La Estrella Mini-Mart sits across a pair of railroad tracks that cut through McKinney Street in Denton, the sound of passing trains and their horns a constant nuisance. Its walls boast a collection of custom-made and colorful murals. On sunny days, a bright yellow star beams off the eastern wall it was painted on. On all days, the smell of gasoline slowly drifts from the four gas pumps near the entrance.
Inside, a black-and-white checkered floor tile greets its patrons. Twelve steps is all it takes to get to the other end, where a small drive-thru window constantly swings open, chasing the aroma of seasoned beef, chicken and pork grilling on a flat skillet.
The shop's owner, Gricelda Samano, takes orders behind the counter. Her husband, Rodolfo, can be found in a small corner office a few feet away from the drive-thru window, doing what he's been doing since 2010: keeping the doors open by selling gas from those pumps, beer from the fridge and snacks from the aisles. But the main attractions are the tacos, which are put down by UNT students and neighborhood regulars whom Samano greets by first name and with a smile.
Their tacos are simple as can be: a warm, tan-colored corn tortilla topped with beef, pork or chicken and chopped onions and cilantro. Every now and then, La Estrella sells tacos with fillings that are not so mainstream, like cow tongue or cow intestines. Samano's always surprised how fast they go.
La Estrella has worked its way into Denton's culture of small, independent entrepreneurship, a feature so many locals take pride in. It has its struggles, like keeping up with mortgage payments and making sure it's in compliance with city code. But after a tragic Thanksgiving weekend four years ago, the Samano family's investment became as emotional as it was financial.
Gricelda Samano sat next to the hospital bed where her sickly son Jonathan lay. Jonathan had been struggling with a respiratory infection for three months, and it developed into full-fledged pneumonia that Thanksgiving weekend. That Sunday morning, Jonathan was having serious trouble breathing. He turned to his mother and said, "I can't do this anymore."
His face turned pale and his breaths were few and short. Samano bolted out of the room to get help.
At the hospital, waited several hours for treatment. When doctors and nurses rushed into the room, they kept her out as they tried desperately to resuscitate Jonathan. Nothing worked. He died.
"[Parents] are supposed to be buried first, not our children," Samano says, almost four years later, inside La Estrella one recent afternoon.
For the past four years, Samano has been working not only to keep her business afloat but also to honor the wishes of her son. Jonathan, Samano says, would always express that he saw children born to Mexican immigrants as being in need of an education in their own culture.
"He would always tell me, 'Show them what we're made of, mom,'" Samano says. "He would always share his ideas with me."
Before his death, Jonathan suggested to his mother the idea of outdoor cookouts where families from the community could gather, and children could be exposed to the traditional music and food. So from February 2010 to December 2011, Samano hosted the cookouts every Friday and Saturday in an empty lot behind her restaurant.
But soon the city of Denton clamped down on the events. City officials said the exposed food could lead to customers getting sick. Samano appealed to the city council because it was those events that were keeping her business alive, but the health department shut her down.
Samano pressed on, committed to showing Denton a slice of Mexican culture. "I am proud to be Mexican," she explains. "But I think that a lot of people have a negative perception of us. They think we are simple ranchers and uncultured people."
To change that view, Samano has been an active member of the annual Cinco de Mayo celebration, and she plays host to small music concerts outside her restaurant. Every Friday, a group of chidren called Super Estrellas ("Superstars") perform pop music for her customers. Samano also schedules musical groups from out of town to perform.
In February, that meant the arrival of a pre-colonial music group from Guadalajara called Huehuetl. Despite an unexpected chill and rain, the concert drew about 30 regular customers and local university students, and kids danced in the rain.
She'd created what she'd envisioned: a gathering place. And she wants to capitalize on it. For Samano, the tacos and music and cultural expressions are a means to a greater end. She sees a growing need for leadership in Denton's booming Hispanic population.
"I would fight for them because I am not afraid to stand up to anyone," Samano says. "I am not afraid to call out injustices when I see them."
Samano isn't sure if her desire to be a community leader means a run for city council or simply more active community organizing. She expects to graduate from the University of North Texas this December with a degree in business management, and she dreams of a cultural center where children can learn folklorico dancing and watch old Mexican films.
Her priority for now, though, is keeping her business afloat, so the little star outside her taqueria can serve as a guiding light to the Hispanic community nestled next to those train tracks. And, of course, for someone else.
"I keep myself busy to hold off the pain I feel, she says, tears streaming down her face. "Losing a son is the most difficult thing."
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