The Eastern New Mexico News - Serving Clovis, Portales and the Surrounding Communities

By Wendel J. Sloan

In Depth: Dancing through life

Irma Leal has always been good at encouraging and empowering


July 1, 2018

Kevin Wilson

Irma Leal stands in front of the wall for Jesse's Table, named in honor of her late husband and adorned with family photos.

Irma Anzaldua Leal

Born: May 24, 1932, in Mercedes, Texas

Career: Restaurateur

Today: 'I just rest.'

MULESHOE - At the end of a TV commercial for Leal's Mexican Restaurant, family matriarch Irma Leal receives and returns her son Victor's kiss on the cheek. Although she doesn't speak, the scene epitomizes the quiet strength, love and giving with which she has lived her 86 years.

From the time she and her late husband, Jesse, opened a small tortilla factory in Muleshoe in 1957, which led to family-owned restaurants, tamale and tortilla factories and a food distributorship scattered throughout New Mexico and Texas, until they retired in 1992 because of Jesse Leal's back problems, Irma Leal worked diligently to create a secure world for her family of six kids - Hector, Alma, Victor, Laura, Sergio, Abel.

Her lineage now includes 20 grandkids and 22 great-grandkids (with three more on the way).

However, interviewing her at Leal's Restaurant in Muleshoe was a mistake. Long-time customers who have become best friends constantly interrupted to greet and hug her.

Left for Muleshoe four hours after wedding

Jesse and Irma Leal married on Nov. 24, 1955, in Mercedes in south Texas.

"We got married at 8 a.m. and left for Muleshoe at noon," she said.

Her husband was already working in Muleshoe as a timekeeper at a produce company and with the Braceros Association, which helped Mexican men who crossed the border to work as farm laborers.

She began working part-time at Anthony's Department Store.

Sold a dime's worth of tortillas

They began to see the need for traditional Mexican food, especially for the braceros.

"I had the vision to make tortillas like we did back home with my parents," she said. "Here, everything was brought in frozen once a week. Back home, we made them fresh twice a day."

When the tortilla factory opened at 11 a.m. on Saturday, May 4, 1957, it was packed because farmers brought the braceros to town to shop and eat. On Monday, with all of them having returned to the farms, the Leals sold a dime's worth of tortillas.

Eventually, after the farmers began bringing their families, business started booming.

On weekends, Jesse Leal would pack his station wagon and take tortillas to the outskirts of Muleshoe, Morton, Hereford, Sudan, Bovina, Earth and other small towns.

In 1956, he took the civil service exam to work for the railroad as an apprentice operator for the telegraph machines. After about a year he was offered a promotion, but would have to move to Slaton (15 miles south of Lubbock).

"We didn't want to leave Muleshoe," Irma Leal said, "so he turned it down and quit his job with the railroad."

A family affair

By 1968, their small tortilla factory had expanded into El Nuevo Leal's Restaurant in Muleshoe.

(Laura Leal, owner of both Leal's in Clovis, joined the interview in progress.)

After ordering chicken enchiladas with fajita instead of regular chicken, she recounted how her parents worked 16-20 hours a day. As soon as they were old enough to clean tables, all six kids worked with them when they weren't busy with school functions.

"Summers we'd be up there with them all day because Momma didn't have anyone to watch us," Laura Leal said.

"They'd give us a little allowance or, if we wanted a car or something, we'd have to work for it," she said. "They taught us what it was to earn what we wanted."

Victor Leal, owner of Leal's restaurants in Muleshoe and Amarillo, didn't enjoy the long hours at the restaurant.

"I hated the work growing up and always thought the grass was greener and life was easier at my friends' homes," he said.

"However, in my teens I started to realize the blessings of working together with my siblings and parents. We had a common goal, a daily struggle and challenge as a team. If one of us didn't do his or her part, we all suffered.

"Nothing was handed to us; we all worked very hard, but learned the value of work and service.

"I hated my life at times; I'm eternally grateful for it now."

Irma Leal said, "The kids knew what their chores were and never complained. They washed dishes and waited tables and whatever we needed them to do. Without them it would have been hard to keep the business going."

In a 2009 tribute to Jesse Leal in the Clovis News Journal, Sharna Johnson wrote, "Hector Leal, the couple's oldest son, said Irma and Jesse packed lunches for (bracero) workers, helped them write and send letters and money home to their families and tried to provide them comfort away from home.

'"They would go get them from the farms and bring them in and feed them,'" he said."

Irma Leal said at her parents' store in Mercedes they made tortillas during the Depression and World War II. "I had two sisters and a brother and we all helped out," she said.

The store opened in 1928 and continued until her dad's death in 1962. Her mom passed away in 1968.

Korean love letters

Irma Leal, born in 1932, grew up with her future husband, born in 1930.

"We went to school together," she said. "All the neighbors would walk quite a distance to school together. We had a lot of fun."

She participated in acapella choir, pep squad, softball and volleyball.

"It was during the Depression and they would give us stamps to buy groceries and shoes," she remembered. "The bigger your family the more stamps you got."

Jesse Leal dropped out of high school and joined the Army, eventually serving in the Korean War.

"We exchanged letters for three years while he was there," his widow said. "We grew up like a brother and sister until he came back and we started dating. He proposed in 1954 and we got married on Nov. 24, 1955, in the same church as my daddy and mother got married in 1922."

Victor Leal said his mother, who has a "tremendous work ethic," was "humble and happy to play a supporting role to my dad."

Laid-back mom

"Laid back, very laid back," is how Victor Leal described his mother's parenting style. "But we knew the rules and behaved fairly well because we didn't want to disappoint her or my dad. They worked too hard for us."

He reminisced about when his mom caught him smoking when he was around 6 or 7.

"I was in the alley near the dumpster trying to impress my friends and didn't see her coming to throw out the trash. She tried to spank me and it hurt about as much as getting hit with a pillow full of cotton balls," he said.

"But I saw the tears in her eyes and that really got to me. I got in a lot of trouble in my life but never got too far off the rails because I never wanted to see her cry again. She never spanked me after that; I don't think she spanked any of us."

Sergio Leal said his mom had a more laid-back parenting style than his dad.

"She has influenced my parenting in showing affection and not being bashful about it," said the father of five and grandfather of four. "Her being present, always hopeful, having a great sense of humor even in tough situations and never doubting her love for us has, hopefully, influenced my parenting."

Lessons, not lectures

Sergio Leal said the most important lessons his parents taught him were "having faith in God, being confident in the gifts and abilities given to us, being genuine in serving others, having a good work ethic and sense of responsibility and always being open to learning and owning the consequences for the choices we make."

Victor Leal said his mom taught him by example to love his sons and everyone with an unconditional love.

"Mom doesn't judge much and has never gotten involved in the business of her married kids. I know she is admired and respected and loved by her children and their spouses," he said.

"I admire Mom's courage and tenacity and vision and sacrifices. It was ultimately her idea to buy the tortilla machine. She denied herself a home in order that we might have a future.

"She never complained. We had many ups and downs and struggles. We even closed the restaurant a couple of times, but she never lost hope or gave up," he said.

"She still calls and encourages all of her family and friends. She has been through the fire without smelling like smoke."

The heart of giving

Laura Leal said, "Giving was really what Mom and Dad's business was built on. They just had the heart of giving back to everyone and everywhere they could. We were all brought up that way."

Irma Leal said, "We always contributed to the schools and fundraisers and never minded giving. We were able and always happy to do it.

"We had wonderful customers. They were our friends and became just like family. We were in PTA meetings, band concerts and ball games together. Everything that goes with school. We love the people in Muleshoe and they always treated us so nice. It was beautiful."

Sergio Leal, who operates the tortilla factory in Muleshoe, said his best memories of growing up are his mom "being at our games and school functions - she tried her best to make as many as she could - Christmases and celebrations at her house and her home cooking.

"Going on family vacations, her being present at my kiddos' births and her holding them sure ranks as some great memories. Plus, her storytelling and how she interacts with her grandchildren is wonderful."

What he most admires now is her "perseverance and faith."

He said he is still learning how much his parents helped others.

"When Mom goes to the store or community events, there's such a genuineness in her interactions and mutual affection with friends she's known for many years," he said.

"A quick story: Mr. Elmer Davis worked as a postman who carried the mail for many years in Muleshoe. A little after Dad's passing, a good-sized part of my family was eating at a local restaurant, maybe eight or nine of us. When it came time for the bill, the waiter came to the table and said Mr. Davis had paid our bill. I went to him and said that he needn't do that, especially with the size of our party.

"He said, 'Your mom and dad were so good to me and bought my meal so many times over the years, this isn't even a drop in the bucket.'

"It's things like this I appreciate as I grow older. They grew up during the Depression and being charitable was a way of life for them," he said.

"But, they would be the first to say that if not for the help of many good folks in Muleshoe when they were young, newly married and struggling to raise a family and run a business, it may have been a different story."

Victor Leal remembered his family always having a relative or person down on their luck living with them.

"We always had someone who needed help knocking on our door at all hours of the day and night," he said.

"I remember we had a neighbor who struggled with alcoholism. He'd bang on the door of our small house yelling, 'Irma, Irma, I need a glass of milk.'

"At first we were scared. The boys slept in the living room on blankets because our house was so small. But Mom would get up around 2 in the morning and sit with him in our kitchen," he said.

"She'd pour him a glass of cold milk and with tremendous patience and compassion talk to him until he sobered up a bit and he'd go back home next door."

He recounted another story about his mom's treatment of a man who suffered from epilepsy.

"His mother was a good friend of my mom. They were poor and his mom had to drive him everywhere. He loved cheese enchiladas with no onions and could eat a dozen of them.

"His mom would call the restaurant when they were headed our way and let my mom know they were coming. Mom would greet them at the front, sit them in their favorite booth and make his enchiladas just the way he liked them. She never charged them for their meals," he said.

"The man always sent Mom a dozen roses on Mother's Day. He represents just one of thousands she treated."

Vacations without transmission or brakes

Every summer the Leals closed their restaurant from two to four weeks to take their kids on trips.

Irma Leal said, "We'd take them to the Texas Valley, Padre Island, to ball games like the Houston Oilers, to Disney World. Laura was a big Liberace fan so we took her to see him at Circus Circus in Las Vegas."

Laura Leal remembered, "The brakes went out on our station wagon one time near Hoover Dam and that was kind of an adventure.

"Another time the transmission went out on a trip to California and the boys would have to get out and push when Daddy needed to put the car in reverse."

Breaking the ice

Libby Leal, manager of Leal's Restaurant in Muleshoe, took a break from the crowded restaurant and joined the interview to share her thoughts.

"My grandmother has left some high standards to live up to. I have six kids like her, and if I could be anything like Grandma I'd be happy," she said.

"It was much harder back during her day when they didn't have all the equipment we have.

"All the stories she tells us, and the weather conditions they had to work in. Their first building was a metal one and when it was cold they sometimes had to break the ice to get in.

"Sometimes in the summer it would get up to 120 degrees. Water would come in and they'd be standing there in puddles of water. They did whatever it took and would hustle to get things fixed and the doors open every day.

"Grandma is the backbone of our family and my role model."

Laura Leal said her mother, who received a Lifetime Achievement Award for her Tex-Mex food from Foodways of Texas, is a role model for all the women in the family.

"Momma was really good at encouraging and empowering us by telling us about her experiences," she said. "She's a strong woman and it makes you feel like you can power through tough times."

Spreading wings

Victor Leal said his mom "mostly kept her opinions to herself and let us figure things out. But she was there if we needed her advice or help."

Laura Leal said her mother has her own views, but "always gave us room to spread our wings. She and Daddy taught us what was right and wrong, but they always let us have our opinions.

"Some of us are Democrats and some are Republicans. They never said you are going to be this or that. They gave us a good foundation and never suppressed our opinion from politics to religion."

Irma Leal said simply, without elaborating, she supported Obama.

Dancing through life

Jesse Leal, who passed away in 2009, had open-heart surgery in 2004 and by 2005 was showing signs of dementia.

Irma Leal said her happiest memories are getting married and having her six kids. "I had a really good husband. My saddest moment was when he passed away - as well as my father and mother and other relatives."

Laura Leal said her father was "so vibrant and full of life, then dementia started creeping in on him. We all took turns helping Momma take care of him and never had to put him in a nursing home."

Sergio Leal said his parents "were known for their beautiful dancing. It was their mode of life, working together in tandem with love for each other and enjoying life with all its ups and downs and challenges."

In the CNJ tribute, son Abel Leal said, "I think their dancing is just a metaphor of how they lived life together," describing the pair clearing dance floors as they glided and dipped together.

"It was just a beautiful dance in life that they did together that will always remain in our lives."

Victor Leal said he and his siblings enjoyed a wide variety of music because of his parents.

"They could dance better than anyone I've ever seen," he said. "The tango was their favorite.

Laura Leal, who plays eight different keyboards for the family's mariachi group - Monica y Grupo Mezcal - said her parents were known as some of the best dancers in the area.

"Everybody would clear the dance floor when they got up," she said. "Jazz, salsa, waltzes, country, tango, cumbia, they loved to dance to all kinds of music."

In character with her down-to-earth personality, Irma Leal said simply, "We loved to dance and never had a dull moment."

Legacy lives on

Victor Leal said, "Our home was where all my friends wanted to be because of my parents' warmth and hospitality. It was always loud and fun."

He said his parents taught him to be "compassionate and generous. They also taught me to be grateful for everything and that no one owes us a thing."

Sergio Leal said, "I run into people all the time who tell me how my parents helped when they were in time of need."

In the CNJ tribute for their father, the Leal children said their parents built a reputation of hard work and compassion, making their restaurant a home away from home.

"It turned into a ministry for them," daughter Alma Jaramillo said. "We can't even begin to tell you how many they helped."

A girl can dream

Laura Leal said although her mom didn't have time for hobbies, she could play the piano by ear - an ability she also inherited.

"Momma would play the old Spanish music she grew up with," she remembered.

As much as she loved working, Irma Leal admitted there were times she dreamed about having a normal life.

"When I was working all the time, I would look out the window and see someone watering their yard and wished I could do that. I was happy with what I was doing, and enjoyed every bit of what I did, but there were times I wished I could do something else. The only reason we quit working was because of my husband's health.

"Now that I have the time, I don't do much. I'm 86 years old and always worked so many hours, now I don't have a hobby. I just rest."

The house of mirth

"Her humor and laughter are her most beautiful gifts," Victor Leal said about his mom. "She has a dry and wicked wit and she laughs mostly at herself. Our home was filled with lots of laughter."

Irma Leal added with a sly smile, "Abel is a lawyer, Laura plays piano and Sergio is a priest. When I die, everything is taken care of. I won't have to do a thing."


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