advantage of undocumented workers. His first job in Waco was washing dishes at a local restaurant. He worked for 97 hours in a span of two weeks and received a paycheck for $115. “The minimum wage at the time was $3.35, and when I talked to the manager about it, he said, ‘Hey amigo, you don’t like it, then bye, bye.’ ” That was Leal’s last day on the job; he started working shortly thereafter at a local IHOP.
Years later, Leal married a U.S. citizen. With legal status, he finally felt at ease in the country, and the couple decided to go into business for themselves. In 1993, Leal’s Restaurant opened its doors. More than two decades later, his three businesses — the restaurant, the snack business, and the family ranch — employ a total of 30 people. Most of them, he says, are immigrants. “What can I do if no one comes to apply?” he asks, adding that American-born workers are not interested in the work he has to offer. At times, it’s even difficult for him to find documented foreign workers. “I would die for this country, and am not disrespecting American citizens at all,” he says. “But if I can’t find employees here, or Americans don’t want the jobs I have available, I would like the option to go and get a foreign worker. There is always someone, somewhere, who wants the job.”
Leal expresses endless appreciation for the opportunities this country has afforded him, and speaks with pride about his three sons: one is running the snack business at the age of 28 and just saw net sales of $1 million; one just graduated from culinary school at age 23; and the third is studying engineering at Texas A&M University. He wants those opportunities to be within reach for other native Mexicans. “There’s so much freedom in this country, and the opportunities are endless, and it’s all up to you,” Leal says. “There’s a misconception about immigration. Yes, you will always have a couple bad apples, but the majority of us come here to better ourselves. And building a wall, disrupting family togetherness, it’s not going to work. Making it harder to enter the country is not going to stop people from trying to enter.”