Lorenzo Garcia Jr. owns El Rey Azteca in Oneida. He also owns restaurants in Caryville and Powell | Ben Garrett/IH

This is an amazing country. We still have our faults here, but overall it’s amazing. Other people died trying to get here. We should appreciate what we have.

» Lorenzo Garcia

2018 was a big year for Oneida’s Lorenzo Garcia Jr.

Garcia, who owns El Rey Azteca, ended the year by getting married. He and his wife, Courtney, were wed December 15 in Nashville. But that was just one of two life-changing events for Garcia in 2018. Earlier in the year, he became a U.S. citizen.

Garcia passed his citizenship interview on June 19, and his application for citizenship was recommended for approval that same day. Later, it was made official at a nationalization ceremony in Chattanooga. In September, U.S. Senator Bob Corker sent him a flag that had been flown over the nation’s capitol in Washington, D.C., a symbol of his new status as a naturalized American.

It was Garcia’s second attempt at citizenship. Earlier, his request had been denied. Now 42, he figures the denial was due at least in part to some minor trouble he had gotten into as a young man, when he had been charged with a misdemeanor. His attorney told him it was likely because he didn’t show proof of character. So, the second time around, Garcia had a number of prominent Scott Countians write letters on his behalf, attesting to his character. Among them were former County Mayor Dale Perdue, Sheriff Ronnie Phillips, and magistrate Scarlett Ellis. This time around, his efforts proved successful. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security recommended him for citizenship to the United States of America.

A Harrowing Beginning

Garcia has spent virtually all of his life in the United States. But he was actually born in Guadalajara, the capital of the Mexican state of Jalisco. It was his family’s native home. 

By that point, Garcia’s father — Lorenzo Garcia Sr. — was already in the U.S., working to provide money to his family. When his son was six months old, the elder Garcia decided it was time to bring his family to the U.S. in pursuit of a better life.

Just a baby at the time, Garcia doesn’t remember that trip to the United States. But he’s heard the stories — the stories of floating across the Rio Grande on an inner-tube, of the inclement weather that struck that day, of how he almost drowned. 

“It was rough, from what I’ve been told,” he said. “I don’t remember, and I’m glad I don’t remember.

“But Mexico back then was hard,” he added. “They wanted to give me a better life.”

Lorenzo Sr. had been working on farms in the U.S. for some time by that point, as had his father, Lorenzo Jr.’s grandfather. Mainly, he picked fruit in South Carolina. It was back-breaking labor, but a better opportunity than what existed back home, in Guadalajara.

The Garcias were among 2.9 million immigrants who received amnesty in the 1980s as part of President Ronald Reagan’s sweeping immigration reform bill. 

Reagan, seen as the father of modern conservatism, had championed amnesty as early as a televised debate in his 1984 re-election campaign, when he said, “I believe in the idea of amnesty for those who have put down roots and lived here, even though sometime back they may have entered illegally.” 

Former Wyoming Senator Alan K. Simpson, one of Reagan’s close friends, would later say that Reagan “knew that it was not right for people to be abused. Anybody who’s here illegally is going to be abused in some way, either financially (or) physically. They have no rights.”

Reagan’s immigration reform was largely seen as a failure because the heightened border security and crackdowns on employers who hire undocumented workers, in exchange for amnesty, were never realized.

But for the nearly three million who came forward, it represented a world of new opportunity. Lorenzo Garcia Sr. and his family — including young Lorenzo Jr., who was just 12 at the time — came forward in 1988 and received their visas. 

Out of the Fields

By 1992, Lorenzo Garcia Sr. had moved his family from South Carolina to Chicago. He had gone from the farms to the restaurant business. That year, one of his friends helped him establish a restaurant of his own. And the Garcia family moved to Nashville to do just that.

The elder Garcia is retired now, owning just one restaurant. But at one time he owned restaurants throughout Middle Tennessee, including locations in Mt. Juliet, Carthage, Livingston, Celina and Gainesboro.

“Restaurants are too stressful,” Garcia said. “So now he buys houses and renovates them.”

But the restaurant business is in the Garcia blood. After exploring the possibility of opening a restaurant in Jamestown, Lorenzo Garcia Jr. wound up in Oneida, opening El Rey Azteca in the Oneida Plaza shopping center. He has since opened two more restaurants, in Caryville and Powell. But it’s in Oneida that he lives and works, preferring the way of life here to that of the life in more urban areas.

“They’re fun. I love it,” Garcia said of operating restaurants. “The main problem is finding people to work. I would open them all day long if I could find people to work. But it’s hard to find anybody.”

Living the Dream

The American Dream means something. That’s what Lorenzo Garcia thinks. In America, he’s found opportunities that he would’ve never had if his parents hadn’t moved here when he was a baby. Opening a string of restaurants back in Guadalajara would’ve proven difficult.

“The market is not as big in Mexico as here,” he said. “The restaurants that are there have been there forever. It’s not like here. There’s more cash here. The dollar value is more here. Mexico is getting better, but it’s still harder there.”

In America? “You can do anything you want,” Garcia said. “You just have to work for it. People give up too early now. They want everything too easy.”

The Garcia family realized the value of hard work early on. And Lorenzo Garcia is proud that his father never took a government handout as he built his string of successful restaurants. There’s a stigma that minorities have an easier time establishing businesses because of government aid — something that, as it turns out, isn’t always true.

“We worked hard and saved money,” Garcia said. “We borrowed some money from friends, but we never got a single government loan.” 

Garcia is proud of the life he has established for himself and his family, which includes nine children.

“I tell my son that I’m living the dream right now,” he said. “I’m the most I’ve ever been. I have a little campground down in Robbins (near Brimstone), a little spot where we camp. This is the dream.”

It’s a dream that he wants others to realize — including the younger generation that don’t realize what they’ve inherited.

“I’ve got young kids working for me, and I’m a little rough on them, but I try to push them,” he said. “I try to show them that it’s a hard world out there.”

Garcia won’t tolerate a poor work ethic. He said that he even fired his son, “Little Lorenzo,” as he calls him, a few days ago. He laughed as he said it, but he was serious — though he concedes that he’ll eventually bring him back on board once his son has learned his lesson.

“These kids, they don’t know what they have,” he said. “I have a former employee who is a U.S. citizen and he just takes it for granted. Other people would love to be in that situation and be able to make something for themselves.” 

The realization of the American Dream is a notable accomplishment, Garcia said. 

“People died to try to get here. People would give anything to try to have this, to get over here and have this dream.” 

Busting Stigmas

There’s no doubt that Garcia is a Mexican-American. It’s more than just his name that gives it away — it’s the tone of his skin, his accent. But he said Scott County hasn’t treated him differently because he isn’t caucasian, even though the population here is overwhelmingly white.

Ironically, it was in Nashville, a huge metropolis, that Garcia first felt the sting of racism. When he moved from Chicago as a teenager, he found himself as the only Mexican at his Nashville high school. Everyone else was either white or black.

“That’s when I felt prejudice,” he said. “I never knew what that was until I moved to Nashville.”

But in Scott County, Garcia’s own kids don’t feel the same prejudice at school.

“There was just one incident where my daughter got picked on because of her darker skin,” he said. “Overall, the schools do good with my kids.”

Garcia himself hasn’t felt himself isolated because of his race. His restaurant has proven overwhelmingly successful in Oneida; it is, in fact, one of Scott County’s most successful restaurants.

“I don’t see (prejudice) here because people know me,” he said. “Anywhere I moved, at first, people took me different, but once they got to know me, they didn’t treat me any different.” 

Garcia has always worked hard to integrate himself in American culture; always known he wanted to be an American. As a kid, he was active in Boy Scouts; “a little trooper,” he said of himself. “I used to enjoy that.” As an adult, that hasn’t stopped. Through El Rey Azteca, Garcia has donated regularly to schools, non-profit organizations, and youth sports teams in Scott County. 

The Politics of Immigration

The Garcia family have been legal in America for a long time — dating back to 1988, when they received their temporary visas, and later their permanent visas and then their green cards. Garcia himself doesn’t talk politics much; he just smiles and goes about his business. But it’s hard for him to fault those who come to America illegally in search of a better life.

“Unless you have a lot of money, it’s hard to come here legally,” he said. “Unless you get married to an American in Mexico, you have to go to work for one of the larger corporations that can apply for work visas, like in the farming industry. But regular people can’t get here. I don’t hate on them. They’re just trying to live. I wish it was easier and there was a legal way.”

There’s a long-standing argument that illegal immigrants are taking jobs from Americans because they work for cheap wages. Garcia said that’s largely a myth.

“I always tell people that Mexicans don’t get paid less,” he said. “I have cousins who are here making $30 an hour in construction. Even tobacco workers, they weigh their tobacco out and get paid based on how much they bring in. Some of them were making $1,000 a week 16 years ago. Even now that would be a lot of money.”

There’s also been a growing narrative that immigration brings a criminal element to America. Garcia said that’s an unfair assumption.

“We don’t know them,” he said. “They could be (criminals), but they could be people who are really hurting. I just feel sorry for them. I’m lucky to be here, and I feel bad for people who are trying to come here.”

Garcia recently traveled back to his native Mexico for the first time in 16 years. He admits that he was somewhat scared to go. But, he said, he didn’t see anything out of sorts.

“I’m sure if I was looking for trouble, I could’ve found it,” he said. “But everybody was friendly. They don’t have much money but they try to feed you and take care of you. I didn’t see any of the stuff I saw on the news. It’s just like here: if you’re looking for trouble, you’ll find it.”

Realizing What We've Got

Garcia doesn’t shy away from the fact that he’s blessed to be an American. He’s proud of it, but he also remains sympathetic to those who haven’t realized the American dream. As for those who don’t realize what they have here in the United States, he says a missions trip to a third world country would be eye-opening. 

“People like Erika Schmelter take these mission trips,” he said, referring to the Huntsville woman and the face of Brimstone Recreation, who just returned with her husband, Shawn, from Honduras. “Some people judge when they don’t really know anything else. They need to feel blessed to have been born in America. This is an amazing country. We still have our faults here, but overall it’s amazing. Other people died trying to get here. We should appreciate what we have.”