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La Fiesta Owners Celebrate Life Together on Telegraph

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Friday June 23, 2006

For almost half a century now, Mario’s on Telegraph Aveue has built up a reputation for a lot more than its chile verde and grilled burritos. 

Mayor Tom Bates is known to frequent its banquet lunches, UC Berkeley students flock there during lunch and the homeless find refuge in its free bean and rice dinners—all served under the watchful eyes of Mario and Rosalinda Tejada, the owners of Mario’s La Fiesta.  

The couple, who have served Berkeley through their restaurant and banquet hall since February 1959, will be celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary on Saturday. 

They have worked together tirelessly for the last 47 years to make their business the Berkeley institution it is today. 

At a time when a lot of old timers on Telegraph are folding up their shops, Mario and Rosalinda are the embodiment of survival. 

“The only thing we pray for right now is that we make it to the restaurant’s 50th anniversary three years from now,” said Mario as he returned from his Thursday morning market visit. 

Rosalinda said that during Mario’s trips to the local market, he handpicked anything the restaurant might need for the day’s business.  

At the age of 75, his optimistic spirit is only one of the many remarkable things about Mario, something he says has been a part of him since he immigrated to the United States from Guanajuato in 1954. 

“After serving in Korea till 1956, I came across a classified ad for a sandwich shop on Telegraph Avenue and purchased it,” he explained. “Then I fixed it up to look like a Mexican restaurant and introduced real Mexican food to Americans. Rosalinda and I haven’t looked back since then.” 

When asked about the declining businesses on Telegraph, Mario said that he has seen it all before. 

“It’s all part of the cycle, there will be good times and bad times. It was the same way during the free speech movement of 1962 and the People’s Park incident of 1969,” he said. “Business was down back then too, but it revived once again. It always does. I am hopeful it will do so this time around too.” 

The secret to success, Mario said smiling, was the restaurant’s old customers. “They always come back,” he said. “With children, grandchildren or even just on their own, my customers from UC visit me the moment they land in Berkeley. Just the other day one of my old patrons visited me from Israel. They love it here.” 

However, he does admit that some of that old world charm that made Telegraph what it was is missing today. 

“The atmosphere has definitely changed. It is more about being hip, about all things new,” Mario said. “But we have to realize that life is all about change. So many of my friends who started businesses around the same time as me have either died or moved away. Take Larry Blakes for example. The owner sold the restaurant before he died, but the place still exists.” 

When asked about the charitable work that both he and his wife do for the homeless in Berkeley, Mario says that it’s something the couple feel is a duty towards the community. 

“We give donations to UC Berkeley, to different organizations whenever we can,” he said. “Offering food to the homeless is also a form of giving.” 

Dan McMullan of the Disabled People Outside Project praised the couple for their services. 

“For 50 years these good people have served our community not only with their great food but with a quiet and loving acceptance of all people,” he said. “They have for years provided food for the truly needy, a kind word for everyone and the power that has run every People’s Park event since 1969. They are truly a Berkeley treasure and I know I speak for many when I wish them another great 50 years.” 

Apart from offering free food during events at People’s Park, the couple also allows event organizers at the park to use their electricity for different shows.  

“They serve as a bridge, from Mayor Bates to the different merchants to the homeless,” said Michael Diehl of the Berkeley Free Clinic. “Mario and Rosalinda have been there for all.” 

On Saturday, the couple plans to celebrate with family and friends. When asked about future plans, Mario said that he wants to see Telegraph Avenue retain its lost glory. 

“The mayor is trying, the merchants are trying.” he said. “I am sure something positive will happen soon. As for me. I would like to retire, but hopefully not too soon.”