COBDEN — When Maria Bartolo arrived from Michoacan, Mexico, almost 40 years ago, Cobden was like no place she’d ever seen.
“There was snow everywhere, the trees were bare, and I had no idea what was going to happen,” she said. “There were no Hispanics, no Mexican shops.”
She was a 23-year-old migrant agricultural laborer, looking for a better life for her two young daughters, whom she’d left back home.
“I never imagined I’d own my own business, one day,” she said. Today, her Little House of Tacos, on Appleknocker Drive, is known throughout the region as a source of authentic Mexican tacos and tamales, more than 1,000 miles from the southern border.
The kitchen is a small orange prefabricated shed with two windows. Her youngest son, Esteban, takes orders at one, and the food comes out of the other.
The restaurant is a testament to the hard work of a grandmother who got her start as an undocumented fruit packer, and a symbol of Cobden’s diverse and evolving community. Bartolo says her clientele is predominantly caucasian, and the lunch hour line often includes bikers, construction workers and wine trail tourists, together with local Latino agricultural workers.
Bartolo will proudly tell you her cooking is “nothing special.”
“I make these dishes the same way I make them at home,” she said, “and people like it that way."
The chicken, pork carnitas, and steak are prepared fresh each day. Bartolo works by her mother's recipes; her mother supported the family as a baker back in Mexico.
As one of the first Latina immigrants to the region, Bartolo carries much of the community’s history with her. She remembers the Union-Jackson Farmworkers’ Housing Association migrant camp, about two miles north of town, which housed migrant families until its closure several years ago.
She remembers the Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids that occurred there, leading to the deportations of some workers.
“Thank god they never bothered us,” she said.
Today, Cobden’s population is almost 30 percent Latino, according to the most recent U.S. Census.
However, the ingredients that Bartolo needs to make her dishes remain difficult to acquire locally. Every few weeks, her husband travels to St. Louis to purchase products like sangria soft drinks, corn tortillas, and spices like chile de arbol.
The stores in St. Louis, Bartolo says, order their stock from importers based in Chicago, where international commerce with Mexico is big business. Chicago’s 26th Street, in the Little Village neighborhood, is the second highest-grossing commercial district in the city, after Michigan Avenue’s Magnificent Mile. Vendors on 26th Street do some $900 million in sales each year, according to Crain’s Chicago Business.
“The food here is really authentic. There’s a great use of natural flavors, and everything seems really fresh,” said Mark Kirk, a longtime Anna resident, while waiting for a carnitas burrito outside Bartolo’s shop.
But Maria has happily adapted some dishes to the palate of her local clientele.
One of her most requested menu items is the “Nacho Salad”, invented by a Cobden neighbor. It’s a bed of nacho chips, lettuce, tomato, and onion covered with shredded chicken and nacho cheese.
A hybrid meal for a multicultural community, in which nearly 70 percent of voters supported Donald Trump for president. Bartolo says she wouldn’t rather live anywhere else.
“Sometimes people show up with their Trump hats and T-shirts,” she said, laughing and shrugging her shoulders. “Doesn’t matter who you are, come on over and eat.”