Marcelo Mendieta is better than Santa Claus. Every year at Christmas, while Saint Nick collects all the goodwill, Mendieta is busy sending gifts to his hometown in Ecuador.
He emigrated from San Antonio de Paguancay when he was 15. It’s a town of a little over 1,000, one that had no electricity during his childhood. The first time he watched TV, it was on a black-and-white screen.
He would eventually make his way to south Minneapolis, working his way into becoming a partner at the restaurants La Fresca and Rincón 38. From his own pocket, he would begin to share his good fortune with the less fortunate of his homeland.
San Antonio is very Catholic. It’s also very poor. So for the past 15 years, Mendieta has given back what he can at the holidays with the help of family still located there.
“Not much,” he says. “Just some money for the kids to get candy.”
This is how Mendieta discusses all the work he’s done in San Antonio de Paguancay, which now extends throughout the calendar year. Of his collaboration with public school teachers to identify low-income students and provide them with supplies or pay for them to go on field trips, he says, “They’re small things that I think will go a long way.”
When discussing the park he helped build five years ago? “It’s nothing huge—just something to get a smile out of their faces.”
He talks about his restaurants in much the same way. “We’re small, neighborhood restaurants. We want to make people happy. We’re just trying to do something good.” Walk into the vibrant, packed La Fresca space on a Saturday night, where the tables are full of families laughing over queso fondue and couples sharing drinks and snapper ceviche, and you’ll see that they’re succeeding.
This Christmas was an extra special one for Mendieta, because his kids, Emma and Ethan, traveled to Ecuador to hand out the candy and toys. He remembers how excited they were to be there, the brightness in their voices when they called to tell him the love they felt helping these people, how happy it made them to give away what they could.
“It really got me, because at that age, I want them to know what’s important in their lives,” Mendieta says. “I want them to be able to see that it’s important to give away. If you’ve got something, you should share. There’s enough for everybody—especially the people who need it the most.”
Emma and Ethan got to witness a San Antonio de Paguancay tradition started by their dad, too. On December 24 each year, the people take to the streets and pray, a procession that brings out the whole town. Six years ago, Mendieta and his mom wondered, “What about, instead of people doing that and then they just go away to their house, why don’t we keep the celebration going?” So they did. They threw a feast for hundreds in the town center—a custom they’ve maintained over the six years since.
Mendieta, of course, is characteristically quick to defer credit: “Well, I didn’t cook.”