In tribute: Restaurant owner sought to fill need

By Sharna Johnson: Freedom New Mexico

Jesse Leal didn’t have a big business plan with hopes of riches and success. Instead, he and his wife, Irma, wanted to fill a need in the community.

Jesse Leal, 79, founder of Leal’s Mexican Food Restaurants, died Friday in Clovis after a lengthy illness. He was surrounded by friends and family, his son Sergio Leal said.

A funny, civic minded, loving and strong man who loved life — his six children reminisced about him as they gathered Friday night to share memories of their father.

Working as a timekeeper at a local produce company, Jesse Leal and Irma opened a small tortilla factory and cafe in Muleshoe, Texas, in 1957.

In 1968, the couple expanded, opening El Nuevo Leal’s Restaurant in Muleshoe.

They raised their six children in the family business, the restaurant serving as a second home to the family.

All the children continue to work in the family business, operating restaurants and retail locations in Muleshoe, Henrietta, Plainview, Amarillo, and Dallas, Texas as well as two Leals restaurants in Clovis .

Jesse Leal loved people, using his Muleshoe restaurant as a way to care for the community.

“The essence of who him and my mom were was servants,” Victor Leal said. “They used food as a vehicle to shower people with love.”

When they began the business, they wanted to help the “braceros”, Mexican workers that would cross the border to earn money as farm laborers.

Starting with a basic menu of home-style Mexican food and homemade tortillas, the couple became pioneers of the Mexican restaurant business in west Texas.

Hector Leal, the couples oldest son, said Irma and Jesse packed lunches for 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.

And they built a reputation of hard work and compassion, making their restaurant a home away from home, his children recalled.

“It turned into a ministry for them,” said daughter Alma Jaramillo.

“We can’t even begin to tell you how many they helped.”

Jesse and Irma were set to celebrate their 54th wedding anniversary Nov. 24.

A true partnership from the start, the couple never fought, always supported each other, worked in unison toward their goals, and lived their life together as one.

“I think their dancing on the dance floor is just a metaphor to how they lived life together,” son Abel Leal said, 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.”

For the family, most of their memories are centered on the restaurant, but Jesse Leal was so much more.

He pushed his children, employees and anyone he came in contact with to seek higher education and thrived on knowledge, his love for learning unrivaled.

“He went through life knowing that nobody ever owed him anything… He loved to learn. He encouraged us always to continue learning,” Laura Leal said. Laura Leal operates the two Clovis restaurants.

“There’s so many people that have stories about the influence he had on their lives.”

And he was a lover of politics, law, boxing, avid card player and lover of the arts with diverse music taste and a passion for everything from the big bands of the 1930’s and 1940’s to tangos.

Armed with a great sense of humor, sadly, he couldn’t tell a joke to save his life his children said laughing.

But he always made people laugh, entertaining customers with his antics — singing and dancing, lighting customers cigarettes, anything to entertain.

Complex and multifaceted, Leal’s children remember him as a warrior poet, full of love and gratitude for life.

“It’s hard to sum my dad up. It’s kind of like when you look at a diamond. You can look at it from any angle and it captures and reflects light. That was Dad. He always saw life as this wonderful gift and he was thankful,” Victor Leal said.

“(The restaurant) turned out to be a good avenue for him to use his gifts and they were many and varied.”