Larry Baca worked in the uranium mines and mills in Grants, on legendary Route 66 in northwestern New Mexico, before he opened a restaurant. El Cafecito, which serves home-cooked New Mexican food, has been going for 28 years.
Baca, 52, has just a touch of gray in his cropped black hair and very trim moustache. In fact, everything about him is trim, unlike his customers, whose girth suggests they eat large portions of his cooking at least three times a day.
Even Baca’s ideas about life are trim: work hard and play by the rules, that’s what it takes.
“The young generation, they don’t want to work,” he says. “I have to interview 100 job applicants to find one that’s okay. And when they have a four-hour shift coming up they call and ask me, ‘Do I really have to come in tomorrow?’ ”
His own children, however, have imbibed his work ethic and he’s proud of them. Baca’s daughter, a hairdresser, has earned enough in Albuquerque to buy her own house, even though she is bringing up a child on her own. His son is a registered nurse, also in Albuquerque. Neither wants to return to Grants to work or even to visit. The only way Baca can see his grandchild is to drive to Albuquerque, 100 miles east, but he hates the big-city traffic.
If Baca has one regret, it is that he does not know Spanish, though he is of Spanish descent. The few words he does know are not enough for him to understand everything his employees say. And, he believes, if you know Spanish you can do anything.
Baca likes to talk to customers from far-flung places, to learn how things are done elsewhere in the world. He’s so interested that he shoos away an employee who tells him there’s an important phone call for him. He’s particularly interested in the kinds of food other people eat, and also in their way of life. His conclusion from all this talk, he says, is that things are pretty much the same everywhere: “There are good people, and there are bad people.”
As you drive into Grants you see billboards of companies offering to help former uranium miners obtain government compensation—presumably for illness they’ve suffered because of their work. Grants, originally a farming community, has one of the largest uranium reserves in the world, discovered in 1950. But mining stopped there in the 1982-83 recession.
Now the town, which had a population of about 9,000 in 2008, is growing, Baca says. That’s partly because of the local coal mine, the hospital and the three prisons. And there is talk that the uranium mines may reopen.
But isn’t working in uranium mines dangerous?
“Not if you follow the rules,” he says. In his day, workers were warned not to smoke in the mines, but 80 percent of them did. Mill workers were supposed to wear protective clothing.
And Baca followed the rules.
“I feel fine,” he says, his dark eyes shining.
Meanwhile, Baca is putting up a larger building so he can expand his restaurant. And if Grants continues to grow, El Cafecito will always be filled with hungry diners.
Copyright 2010 by Esther Hecht. No part of this text may be used by anyone else without the express permission of the author.