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Mexican migrant's food truck takes over Chicago

Manny Hernández chose the tamale as the main dish to start his first business, The Tamale Spaceship, which went on to be named the best Food Truck by both the Chicago Journal and the Chicago Magazine for three years in a row

Photo: courtesy of MANNY HERNÁNDEZ
English 16/12/2016 16:51 Actualizada 20:22
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“I don't know when or how, but I'm going to live in the United States,” thought Manny Hernández Uraga when he was an adolescent and started thinking about how to improve his life. Manny, who was born in Mexico City to a father from Guanajuato and a mother from Oaxaca, moved to Chicago in 1990 with a tourist visa and the desire to start a new life in the country he had admired his entire life.

“I lived with my dad's relatives who came up here to work. I really liked everything about the U.S.: the sports, material things, the language. I always dreamed of living here.”

In an interview with EL UNIVERSAL, he talked about how when he was younger the opportunity to go to the U.S. presented itself to him and some friends, and he was able to find a job almost immediately after moving.

Not only that, but adapting to the new culture wasn't all that difficult for him since he already spoke some English and became fluent within a year. “For me, it was like being reborn because I began to see everything in a whole new light. It wasn't long before I called the U.S. my home.”

All of Manny's jobs were in the restaurant industry, where he worked as a dishwasher and even a general manger, igniting a passion within him for the culinary arts. When the last restaurant he worked at went out of business, his creativeness and ambition led him to open his own company.

Manny chose the tamale as the main dish to start his first business, The Tamale Spaceship, which went on to be named the best Food Truck by both the Chicago Journal and the Chicago Magazine for three years in a row and helped him become one of the most well-known successful Mexican entrepreneurs.

“I originally wanted to open a Mexican restaurant, but in 2010 the economic crisis made it impossible for me to get a loan, so I decided instead to open a food truck that sold tamales stuffed with different types of Mexican ingredients.”

50% of the businesses menu changes depending on the season. For example, in fall he sells squash and mole tamales, but his most popular tamale throughout the year is the cochinita pibil, chicken with mole poblano sauce, poblano peppers with cheese and duck with mole sauce.

SUPERMAN VS. ATLANTIS

Six years ago, Manny Hernández and his business partner, the Acapulco native José Balanzar, began selling Mexican-style tamales out of their food truck. However, their tamales are stuffed with exotic flavors and their business décor is that of a Mexican wrestling ring.

“As a kid, my dad would take me to see the lucha libre wrestling matches every week. I grew up with my idols. When I opened my business we already had the menu and the truck, but we wanted to pay homage to Mexican culture, so I came up with the idea of incorporating my childhood idols, El Villano III, Atlantis, Brazo de Oro and Mil Máscaras. We would tell Americans: 'you have Batman, Superman and Spiderman; we have our wrestlers.'”

Manny, who's now 42 and who's lived in the U.S. for 26 years, employs 20 workers, 60% of who are Mexican, and also owns his own restaurant in addition to his food truck. His goal in the short-term is to open a bigger restaurant and continue growing his business because, as he says, “the sky's the limit.”

The Mexican entrepreneur who became a U.S. citizen in 2002 now has his parents and siblings close to him after helping them become legal residents of Illinois in 1998. He's been married for 15 years now with an American who works at the University of Illinois and whom he met in a restaurant and has a 14-year-old daughter named Lea.

AMERICA: THE GIANT SALAD BOWL

When asked about Donald Trump winning the U.S. elections, Manny says he's not really afraid and he's convinced that “he can't keep half the promises he made during his campaign.”

However, Manny admits that Trump's win is a disappointment, especially since for the first time ever the U.S. had a president such as Obama, who, he says, represents what America is as a culture. “The U.S. is a giant salad bowl, and a perfect example of that is my daughter, who sees her father as a Mexican with dark skin and her mother with blond hair and who speaks a different language. Obama represents the good side of America and it took a long time for someone like him to become president.”

To stay in touch with his roots, Manny travels to two different Mexican states every year to take cooking classes and discover new flavors, and one thing he knows for sure is that when he retires, he plans on moving to San Miguel de Allende, Guanajauto, and thus return to his roots. 

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