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Hard work, prayers pay off for illegal alien

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One dollar, the clothes on his back and a determination to find a better life was all Mario Sotelo had going for him when he jumped off the train in San Antonio 15 years ago with three friends.

The dollar bought a hamburger for the hungry men, who split it four ways. Then, Mario wasted no time finding a job washing dishes, so he could send money home to Mexico with the hope that one day his wife and children might share his dream.

Today, as Mario stocks shelves at his La Bodeguita market in Midvale, he smiles, thankful that hard work and perseverance have taken his family from a dusty, one-room cottage in Juarez to a spacious home of their own in West Valley City.

After working two jobs as a line cook for more than a decade, Mario finally saved enough money — $7,000 — to open his Mexican market two years ago. Grateful for his new life, he invited me to share a Free Lunch of carnitas and pineapple empanadas at the colorful food mart, just off State Street.

"God has been good to me. There isn't a day that I don't thank him for this opportunity," says Mario, 37, standing amid shelves filled with canned beans, packages of jalapeos and Virgin Mary candles.

He points to his own shrine honoring Our Lady of Guadalupe, perched high on a shelf above a front counter stacked with packages of dried pork rinds and Hispanic CDs.

"It was possible for me, it is possible for anybody," he says. "I would like to tell people that if they work hard, they too can make something with their life."

In Juarez, Mario drove a school bus and barely took home enough money to keep his wife, Aurora, and four children fed. "It was not much of a life," he says. "Everybody in my town is living in poverty."

Finally, he decided there was no choice except to illegally cross the border into Texas and earn enough money to smuggle his family out, too. "I was the last person in my family to leave Mexico," says Mario, his voice softening at the memory. "Everybody else — my parents, my brothers and sisters — had already left."

Jumping onto a train with three friends, he lay flat on top of a boxcar for 12 hours, until they reached the outskirts of San Antonio. "I was afraid I would get caught," he says, "but I was willing to take the risk. There was no future in Mexico."

One year later, he paid an American to sneak his family across the border in a truck, and they joined him in Virginia, where he had moved to be near friends. Now legal residents, the Sotelos moved to Utah three years ago to be closer to Mario's relatives.

Although his market is now a lively place, full of customers in search of authentic ingredients for homemade tamales and chile relleno, Mario had to knock on a lot of doors before word about La Bodeguita got out.

"I started with a truck and six cases of tortillas," he says, "and I stopped at every house in the Hispanic community until I'd sold them all. Then I'd come back with cases of beans. It was hard work. I wondered if we were going to make it. But soon I had enough money to rent a building and stock the shelves."

Today, the little grocery is outfitted with a butcher shop and a bakery, where Mario can often be found with his employees, pounding out another batch of sweet Mexican bread.

"I sweep the floors, I do the mopping, I wash the windows," he says, "but I do not mind. I am trying to live a good life, do better for my family. Mexico will always be close to my heart. But Utah is home now."

Have a story? Let's hear it over lunch. E-mail your name, phone number and what's on your mind to freelunch@desnews.com or send a fax to 466-2851. You can also write me at the Deseret News, P.O. Box 1257, Salt Lake City, UT 84110.