By Dr. Ricardo Romo
My mom was my first real friend—and what a friend she was. My first trips to Brackenridge Park, the Majestic Theater and San Pedro Pool were with my mom. I had not yet reached the age of five. My mom guided me during my childhood and gave me great counsel throughout my adult life She never missed an opportunity to praise her children.
My mom, Alicia Saenz Romo, a native of San Antonio, was born in 1921. She lived a life dedicated to her family, her work, her friends and her faith.
Her parents came to Texas in the late 1890s to work in the ranches of South Texas. Her dad trained horses and her mom cleaned and cooked for the ranch owners. About 1901, they gave up rural life and moved to San Antonio. There was nothing easy about growing up in this era, but the Great Depression years in San Antonio were especially hard.
Alicia Romo, her parents, and her nine siblings, all lived their entire lives in San Antonio’s Westside. The siblings lived in about a half dozen neighborhoods, which meant we saw some of her family frequently, but not all the time.
Mom wanted to make sure we saw as much of the Saenz family as we saw of the Romo family. She had her work cut out for her. There were thirty-eight Romo’s within two blocks of my home on Monterey Street. My dad’s parents and four brothers and sisters lived very close—so close it was almost a compound.
Mom grew up with lots of love but very little money. She left school at age eleven to help boost the family income. She shelled pecans, and in the spring and summer months, went with her dad and other sisters to pick cotton. As a young teenager she entered the work force as a seamstress. In her spare time she helped her mom run a small mom and pop grocery store.
Mom had an incredible work ethic. She married at age twenty, four years after meeting my dad in the cotton fields of South Texas. When my dad went into the service, she helped her parents in their small grocery store while raising two children. She helped my dad start a small grocery business when he returned from the Army Air Corp. She stayed active in the grocery business while raising five children. In the late 1960s my parents closed their store after twenty-five years in operation and began construction of a restaurant on Highway 281 South.
Mom had a sixth grade education, but she helped to design the new restaurant building insisting, for example, an addition of arches similar to ones she had seen in Northern Mexico and mapping out the location of the kitchen and table area. She decorated the restaurant with her favorite Mexican papier-mache parrots and Mexican art work. On a trip to Tijuana, Mexico, she found a large iron chandelier for her main dining room. When my dad asked how she planned to get it back to San Antonio, she pointed at me. Yes, I put that chandelier on top of our 65 Mustang roof and drove it to San Antonio a few months later.
My mother strongly believed in self-improvement and constantly strived to improve on her recipes, even though she was known as an outstanding cook even beyond the family. Everyone loved her delicious enchiladas, carne guisada, and rice, but especially her homemade tortillas. During her early years at the restaurant, she made time to visit my family in Los Angeles and then San Diego where we lived for 14 years. We called these visits “working vacations” because my mom made sure we visited many of the best Mexican restaurants in the city.
We visited five or six restaurants a day. She took great interest in each menu and would order numerous dishes that struck her fancy. She had an amazing memory and could remember years later what the different restaurants offered and how their specialties were prepared.
Her rule for running a successful restaurant began with two simple rules: never spend more money than you make; and treat all the customers with respect. For 25 years we did not celebrate Mother’s Day because she cooked for her customers and Mother’s Day was a popular day for her restaurant.
Mom especially valued education, perhaps because she had to abandon her studies to help contribute to her family finances. She made sure all her children finished high school and encouraged them to attend college. She had never flown in an airplane, but set aside her fear to attend our son’s graduation ceremony from Stanford and jumped for joy when our daughter earned a Ph.D. from Harvard.
Mom passed away in 2010 at the age of 89. She was a role model for me, her children, her grandchildren, and her friends. She cared for us and taught us much about work and life. I think about her every day, but especially on Mother’s Day.