Latino DREAMer Pays for College by Selling Tacos in California

Rodolfo Barrientos, a DREAMer in his 30s, owns a very successful food truck business that is helping him pay for his education while at Santa Monica City College (SMCC) in California. Barrientos is among the estimated 800,000 people who have lived in the US without proper documentation since arriving in the country as minors. They are the beneficiaries of a temporary program called the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) created by the Obama administration in 2012, which allows DREAMers to pass a background check and apply for work permits. The program provides protection from deportation for a two-year period with the ability to re-apply for the status.

According to a profile on L.A. Taco, Barrientos was working his way up the managerial chain at Pinkberry while attending SMCC in 2014. Today, he and his mother run Gracias Señor (“Thank you, Sir” in Spanish), which has met a high demand in the wealthy coastal neighborhood of Pacific Palisades. L.A. Taco praised Gracias Señor’s “attention to detail, personal cooking, and inspired menu,” in the midst of a “wealthy, white seaside community.”

But Barrientos’ entrepreneurial spirit has not gone without challenges. After giving his business partner $5,000 to purchase a food truck, the partner vanished. This setback was not a deterrent for Barrientos, L.A. Taco reported. His mother helped rake in enough cash to purchase the truck he runs today. And despite the Palisades’ reluctance to food trucks, Barrientos’ business is thriving.

“A lot of people are conservative and just think we’re tarnishing or doing damage to the neighborhood,” Barrientos told the outlet. Gracias Señor has capitalized on its social media popularity, catering to parties and regular customers who line up for its service. “They tell us they’re really grateful we’re here and that means a lot to me,” he said. Barrientos’ love for authentic cuisine is reminiscent of another story in Austin, Texas.

Victor Torres, then a freshman at the University of Texas in the same city, sold breakfast tacos to raise scholarship funds to the poorest students in the Rio Grande Valley, the Daily Texan reported at the time. To generate resources for his community members, Victor kicked off a nonprofit called Lending a Helping Hand.

“Being a part of this huge network (of nonprofits) is helpful and has made me realize how realistic (my goal) actually is,” he told the publication. “Now, it’s a matter of getting the process started. It’s not ... an idea that seems too far-fetched because now it seems like a reality I can execute just through the networks I have access to.”

The discussion about selling tacos even entered the fray of politics during the presidential elections in 2016. Latinos for Trump founder Marco Gutierrez, who is of Mexican descent, told MSNBC’s Chris Hayes that his culture is a dominant one and that “it is imposing and it’s causing problems. If you don’t do something about it, you’re going to have taco trucks on every corner.”

Gutierrez’s anti-immigrant rhetoric actually backfired, Remezcla reported. Brooklyn activist Jeronimo Saldaña successfully sold “Taco Trucks on Every Corner” hats — in response to Trump’s “Make America Great Again” hats — in the summer of 2016. “When I have a bad hambre, I start looking for a taco truck on the corner,” Saldaña tweeted.


About the Author

Robert Valencia is the breaking news editor for The North Star. His work as editor and reporter appeared on Newsweek, World Politics Review, Mic.com, Public Radio International and The Miami Herald, among other outlets. He’s a frequent commentator on foreign affairs and US politics on Al Jazeera English, CNN en Español, Univision, Telemundo, Voice of America, C-SPAN, Sirius XM and other media outlets across Latin America and the Caribbean.