Walking into Mi Tierra Café Y Panadería can be as overwhelming as it is enthralling. From the wandering live mariachi band to the immersive, maximalist decor, it’s that intersection of cultural heritage and kitsch that’s made the 81-year-old Tex-Mex restaurant a San Antonio mainstay for visitors and locals alike.
First, customers are greeted by a grand ofrenda, a commemorative altar ornately decorated with religious statuettes, candles, and photos of family members, employees, and community members who’ve passed away. The display encourages a brief reverence for the deceased before fully entering a restaurant that is teeming with life.
The second set of doors leads into Mi Tierra’s main lobby, where customers are either waiting to be seated or ordering pan dulce from the long glass display brimming with Mexican pastries. Up above, decorative piñatas, streamers, and strings of holiday lights hang alongside neon signs that cause the eyes to bounce around from one point to another. All this before even stepping foot in one of the dining rooms.
If you end up sitting in the backroom, you’ll have the chance to view the larger-than-life mural that extends across multiple walls, dubbed “American Dream,” featuring portraits of Mexican and Mexican American historical figures, like Pancho Villa, Frida Kahlo, and Selena Quintanilla. Mi Tierra founders Pedro and Cruz Cortez are depicted at the mural’s center, as this restaurant is not only their legacy but their American dream, one that began more than half a century ago in downtown San Antonio.
Mi Tierra is a reflection of San Antonio, representing the crossroads of culture, commerce, and celebration. At the same time, the restaurant’s longevity is a testament to the persevering spirit of folks like Pedro Cortez who’ve immigrated and made something big out of something small. The historic Market Square, a downtown cultural hub, wouldn’t be the attraction it is today without contributions from the Cortez family, whose restaurants are core to the plaza’s identity.
Pedro Cortez got his start in the food industry in the 1930s, after he moved from his hometown of Guadalajara, Mexico, and later began working as a butcher in Villa del Carmen, his aunt and uncle’s grocery store in San Antonio, according to a press release. It was during this time that Cortez got acquainted with his new home, making deliveries to restaurants and markets (mercados) across the city. On one of these delivery routes, Cortez met his future wife Cruz, who, at the time, was working at Blanca’s Cafe. The two married, had their first child, and Pedro continued working at the grocery store until another opportunity arose.
“My grandfather…during the Depression, got to know a lot of the restaurant owners here,” says Pete Cortez, grandson of Pedro and Cruz Cortez. “One of the business owners here at the Market Square offered my grandfather an opportunity to buy his business called Jamaica No. 5 in 1941.”
Jamaica No. 5 was a small, three-table cafe in El Mercado, a downtown farmers market on Produce Row that would later become Market Square. Since farmers were in and out around-the-clock, the couple’s business reflected that with 24-hour service. The slogan “We Never Close” became the standard business practice for the Cortez family.
The Cortez family operated Jamaica No. 5 for 10 years on a month-to-month lease, up until 1951, when Pete Cortez’s grandparents had an opportunity to purchase Toyo Cafe. After the sale, they changed the name to Mi Tierra, and over the following decade, the couple moved on from Jamaica No. 5, devoting their focus completely to their second storefront, which soon gained steady popularity. Slowly, they transformed it into the Mi Tierra that exists today, complete with its signature year-round Christmas lights and a panadería.
By 1961, the couple had ambitiously bought out the entirety of El Mercado’s business block, which didn’t mesh well with the city of San Antonio’s separate plan to buy out the same block to knock it down to pave way for new development. Pedro Cortez knew he had a fight ahead of him to preserve the square. “It was at that time that he had to become somewhat of an activist within the community, to become very involved politically to try to save the investment and the 20 years that he had put into Market Square,” says Pete Cortez.
Over the next few years, Pedro Cortez made appeals to the city and numerous related organizations, including the San Antonio City Council, the San Antonio Conservation Society, and the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce, in advocating for El Mercado square, and eventually, the city decided to revitalize rather than demolish the area.
Following a huge renovation in the 1970s, El Mercado was restructured to include a mini-shopping center for artisans and farmers, multiple breezeways lined with Mexican decorations, and, of course, Mi Tierra, to make up the plaza, and officially rebranded to Market Square. The historic area would later become home to the Cortez family’s other properties, including La Margarita, Viva Villa, and Mariachi Bar (which is attached to Mi Tierra).
In 1984, at the age of 66, Pedro Cortez died, leaving his wife Cruz and their children to carry on operations at Mi Tierra, with subsequent generations of the Cortez family stepping up to honor the founder’s legacy. Cruz retired at age 90 and died in 2019 at 98-years-old. Mi Tierra continued to operate 24/7 until March 2020 — the start of the coronavirus pandemic — 79 years after Pedro and Cruz first expanded into all-hours service.
In the few weeks preceding the COVID-19 shutdowns, Mi Tierra experienced a business slowdown, particularly during its late-night hours, and things began to grow uncertain, not just for the restaurant, but for the entire Market Square. Eventually, like all businesses deemed nonessential, it was mandated to shut its doors entirely; this was a problem in itself, as the restaurant didn’t have any sort of key because it literally never closed. According to Megann Pettit, the restaurant’s communications manager, when the shutdown occurred, they had to purchase chains and a deadbolt to lock the business up properly. As restrictions remained tight for months, they had to find other ways to keep the restaurant going.
“We did shift to a grocery store when the pandemic first hit, and we were doing a lot of grocery-type things, selling paper goods and bulk food, and we were doing some to-go food as well,” says operations manager Manuel Moreno. The restaurant also opted into using third-party delivery app services like Grubhub and DoorDash for the first time, as many restaurants did to compensate for closed dining rooms.
When restaurants were allowed to reopen and dine-in service began again, Mi Tierra returned albeit without its 24-hour schedule. Despite Texas lifting its mandates for all COVID protocols, the restaurant, which seats around 600 guests, is continuing to take some precautions to keep its workers and its patrons safe, including the use of air purifiers and health surveys for staff members, while continuing to limit its operating hours to this day.
Although the pandemic has caused some significant changes, parts of Mi Tierra were able to retain some semblance to the past. The food, despite supply chain issues, has remained true to the Tex-Mex tradition, with ample daily servings of enchiladas, Spanish rice, and refried beans. The mariachis, known to cheerfully saunter around the dining rooms, are finally able to serenade customers again, though they do so with masks now. And the hosts and servers still don their colorful Mexican-style outfits complete with flowers in their hair.
“It’s sort of like a movie, like almost a Broadway play that’s going on throughout the whole day, and all of our team members are part of the play,” says Pete Cortez. “Overall, it just becomes part of the whole mystique and aesthetic of the restaurant.”
While a handful of longtime employees, some of whom had been there for decades, did decide to retire from their jobs at Mi Tierra during the pandemic, others decided to wait it out, including head chef Raul Salazar, who’s been with the company for over 50 years and continues to run the kitchen to this day. Company-wide, La Familia Cortez employs more than 500 people across four restaurants.
Being able to adapt to the changing world has been vital to Mi Tierra’s survival, from limiting its hours to increasing protocols for the safety of its staff and patrons. While the pandemic created obstacles, Mi Tierra — “my land” in Spanish — remains a fixture in downtown San Antonio that continues to grow in the face of adversity, and what better symbol of this than its mural “American Dream,” which serves as a reminder of the persevering dream that started with Pedro and Cruz and grew into four generations of restaurateurs.