Family roots run deep as Mi Tierra celebrates 75 years at Market Square

SAN ANTONIO – September marks the 75th anniversary of Mi Tierra, a downtown staple. While it may be a place known for authentic Mexican food, the Cortez family, who owns the iconic restaurant, also works hard to preserve tradition, culture and their family's legacy.

"It's what makes San Antonio, San Antonio," Jorge Cortez said. "Mi Tierra, since 1941 (is) an immigrant story. It's the American story."

Jorge's parents, Pedro and Cruz Cortez, met in the mercado and eventually married and opened Mi Tierra to serve the farmers coming in and out of  Market Square to sell produce.

"We were all here as immigrants working hard," Jorge Cruz said.

Pedro and Cruz Cortez's grandsons also carry the same passion for family and hard work.

"It was really about familia more than anything else. It was, 'Para la familia and la gente de San Antonio,' the people of San Antonio," grandson Michael Cortez said.

Below is a timeline of Mi Tierra's journey to Market Square

Pete Cortez is the eldest of the grandchildren. He too has worked at Mi Tierra most of his life.

"I've never considered it to be a job," he said. "It's just always been a part of the family legacy and it's just part of who we are. I've never had a job in my life, really to be honest with you."

The Cortez family may own four restaurants -- including La Margarita, Mi Tierra, El Mariachi Bar and Viva Villa Taqueria -- but Pete Cortez said his grandfather was more worried about the work ethic than the amount of money coming in.

"My grandfather's thing was never to be a big restaurant or who sold the most money or who had the most customers, he just wanted it to be the best," Pete Cortez said. "Something that everybody would be very proud of in the Latino community and so that's the tradition that we try to carry on, too."

Pedro unexpectedly passed away in the early 1980s, leaving the business in his family's hands. Inside Mi Tierra, the family has piñatas, photos, paintings and lots of memories honoring their grandfather.

"It's like magical -- you can't see it, and you cannot identify it, but you can feel it," Jorge Cortez said.

"Probably the best compliment that I've ever received when I’m giving tours is when we get people from Mexico and they say, 'You know what? This feels like Mexico more than Mexico.' That is probably the best one," Michael Cortez said.

Pedro's passion for preserving Mexican culture in the Market Square is reflected in the name Mi Tierra.

"Mi Tierra means 'My homeland.' I think that's what it was and that instilled in his children the passion for Mi Tierra," Michael Cortez said.

And that passion continues to burn strong in the Cortez grandsons. Michael knew at age 12 he would work in the family restaurant and nowhere else.

"I said, 'Grandpa, I know what I want to do for the rest of my life,' and he goes, 'What is that?' and I said, 'I want to work here. I want to continue the business. I want to make this company great. I want to work with my cousin Pete. I want to work with my dad. I want to work with my uncles. I want to work with you,'" Michael Cortez said.

Pete Cortez's memories left tears in his eyes.

"He was the type of man that left such a legacy that we all want to follow what he did and I don't know if they showed you the picture, but there's a picture of him walking -- in his older years -- it was a picture of him from behind,” Pete Cortez said. “I always loved that picture, because we're still following in his footsteps," .

That is the Cortez family's legacy: Making Mi Tierra a place to visit for everyone. This is why celebrities can often be seen at the restaurant and locals continue to make memories year after year.

"This is home. It's 'casa.' The lights don't go off. This is what Mi Tierra represents to San Antonio. It preserves the Latino roots here at the mercado by never flipping the lights off," Jorge Cortez said.

Mi Tierra remains open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

"More than anything else, it's a place where the people of San Antonio come and enjoy and celebrate their traditions and their culture," Michael Cortez said.  "Para la familia.”

If you want to share your family memories from Mi Tierra, just post them online and use the hashtag #MiTierraMemories.

About the Author:

Jennifer Tobias-Struski loves her hometown of San Antonio, and is proud to celebrate it every day working on SA Live. The Emmy-Award winning producer hosts the Mom-Day series, featuring fun, family-themed segments from crafting to fashion hacks every Monday.