Los Arquitectos de sus Propios Destinos: Kansas City’s Barreto Family and the American Stew Pot

The American Stew Pot

Washington, D.C., 1980.  Not long after winning the presidential election, President Ronald Reagan hosted a White House dinner for some of his supporters.  When the dinner commenced, President Reagan took his seat next to a sharply dressed man who introduced himself to President Reagan as Hector Barreto, the President of the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.  Barreto explained that he and his colleagues had supported the president in his campaign and that they expected his administration to grant them a seat at the table when important decisions were made.  President Reagan responded, “Hector, thank you for your support but I think the problem with your people is that you haven’t learned how to be part of the melting pot of this country.”  Barreto replied, “Mr. President, with all due respect, I disagree with you.” The room went silent.  Barreto elaborated, “Look, Mr. President, my name is Hector Barreto [Spanish pronunciation].  I’m never going to be John Smith and I don’t want to be something that melted.  I want to be part of something like a stew pot.  In a stew, the meat gives flavor to the carrots and the potatoes.  It turns out to be something greater than when it started but it never loses its identity.”[1][2]  The stew pot analogy won President Reagan over and sparked a lifelong friendship between him and Hector Barreto as they strived to improve opportunities for Hispanic-owned businesses and the U.S. economy as a whole.

While Hector Barreto’s stew pot analogy left a lasting impression on President Reagan, food was more than just a rhetorical tool for Barreto.  Food played a crucial role in the careers of many Barreto family members.  His father worked as a butcher in Mexico.  As a young man, Hector moved from Mexico to Missouri and picked potatoes, then later worked in a meatpacking plant.[3]  But the most significant role that food played in the Barreto family’s careers was the first business Hector Barreto owned with his wife, Mary Louise, a restaurant in Independence, Missouri called Mexico Lindo.

Mexico Lindo allowed Hector Barreto to be his own boss, empowering him to be “the architect of his own destiny,”[4]and realize his full potential as a leader of the Hispanic business community in the U.S.  As he ventured into other business endeavors, he gained enough influence within Kansas City’s Hispanic community to eventually form the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Greater Kansas City (HCCGKC) and the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce (USHCC). Interviews with Hector Barreto’s wife, Mary Louise; his son, Hector Barreto Jr.; and his oldest daughter, Anna Favrow, highlight how Mexico Lindo’s success gave the Barreto family the financial leverage to expand their business endeavors, as well as empower other Hispanic business owners throughout Kansas City and the United States, well into the twenty-first century.

President Ronald Reagan and Hector Barreto Sr., circa 1980 (from tributotequila.com/tributo-a-mi-padre, 2012-2018).

Historical Context of Restaurants and Hispanic Empowerment in the U.S.

The story of the Barreto family and Mexico Lindo is not the only historical example of Hispanics using the food industry to gain economic and political leverage in the U.S. but it does bolster and expand on previous narratives related to the topic.  Thomas H. Kreneck’s Mexican American Odysseyexplored how Mexican activist and restaurant owner Felix Tijerina used the success of his Mexican restaurant[5]to organize local and national movements that sought legal and educational equality[6]for Hispanics in Texas and the U.S. during the first half of the twentieth century.  The Barreto family’s story explores what happened in the second half of the twentieth century as they used the success of their Mexican restaurant to organize institutions that sought financial equity[7]for Hispanic businesses in Kansas City and the United States.

In addition to illustrating how Mexico Lindo’s success eventually led to the formation of the HCCGKC and USHCC, this essay also examines how Mary Louise, the matriarch of the family, adhered to traditional gender roles—and other times defied them—in order to ensure the success of the restaurant and the family.  In her book, The New Entrepreneurs, Zulema Valdez examined how entrepreneurial women used their knowledge of domestic upkeep to merely survive or bolster their businesses and move up the socioeconomic latter.[8]  Mary Louise’s contributions to Mexico Lindo and the Barreto family support Valdez’s argument.

Hector Barreto Sr.’s Humble Beginnings

Hector Barreto’s early experiences in Kansas City reflect those of many Hispanics throughout the United States in the 1950s. Migrant Mexican workers met the economic demands of agricultural and industrial businesses in the U.S. by working menial labor jobs only to endure constant inequalities and discrimination, which stifled their chances of upward social mobility.  When fifteen-year-old Barreto first moved from Jalisco, Mexico to Kansas City, Missouri in 1950, his dream was to make enough money to return to Mexico and start his own business as a livestock trader.  He worked in potato fields, on railroads, and at meatpacking plants to save enough money to return to Mexico and become his own boss.[9]

Although Barreto was contributing to the U.S. economy, he often felt unwelcome by non-Hispanics.  Hector Barreto Jr. recalls stories his father would tell him about the discrimination he experienced, “When he came to the United States, he saw signs through the windows [that read]: ‘No dogs or Mexicans allowed,” and police some times harassed him simply for looking like he was not from the United States.[10]  The thankless life of a low-wage, migrant worker probably seemed like a temporary problem to Barreto since he only planned to stay in the U.S. for a short time.

Recipe for Success: 1 Part Mexico Lindo, 7 Parts Barreto Work Ethic

Barreto found himself changing the path he took to reach his dream of being his own boss when he fell in love with a Mexican-American woman from K.C.’s Westside neighborhood named Mary Louise.  Although he realized he was not going to return to Mexico to start a business as a livestock trader, Barreto sought other business ventures that would allow him to eventually become his own boss.  In the following decade, Barreto took it upon himself to do whatever it took to reach his dream.  He soon had a wife and five kids to support, which meant he needed to work even harder.

Barreto took on multiple jobs at a time in order to provide for his family and save money for his own business.  His oldest child, Hector Jr., remembers that even before his father owned his own business he referred to himself as a businessman. Hector Jr. recalls a conversation he had with his father when he was still just a boy, “My father would talk about being a businessman and I would say, ‘Dad you’re not a businessman, you’re a janitor.’  My dad would say, ‘No, I’m not a janitor. This is what I have to do right now but I’m a businessman and some day I will have my own business.”[11]  In retrospect, Hector Jr. realized that his father was indeed a businessman at that time, always doing jobs on the side, such as taking trucks down to Mexico and driving them back up to K.C. full of goods to sell.[12]

By 1966, Barreto Sr.’s resourcefulness and persistence allowed him and Mary Louise to start their own business.[13]  Although the civil rights movement brought an end to a lot of racial discrimination and inequalities for Hispanics, it did not immediately solve everything.  The problem of limited job options for Hispanics was still an issue.  Therefore, the Barretos chose a business that would allow them to survive as new business owners.  Hector Jr. explains, “A restaurant gave him [Hector Sr.] an opportunity to get into a business with low barriers of entry and low cost.”[14] They opened their first restaurant in Independence, Missouri, the town they had settled down in, and called it Mexico Lindo.

The Barretos soon encountered many of the typical problems that entrepreneurs experience.  Hector Jr., an expert on small businesses, explains, “Small businesses, not just Hispanic businesses, don’t know what they don’t know and it’s not their fault.  They just never did it before.  They don’t plan very much before they start their business…but little by little they learn the things that they have to learn.”[15] Barreto Jr.’s parents were no exception.

The Barretos got a crash course in running a restaurant in their first decade as business owners.  They had to learn about the small profit margins of restaurant businesses.  Even if they did things right they still some times had to take out lines of credit on their house, which they spent less time at than the restaurant.  Hector Jr. adds, “Depending on how you respond to those challenges determines whether or not you’re going to continue to survive…In the United States, fifty percent of new businesses fail in the first four years. It’s not because you’re not working hard or you don’t have a good idea.  There is a high risk factor of going into business and it’s not for the faint-hearted.”[16]  History shows that the Barretos were not the faint-hearted.

Every member of the Barreto family did their part to contribute to Mexico Lindo.  Hector Sr. waited tables and worked the cash register while Mary Louise cooked and washed dishes.  They had Hector Jr. waiting tables by the time he was nine years old.[17]  Their four younger daughters helped their mother cook until they were old enough to wait tables, typically around the age of eight.[18]  Hector Jr. recalls, “It wasn’t a choice [laughs].  We got drafted early on.  They would just say, ‘Look, we have to do this to be able to survive.  We can’t have the life that we want unless we create opportunities for ourselves.”[19] The Barreto family’s contributions to Mexico Lindo led to its success, which eventually created more opportunities for them.

Hector Barreto Sr. was always one to make the best of an opportunity.  Not only, did people in Independence show a penchant for Mexican food but they were also attracted to Mexican art and furniture as well.  After patrons showed an interest in cooking Mexican food, collecting Mexican art, and using Mexican furniture, Barreto Sr. began bringing Mexican food, art, and furniture to Kansas City to sell to them.[20]  In 1970, Barreto Sr. opened a Mexican import store to sell these goods.[21]

“Teamwork makes the dream work” –Restaurant industry proverb. Anna Favrow, Rosa Linda, Hector Jr., Mary Louise, and Gloria Barreto pose for a photo during Mexico Lindo’s formative years (photo credit, Ken White, Independence Examiner, 1967).

By 1972, the Barretos’ revenue from their restaurant and import store snowballed enough that they were able to invest in construction.  Barreto Sr. started El Patio Tile Co., the first Midwest distributorship of precast terrazzo tile.[22]  El Patio was so successful that it supplied the Oak Park Mall with the tile for their floors.  As Hector Jr. sees it, “Being in that entrepreneurial environment woke up a lot of other—for lack of a better description—nascent talents that he [Hector Sr.] had.  He wasn’t going to be able to demonstrate those or apply those just at Mexico Lindo so he needed other things that he could be involved with.”[23] Within a decade, the Barretos had established themselves as entrepreneurs in Kansas City’s Hispanic community.  Just as Felix Tijerina combined his hard work ethic and entrepreneurial spirit in the Texas restaurant industry to climb up the socioeconomic latter, the Barretos realized their success in Kansas City through their hard work at Mexico Lindo.

Hector Barreto Sr. poses in front of a sample of his tiles (Independence Examiner, 1980).

Making Bread out of Crumbs

“We have the same potential to be businessmen as any other race.  But while other minorities keep asking for a bigger piece of the pie, all we get is the crumbs.”–Hector Barreto Sr., 1980.[24]

Although the Barretos had the drive to survive and thrive as entrepreneurs in Kansas City, Barreto Sr. understood that it was important to allay the inequities that other Hispanic entrepreneurs endured—possibly obstacles he experienced as an entrepreneur—which prevented those entrepreneurs from reaching their full potential.  In order for this to happen, Barreto Sr. realized, prospective business owners in the Hispanic community needed their own chamber of commerce to reach their full potential…


Through a combination of entrepreneurial spirit and business success, which started with Mexico Lindo, Hector Barreto Sr. started the HCCGKC.  Just as Barreto Sr. recognized the need for a Mexican restaurant in Independence he recognized the need for a Hispanic chamber of commerce in Kansas City.   So in 1977, Barreto Sr. organized twenty-four other Hispanic businessmen to form the HCCGKC.  They met at a restaurant in the Westside and laid out the groundwork for an organization that would help other Hispanic businesses thrive in Kansas City.[26][27]

It was only a matter of time before Barreto Sr. saw the importance of forming a national chamber of commerce for Hispanics. He reached out to other local Hispanic chambers of commerce across the country to see why a national branch did not already exist.  He quickly realized that, just like in Kansas City, no Hispanic businessman had thought to do it.  In 1979, Barreto co-founded the USHCC.  Shortly after, he became the second president of the new organization.[28]

Barreto Sr.’s leadership aspirations seemed to know no boundaries.  In addition to wanting to organize Hispanic businesses nationwide, Barreto Sr. also wanted Hispanics to play a larger role in national politics.[29]  His timing was perfect since candidates were campaigning for the 1980 U.S. presidential election.  Although Barreto had taken a different approach to helping Hispanics than Felix Tijerina he was still striving to improve Hispanic communities by investing in their economic developments.

“Are We Going to Eat Tomorrow?”

Hector Barreto Sr.’s innovative spirit and drive brought businesses like Mexico Lindo and organizations like the Hispanic chambers of commerce into fruition but big dreamers often have their heads in the clouds and forget to keep a foot on the ground.  Mary Louise made sure that the Barreto family always kept their feet on the ground while Hector Sr. sought out how to make their dreams a reality.  They both contributed to Mexico Lindo and the future of the Barreto family in distinct ways.

Something that Hector Sr. and Mary Louise had in common was their willingness to do things differently, regardless of tradition. When the Barretos opened Mexico Lindo, Mary Louise had no qualms about working there even though it was still some times uncommon for Hispanic women to do work outside the household in those days.[30]  Her willingness to work outside of the home was not something new for women in her family though.  Despite the expectations of women to remain in domestic spheres among Hispanic households while Mary Louise was growing up, her mother worked at a Fred Harvey restaurant[31]in Union Station.  Mary Louise explains, “It was really looked down upon.  If a woman went out and got a job it meant her husband wasn’t providing for her.”[32]  This was not due to economic necessity, however, but because her mother liked being financially independent.  This attitude surely rubbed off on Mary Louise and also ingrained the idea in her head that women were just as capable in the workplace as men.

Mary Louise proved to be no exception to that idea. Although she knew nothing about the restaurant business and had no particular desire to be in the restaurant business, she did what she had to do…

[33]  Therefore Mary Louise used a combination of traditional female gender roles, such as cooking and washing dishes, and entrepreneurial management to maintain her family and their business.

In addition to her work ethic, Mary Louise’s presence was so strong that it left a lasting impression on Hector Sr. long after he left the room.  In fact, it was Mary Louise who introduced Hector Sr. to the stew pot analogy. Little did President Reagan know that it was Mary Louise’s words that sparked his friendship with Hector Sr.

This friendship led Hector Sr. to spend more time working in Washington, D.C. and to rely more on his wife’s knack for managing their household and local businesses.  Hector Jr. explains, “My father loved to start businesses, he didn’t like to run businesses.” Anna states, “Without her holding down the fort he [Hector Sr.] wouldn’t have been able to do all that…she was controlling and manning [us], which we didn’t know.  We thought our dad was controlling us…she was running everything…she just told us my dad was running everything.”  Both siblings agree that their mother was indispensable to their businesses’ success.

Although Mary Louise did not need to remind Hector Sr. of her important role in the family, she did remind him of the vital role that Mexico Lindo played in their family’s success.  This is evident in Anna’s recollection of a conversation she witnessed her parents have…

 Una Comida sin Postre es un Traje sin Corbata; or the Barreto Legacy

Just as Felix Tijerina’s career in the restaurant industry eventually empowered him to be an influential businessman and activist, Hector Sr. and Mary Louise’s successful restaurant allowed Hector Sr. to foster Hispanic economic development, both locally and nationally.  Locally, in addition to their roles in establishing the HCCGKC, the Barretos directly helped the next generation of successful Mexican restaurant owners establish themselves in Kansas City.  Hector Sr.’s visionary foresight was also crucial in chartering the USHCC, which has aided in the growth of numerous Hispanic businesses throughout the United States.

Although the Barretos eventually sold Mexico Lindo, their legacy lives on in K.C.’s Mexican restaurants today.  In the early 1990s, brothers Arturo, Jose Ricardo, and David Romo struggled to get their Mexican restaurant up and running due to their limited resources as recent immigrants in the U.S.  Hector Sr. helped them by selling them his old restaurant, Casa Blanca, located on Southwest Boulevard,[35]and helping them get their liquor license.[36][37]  In 1994, the Romo brothers reopened the restaurant as Taqueria Mexico.  Today, in addition to the original Taqueria Mexico, the Romo brothers own restaurants by the same name in Olathe, Kansas and Kansas City, Kansas, as well as a restaurant they named Taqueria Mexico II in Kansas City, Missouri.[38]  Neither Hector Sr. nor Mary Louise ever forgot their roots and made a conscious effort to support the next generation of Hispanic entrepreneurs.

The Barretos’ encouragement of local entrepreneurs played a role in Kansas City’s business climate that persists to this day. The U.S. Department of Commerce recognizes Kansas City as the “fastest entrepreneurial epicenter for the nation”[39]and awarded $1.6 million to the Hispanic Economic Development Corporation of Greater Kansas City.  They made great strides towards obtaining equitable situations for Hispanic entrepreneurs in Kansas City and the U.S.

Their role in starting the USHCC continues to benefit Hispanic business owners throughout the nation today. The USHCC currently promotes 4.37 million Hispanic businesses, which translates into a combined contribution of $700 billion to the American economy.[40]  Additionally, the USHCC has continued the Barreto’s legacy of empowering female Hispanic entrepreneurs, whose businesses are growing five times faster than any other group in the U.S.[41]

The Barretos initiated a movement for a segment of the population that still needs more attention though.  Hispanic-owned businesses still face more obstacles to funding than other U.S. businesses, making them the slowest growing businesses though.  If they were able to grow as quickly as other U.S. businesses, Hispanic-owned businesses would improve the U.S. economy by 18%.[42]  Hopefully more Americans will start to recognize the importance of investing in the Hispanic entrepreneurial community because the Barretos showed how beneficial it can be to the entire nation to empower people to be los arquitectos de sus propios destinos [English Translation: the architects of their own destiny].

“Porque veo al final de mi rudo camino que yo fui el arquitecto de mi propio destino” [English Translation: “Because by the end of my hard journey I see that I was the architect of my own destiny”] –Amado Nervo[43]

Hector Sr’s copy of his favorite poem, which Mary Louise has kept in her possession.

[1]Hector Barreto Jr., interview by Javier Kelty, May 18, 2018.

[2]Anna Favrow, interview by Javier Kelty, May 22, 2018.

[3]Hector Barreto Jr. interview.


[5]Tijerina started as a dishwasher and a busboy at a restaurant in Houston, TX but eventually gained enough experience and saved enough money to open his own restaurant English (Kreneck, Thomas H. Mexican American Odyssey, 2001).

[6]Tijerina became the leader of the League of the League of United Latin American Citizens, who started programs like the Little School of the 400, a program to teach Mexican children English (Kreneck).

[7]The author defines “equity” as resources to ensure a fair chance at success, not the value of shares issued by a company (a term often used in the trading world).

[8]After the Immigration Reform and Control Act (1986) made it illegal for employers to hire undocumented immigrants, many Hispanic workers had to find other forms of work.  Doña Toña, a Houston resident, sent her husband to buy ingredients to make conchasand cuernos(Mexican pastries), which allowed them to survive on their own (Valdez, Zulema. The New Entrepreneurs, 2011).

[9]An issue in the Independence Examiner stated that he picked potatoes for eighty cents an hour in Corning, MO; he mined for the Missouri Portland Cement Co.; he laid tracks for the Missouri Pacific Railroad; and he lugged beef for the Rodeo Packing Co.  (Dawson, Diana. “Hispanic Leader Fights to Shatter Stereotypes,” Independence Examiner. Aug 5, 1980).

[10]Hector Barreto Jr. interview.



[13]Vilmer, Nancy. “Old Mexico in New Setting—Mexican Food is Barreto Family Specialty,” Independence Examiner, Feb 16, 1967.

[14]Hector Barreto Jr. interview.


[16]Hector Barreto Jr. interview.


[18]Anna Favorw interview.

[19]Hector Barreto Jr. interview.


[21]Dawson, “Hispanic Leader…”


[23]Hector Barreto Jr. interview.

[24]Dawson, “Hispanic Leader…”

[25]Hector Jr. interview.


[27]“History.” Hccgkc.com. Last modified 2014. Accessed Feb 11, 2018. https://hccgkc.com/history/

[28]Anna Favrow interview.

[29]Dawson, “Hispanic Leader…”

[30]Interview with Mary Louise Barreto, interview by Javier Kelty. May 22, 2018.

[31]Starting in the nineteenth century, Fred Harvey established restaurants to accommodate railroad passengers at train stations, including Union Station in Kansas City. Interestingly enough, he also disregarded traditional gender roles, hiring female architect Mary Colter to design his restaurants (Fried, Stephen, Appetite for America, 2010).

[32]Interview with Mary Louise Barreto.


[34]Anna Favrow interview.

[35]Southwest Boulevard is a street near downtown Kansas City, Missouri known for its strip of Mexican restaurants.

[36]Hector Barreto Jr. interview.

[37]Anna Favrow interview.

[38]Smith, Joyce. “Brothers Open Fourth Taqueria Mexico,” Kansas City Star, May 29, 2013.

[39]Carter, Maria and Laura Spencer. “Kansas City’s West Side Entrepreneurs Get $1.6 Million Boost For Business Incubator.” KCUR.org. Last modified Oct 6, 2017. Accessed Feb 11, 2018. http://kcur.org/post/kansas-citys-west-side-entrepreneurs-get-16-million-boost-business-incubator#stream/0.

[40]“About.” Ushcc.com. Last modified 2018. Accessed Feb 11, 2018. https://ushcc.com/about/

[41]Collins, Leslie. “Former SBA Boss/KC Native Barreto: Hispanic Businesses Drive the Economy,” Kansas City Business Journal, Sep 22, 2017.

[42]“Latino Entrepreneurs May Be the U.S. Economy’s Best Bet.” The Atlantic. Last modified 2018. Accessed Feb 11, 2018. http://www.theatlantic.com/sponsored/jpmc-2016/with-a-little-help-latino-owned-businesses-may-be-the-us-economys-best-bet/1052/

[43]Excerpt from Nervo’s poem, En Paz, which was Barreto Sr.’s favorite poem.  He recited it after a speech he gave in front of the USHCC in the 1990s (De Carvajal, Horaccio. Tesoro del Declamador Universal, 1979).