We launch our celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month this year with the story of the Villegas family, owners of Los Originales Tacos Árabes de Puebla in Boyle Heights, Los Angeles. Natives of Puebla, Mexico, Merced and Alfredo Villegas run one of the city’s most beloved food trucks, and are emblematic of Hispanic immigrants to the U.S. who have not only enriched the cultural, social—and culinary—terrain of this country, but stoke the economy through their energetic entrepreneurship, creativity and resilience.
All photos courtesy of Inclusive Action for the City
Merced Villegas offers two things to every customer who lines up at her family’s bustling food truck in L.A.’s Boyle Heights: “the warmth of family and the taste of Puebla, [Mexico],” says the veteran cook and entrepreneur. Each member of the Villegas clan has a role, from marinating the meat for their sublime “tacos árabes” (a Puebla specialty), to layering it on the trompo or spit for cooking, to concocting salsas. Even her four-year-old grandson wants in on the action.
Villegas, who began selling food with her family when she was just a child herself, together with her husband Alfredo, who has worked since the age of 10, started their business after moving to L.A. in the 80s, determined to provide a stable future for their five children. Years later, before street vending was legalized by the city in 2018, L.A. officials confiscated all of the couple’s equipment and wares. “In one day,” Villegas recalls in Spanish, “everything we had was taken away. We had to start all over again from nothing.”
And so they did, launching Los Originales Tacos Árabes de Puebla with a closely-guarded family recipe, and quickly becoming a fixture of the burgeoning local economy and foodie scene in L.A.’s Boyle Heights. It was around that time that the Villegases heard about Inclusive Action for the City (IAC, formerly called LURN, a longtime LISC partner) and began to tap into the group’s support for street vendors, which includes microloans and intensive technical assistance. The family learned how to establish price points, keep accurate financial records and advertise via social media; they even worked with a nutritionist to develop a vegan taco in response to customer demand, thanks to IAC’s help.
As the enterprise has flourished—thanks to effusive reviews from loyal customers, local food critics and even a cameo in the Netflix show “Ugly Delicious”—so has their need for capital. The tiny hitch trailer where they made and sold tacos and moles could hardly accommodate the seven Villegas family members and various friends and relatives who always show up to pitch in.
Still, the $36,000 required to purchase a food truck seemed far out of the family’s reach. As popular as their tacos are, they couldn’t get a loan from any local banks. “They weren’t collateralized,” said Azusena Favela, who oversees IAC’s microfinance initiatives and made the full loan to the Villegases. “The population we lend to is vulnerable, and the capital and technical assistance we provide can make all the difference in their ability to survive as a business.” A Wells Fargo Diverse Community Capital grant to IAC, via LISC, is funding a CDFI consultant to help boost the group’s capacity to grow their nascent loan fund and support more businesses.
The Villegases launched their truck—painted with designs invoking their native Puebla and the trompo on which their famous taco meat is roasted, and christened by a local priest—early in 2019, to great neighborhood fanfare. A blog about the event, written by IAC’s director, Rudy Espinoza (who is also a Rubinger Fellow) together with Favela, describes the special bonds between the Villegases, their natal culture and the community that flocks to their truck.
“It’s not only the same blood that pumps through the veins of the Tacos Árabes team, it’s also Puebla. Merced and her family go through the painstaking process of making sure their food is true to their homeland. They make weekly trips to Tijuana where they meet their envoy who delivers ingredients from their hometown. It’s not uncommon for customers who long for a taste of Puebla to rave about Tacos Árabes and how their food brings nostalgia of home.”
Transmitting the culinary heritage of Mexico is tightly interwoven with the American Dream for Merced and her family. “This loan has really made our dreams come true,” she says, adding that business has nearly doubled since they inaugurated their truck. But it doesn’t mean they work any less hard. The Villegases still rise at four or five in the morning to begin marinating hundreds of pounds of pork, cooking, serving and cleaning the truck until well past midnight. They hope to open a brick and mortar restaurant someday. But for now, they share some of L.A.’s best tacos, with the rest of the world, on their own set of wheels.