American dream in a Mexican restaurant

By Bill MacKenzie

Carolina Tapia and Maria Calderon had a dream: to own a thriving, authentic Mexican restaurant. With the recent opening of A Taste of Mexico in Hillsboro, their dream is on its way to being fulfilled, but the journey has not been easy.

by: HILLSBORO TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOOD - A Taste of Mexico is now open on Southwest Cornelius Pass Road in Hillsboro. Owner-operators are Carolina Tapia and Maria Calderon. PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOOD – A Taste of Mexico is now open on Southwest Cornelius Pass Road in Hillsboro. Owner-operators are Carolina Tapia and Maria Calderon.

Carolina was born in the United States, but grew up in the barely-there town of San Jose del Vergel in central Mexico. She left school after the sixth grade to help at her father’s grocery store. At 17, she embarked on a pilgrimage to a better life in Oregon, where two of her brothers lived. Because her mother had been born in Colorado, her American citizenship was secure, but her future was not.

Determined to flourish in her new home, Carolina learned fluent English through immersion in the American culture, and at 19 she earned her GED. Over the next 12 years she worked for several Hillsboro manufacturing companies, including Intel and White Electronics, where, 10 years ago, she met Maria.

Maria was born in Morelia, Michoacan in southern Mexico and grew up as one of 10 children in an impoverished family. Finishing school in the ninth grade and married at 15, she became the mother of three children in the next four years. At 19, she and her family slipped across the U.S. border at Tijuana and headed to Oregon.

Maria spent her first five years in the U.S. toiling under the sun in Oregon’s fields, before shifting to a cabinet-making company and several manufacturers in the Hillsboro area, including White Electronics. In the meantime, she became a proud U.S. citizen in 1988, following the passage of federal immigration reform legislation in 1986.

“After 30 years here, I feel like this is my house, my home,” she said.

About a year ago, Maria took a trip to Mexico where she saw a number of small restaurants that seemed to be doing well. When she came home, she pitched to Carolina the idea of starting a little eatery featuring all fresh authentic Mexican food.

They leased space at 3002 S.W. Cornelius Pass Road, just off TV Highway in Hillsboro, and figured all would go smoothly.

It didn’t.

They weren’t prepared when bills came in to upgrade the plumbing or re-do the walls and floors of the leased space. They weren’t prepared for all the government requirements, each with its own fee. They weren’t prepared for the multiple government inspections and dealing with the city bureaucracy.

“It took a lot more effort, time, money and everything,” Carolina said. “We almost gave up because everything was taking too long. We had thought we could be done in three months so we could open in April. It was eight months. It was harder than we expected.”

It also took $20,000.

A Taste of Mexico finally opened on Aug. 5 with a cramped kitchen, six tables and three booths squeezed into 960 square feet.

“The first week was terrible, to be honest,” Carolina said. “We were like, oh my gosh, what did we get ourselves into?”

After about two months in business, Carolina and Maria are still struggling, but more customers are coming in with each passing week and they’re increasingly hopeful.

“Our families are behind both of us,” said Carolina. “They trust us and know we’re going to make it, and we don’t want to give up the dream.”

Bill MacKenzie is a former congressional staff member, newspaper reporter and communications manager for a Hillsboro company.

Originally published in the Hillsboro Tribune,  Oct 18, 2013


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