The home of the free is officially la casita de Martin.
In other words, Martin Ortega, owner of La Casita de Martin in Grove, is celebrating his first Fourth of July holiday weekend as an American citizen.
He took his formal oath of citizenship in March, after 14 years of waiting.
“They said it was going to be six to 12 years, but it took 14,” Ortega said.
Born July 5, 1970, to Jesus and Consuelo Ortega in Michoacán [Mee-cho-cahn], Mexico, Ortega is the youngest of 16 children. He lived in a house with dirt floors and a tile roof.
“Just like this,” Ortega said, pointing to a decorative awning inside his restaurant.
He went to school in Mexico from first through third grade. Like any other child, he said he used to complain to his mother about being hungry after school, but she would say, “there’s nothing.”
“Because there was nothing,” Ortega said.
A conversation he overheard between his father and mother prompted him to drop out of school: His mother asked his father for money to buy tomatoes to make salsa, but his father did not have any.
“It broke my heart,” Ortega said. “I thought, ‘School? I’m done. I know how to read, I know how to write and I know how to do additions. That’s all I need.’”
Ortega started working when he was 11, doing anything he could to earn money.
On an average day, he woke up at 6 a.m. to walk one hour to the mountains to help his father plant corn and beans. If not in the mountains, he would milk cows or sell bread and sweets from a bakery.
Tortillas and salsa were the foods his mother most often prepared. His family had a donkey to carry chopped wood back from the mountains so his mother could cook tortillas over a fire.
“That’s how we would survive,” Ortega said. “We were poor, but happy.”
As child, Ortega thought all Americans were rich because of tourists who came through his village.
“You see those tall, blond-hair guys, and you always think [they’re rich],” He said. “We used to ask for money.
“And they are rich. You can be rich if you want to in America.”
Ortega first crossed “the river,” the U.S.-Mexico border, in 1989 when he was 19. He had heard enough about the U.S., and wanted to see for himself.
“Everybody talks in Mexico about the United States,” Ortega said. “They say ‘Oh, California, San Francisco, Texas; it’s beautiful.”
But when Ortega crossed the border, he said he was only thinking of working and supporting his family ⎯ and survival.
He crossed the border many times, mostly through the Sonoran Desert, which can reach 120 degrees during daytime. He walked for two to five days in the cross-littered desert with no food and limited water.
“Thousands of people die in the desert,” Ortega said.
During one trek, he was with a guided group of about 12 immigrants when one man’s shoe fell apart.
Ortega said the man got blisters on his foot from the hot sand and could not walk. The guides told the group to leave him behind, but Ortega carried him, and convinced others to help, saying, “We need to take care of each other.”
Once across the border for the first time, he stayed in Corona, California, for about a week before flying to meet his brothers in Chicago, Illinois.
In Chicago, Ortega worked in fields harvesting lettuce and tomatoes for about a year-and-a-half.
Ortega said immigrants who started the visa application process are required to stay in the country, and those who leave risk not being able to return. But he missed his parents, so he hopped on a Greyhound Bus headed to Long Beach, California.
He hit some unexpected ice on the road.
Ortega said Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) arrested him in Las Vegas, where he spent a night in jail. The next day, ICE filled a bus with illegal immigrants and sent it to Los Angeles, then on to Tijuana, Mexico.
Ortega said there are more than 11 million illegal immigrants, and ICE knows where they are.
“They know where they are because everybody is working,” Ortega said. “They’re not lazy, they work.”
Ortega said he has seen many “illegals” get tangled in drugs and crime, or settle for doing yard work, but those people have the wrong mindset.
“They don’t believe in themselves, that’s the problem,” Ortega said. “If you believe in yourself, you can do it.”
Alone in Tijuana, Ortega called his sister for help. She came from Temecula, California to give him money, and he took a bus back to Michoacán.
Ortega said his father received him in tears.
“He said, ‘What are you doing over there?’” Ortega said. “‘You don’t need nothing over there. We can work here and survive.’”
But Ortega only stayed for two months before deciding to “try again” in the U.S.
There he sank into a type of mid-life crisis, and spent the money he earned socializing with friends from his hometown.
“That’s when I used to drink,” Ortega said. “And I was a bad boy, too. I’m not an angel.”
He lived in Long Beach, California, for about four years. Then his mother called and invited him to her and his father’s 50th anniversary wedding ceremony.
He told her he could not attend because he did not have any money or a job. She paid to fly him from from Tijuana to Guadalajara, Mexico.
Again, his family urged him to stay, but he came back.
Ortega said he had no restaurant experience, but he started working at Hoover’s Café in Atascadero, California, serving American food.
He advanced, beginning as a dishwasher, then as prep cook, and cook, before leaving for an adventure in Oklahoma.
He settled in Grove, and after leaving another restaurant, Ortega said he was ready to leave and try his luck in Texas.
But he said Ed Townsend, owner of Bank of Grove, would not let him.
“He said, ‘I can’t let you do that,’” Ortega said. “‘Start looking for a building.’”
Ortega said Townsend lent him about $30,000, which allowed him to purchase his restaurant building, at 23 West Third Street, Grove, for about $200,000.
Ortega said La Casita de Martin has been open for seven “successful years.”
He said he employs 20 people, and likes everything on his menu except Tex-Mex.
“People come here and order cheese enchiladas and queso sauce on top,” Ortega said. “That’s a lot of cheese. That’s not Mexican.”
He cannot understand why a customer would complain about not liking their food.
“It’s not spoiled, right?” Ortega said. “You just don’t like it.
“Food, to me, is sacred, because food is something a lot of people don’t have. If you don’t like when you go out, and you always complain about food, stay at home and cook your own.”
Ortega lives in Grove with his wife, Lorena Quintero, and has two daughters, Isabella Ortega, 7, and Gabriella Consuelo “Chelito” Ortega, 6.
His first son, Martin Salvador “Chavita” Ortega, was born on Wednesday, June 28, 2017 at 7:15 a.m., weighing 6 pounds 1 ounce. He is named after both Martin, and his oldest brother, Salvador, who helped sponsor Martin's citizenship process.
Since gaining his citizenship, Ortega joked that his name has changed from the pronunciation Mar-teen to Martin.
“I’m the same,” Ortega said. “The only thing that has changed are the people around me.”
Since becoming a citizen, Ortega said a lot of people see him differently and have congratulated him and said they are proud of him because he “did it the right way.”
But Ortega does not agree.
“I don’t think I did it the right way,” Ortega said. “I just did it the way the government let me do it.”