Leon “Chico” Garcia lived every day of his 52 years to the fullest.
Garcia, his wife Ermie, and their six children woke up at 5 a.m. every day — except for their birthdays, when they could sleep an extra hour — attended Catholic mass, and then went to work building an indelible mark on the Lawrence community.
Starting with the El Tampico Club in the 1940s, the Garcia family quickly expanded its footprint to include not only four of Lawrence’s first authentic Mexican restaurants, but businesses that specialized in landscaping, cleaning, apartment complex management, and even concessions for football and basketball games at the University of Kansas.
Now, mementos from the Garcia family’s time in Lawrence and their efforts to introduce authentic Mexican food to the community are on display through October at the Watkins Museum of History, 1047 Massachusetts St.
Felicia Miller, Chico’s daughter, loaned many of her father’s possessions to the museum for the exhibit. In an interview with The Lawrence Times, she said it was a bit overwhelming to see the impact her parents had — and the amount of work her whole family put into the community — laid out before her.
“You know, it was our way of life, my family’s way of life. We always did it since we were kids and … I mean, Daddy was always doing something,” she said. “At the time, doing it, I never realized just exactly what my father had created, and what my mother had us all doing and not really seeing the whole picture.”
The Garcia family quickly became intertwined with the Lawrence community after El Tampico Club opened, Miller said. She remembered how Chico formed a relationship with the city school system and the two agreed to a deal where the Garcias would provide schools with somewhere between 85,000 and 95,000 taco shells and the family’s taco mix twice a month.
That deal was emblematic of just how hard Chico and his family worked every day. Miller said it was a 24-hour process each time to fry all of the taco shells and prepare them for delivery. She’d start frying at 5 a.m. one day through 5 a.m. the following day, and her parents would have them delivered to the school by 11 a.m.
Chico, who died in 1974 after battling genetic heart issues for much of his life, was unceasing in teaching his children the value of hard work, Miller said.
“My dad was a perfectionist so you had to get it down perfectly the first time and learn to keep up with a certain pace, and just keep moving on to the next thing,” she said. “So that way you’re always accomplishing something every minute of the day and you’re not wasting it.”
After Chico’s death, Ermie, Felicia and her brother Leon were left to manage the family’s swath of businesses around town. They did this for a bit, but ultimately had to shut a few of them down — Chico was a big proponent of not keeping a business afloat unless it could be managed with just family members, Miller said.
“And it wasn’t until later that I really actually learned to appreciate what my dad had taught me in his short time,” she said. “Every day was a lesson of something you had to learn, and you had to get it down.”
Watkins Museum curator Brittany Keegan said the Garcia family exhibit, which has been in the works for a few years, was ideal for the museum.
“When we heard some of Felicia’s stories about her family, we knew it was something that would be a fantastic exhibit,” she said. “Being able to share the history of that time in Lawrence, the early restaurants in that period, was something that we knew people would be really interested to learn about. Especially how so much was done by one family and doing all of these things and running multiple businesses at one time and really changing the landscape, the food landscape in Lawrence as well.”
Keegan’s job in curating the exhibit, she said, was making sure people understood not only what the Garcia family accomplished in running their different businesses, but specifically the impact that authentic Mexican cuisine had in developing and expanding palates across the U.S.
“The change that happened in the ‘50s especially … just the idea of spices, which is why making the taco mix, the spice mix for the meat is such a huge thing because that’s kind of introducing to school students this idea of: this is what food tastes like when it’s seasoned,” she said with a laugh.
The exhibit will be on display through Oct. 15 at the Watkins Museum.
Conner Mitchell (he/him), reporter, can be reached at cmitchell (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com or 785-435-9264. If you have sensitive information to send Conner, please email connermitchell (at) protonmail (dot) com. Read more of his work for the Times here.