Immigrant Turned Entrepreneur: 'Taco Stand Was My School'
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Congress is back in session after the holiday break, and Speaker of the House John Boehner has now joined the course of leaders who say immigration reform is a top priority. So we're going to spend some time today talking about immigration. In a few minutes, we're going to speak with policy advocates from different sides of the debate to get their views on the state of play and what the reform could or should look like. But we're reminded that behind the policy argument are the personal stories, millions of them. And these stories about struggle and success are what informed many people's points of view about immigration.
So we decided to start with one story that actually reflects what many people on both sides of the debate have in mind. We'll start by hearing from Osiris Hoil. We heard about him from a community newspaper in the Washington, D.C. area where he has won an appreciative following for his popular District Taco restaurant chain. It's in Washington, D.C. and Virginia. Hoil is a native of Mexico who came to the U.S. in the year 2000. And when I spoke with him recently, I asked him why he decided to come to the U.S.
OSIRIS HOIL: Our lives in Mexico was really hard. My brother came first. When he was sending money back to Mexico to support my parents and build his house, and I was seeing, like, the money. I was like, wow, to make this much money here in Mexico, it's like being a doctor. So I came here when I was 18 to Colorado. My sister was a flight attendant. We were able to get a visa. And I think that was one of the things why I choose to come because it wasn't, like, a danger way to come.
MARTIN: So then you decided to what? Like, what was the plan?
HOIL: The plan was to, you know, send money to my parents, build my house and blah, blah, blah. But when I worked at the restaurant, I met this girl, Jennifer. And she is my wife right now.
MARTIN: Oh, just right now?
HOIL: Yeah, yeah.
MARTIN: I'm sorry. I'm just...
HOIL: You know - you know, so it's, like - but I didn't speak any English then, so that was one of the problems. I wanted to learn the language, and I couldn't keep up with classes. So I did it for only one semester, and, pretty much, I was falling asleep in the classrooms and...
MARTIN: 'Cause you were working so...
HOIL: I was...
MARTIN: ...Many hours you'd fall asleep in class?
HOIL: So the - I think you call them the advisors - the counselors, I think. Right? She told me - and I never going to forget this - she said, Osiris, the best teacher is yourself. If you want to learn, you will learn. If you do not want to learn, you're not going to learn. And I was like, can you give me an example? Well, you can be right now, you know, at the bus station and just waiting for your bus. And you will ask questions to somebody because you want to learn.
So, you know, at the restaurant, after I closed at 10 p.m., I used to go to the bar. I used to talk to drunk people. Yeah. You know, for some reason, I met a lot of friends that they didn't care, tell me, how do you say something, how do you say that.
MARTIN: Is it because their speech was so slow that you could follow it?
HOIL: Well, the speech was so slow, but also nobody wanted to talk to them. I started to learn bad words first. But then, you know, it got better.
MARTIN: Yeah, I'm trying to think about what words you were learning at the bar. But...
HOIL: Yeah, not good. Yeah, I was kind of the guy that, you know, even though I don't speak any English, but I can - you know, you can do sign language, I understand. And in the mornings, you know, I'll cook for them some eggs and chorizo, and they're so happy, my best friends.
MARTIN: How did you get into the taco business?
HOIL: So when I move here from Colorado in 2006, I found another job in the construction industry. But in 2008, I got laid off. I told my neighbor about it. I used to go to his house and cook for him and my wife, you know, and our kids. He told me one time that my food was really good, that I should open a restaurant. I'm like, man, I don't have the money for a restaurant. But he was giving me all these ideas.
He used to go to Austin, Texas for meetings and always saw these food trucks. They cost so much money. They cost about 90,000-$80,000. But then I found a hot dog stand that eventually we converted into a taco stand. Brand new, it was about $25,000. And he decided to want to give me the money for it to start the company. And that's how we pretty much did it.
MARTIN: Now you have three brick-and-mortar restaurants. You're hoping to opening a fourth. What is it that you think people like about your tacos? And why do you think it's taken off?
HOIL: All these recipes are from my mom. The taco stand was a school for me. When I was making pollo asado, I saw a lot of people was coming. When I was making mole, nobody knew about it. So I was like, man, maybe I should make more pollo asado, you know, or carne asada, those kind of things, like, where Americans know about it.
MARTIN: You are a citizen now. How do you want people to hear your story?
HOIL: Yes, I did break the rules when I came here. But also, I was following the rules. I came here legally, stayed here illegally. I was doing what any other American should do - trying to go to school, paying my taxes, you know, doing all that stuff. I didn't have any criminal records. You know, I didn't have any other bad records. So I have opened a business, and I have created about 140 jobs. And I know a lot of people have trouble trying to decide what they want to do for the future. And I hope I am one example for them.
MARTIN: I know you say you're not that involved in politics, but that there has been a lot of discussion over the whole question of immigration. And I just wondered if there is something that you feel your story - that the people who make these decisions should hear.
HOIL: You would want to know who's the guy who's cutting your yard, right? So there's a lot of people out there that you don't know. I would like to have more opportunities for immigrants, but immigration laws are always going to be hard, I think.
MARTIN: So where are your folks now? They must be very proud of you.
HOIL: I think they are. They're in Mexico, and they have a visa as well. So they come every other month.
MARTIN: So you can, like - your mom can, like, freshen up your recipes. Does she criticize your tacos...
HOIL: She does.
MARTIN: ...Or does she think they're good?
HOIL: She cooks with a lot of lard, and I don't.
MARTIN: You have to tell your mom, they're not trying to eat that up here.
HOIL: Yeah, exactly. And she eats a lot of spicy food, which we have really spicy food, you know, at the restaurant. But she has a different type of culinary...
MARTIN: Yeah, exactly.
HOIL: She always says we need more salt.
MARTIN: OK, and lard, right?
HOIL: Yeah, and lard.
MARTIN: OK, well. Osiris Hoil is co-owner and CEO of District Taco. And he was nice enough to take time out of his schedule at the restaurants - three so far, four on the way - to join us in on of our Washington, D.C. studios. Thank you so much for joining us. Happy New Year.
HOIL: Thank you. Happy New Year to you.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.