Ciriaco and Carmen Lerma embody hard work and resilience. The wheelchair-bound couple, now in their 60s, immigrated to the United States from Mexico in 1977, and they didn’t let their disabilities stop them from realizing El Sueño Americano – the American Dream.
If you’ve attended a Fiesta event, such as NIOSA or the King William Fair, and have fueled up at a food booth, chances are you’ve tasted the Lermas’ hefty gorditas or crunchy flautas. Perhaps you’ve munched on Carmen’s enchiladas or espiropapas, a spiral-cut potato on a stick with the sauce of your choice.
“Fiesta is madness, but we do very well, thank God,” Carmen told the Rivard Report in Spanish. “People say the food is very good. They leave and then come back again for more.”
The Lermas have managed several food booths during Fiesta celebrations for more than 30 years, helping carry equipment and even prepare the masa for their tortillas despite physical hurdles. They also make annual treks to county fairs across Texas to set up several of their food booths. Their speciality is Mexican food, but they serve other popular fair food like fried oreos and snickers bars too.
“[During Fiesta] we have seven booths. We have two in Market Square, two in between Commerce and Presa streets, and three food booths in the King William Fair,” Ciriaco said. “We also go to the State Fair in Dallas, the Zapata County Fair, and also set up booths in Bryan, Texas.”
Carmen, 66, and Ciriaco, 64, came to San Antonio from Coahuila, Mexico in 1977. Ciriaco worked as an office aid in Mexico, and Carmen would iron clothes, cook, and clean houses to make a living. They met in their early 20s and have been married for 39 years.
“He had a brother that married someone from Santa Mónica, and he met me because his sister-in-law was my neighbor,” Carmen said.
What’s the secret behind their marriage? “Mucho, mucho, mucho amor,” Carmen quipped.
But their lives – together and apart – didn’t come without challenges. Ciriaco and Carmen use motorized wheelchairs because they contracted polio during the polio epidemic of the 1950s, when they were 1 and 4, respectively. The disease invaded the Lermas’ nervous system and caused paralysis on their left legs, limiting their mobility for life.
At its peak in the ’40s and ’50s, polio paralyzed or killed more than half a million people worldwide each year. Ciriaco and Carmen were among the lucky ones who survived.
Living in poverty-stricken Mexico, Carmen didn’t get a wheelchair until she was 14 years old and a benevolent municipal president gifted her one.
“A very kind teacher spoke for me,” she said. “I would use my left hand as support to walk, to cook, to do everything. I had to help my mother with the other children. I would cook for them and everything.”
Ciriaco was discriminated against for years when he applied for jobs as a young man due to his physical disability.
“I remember going to an interview for the social security office in Mexico, and I passed the capacity test,” Ciriaco said. “But when I arrived to meet the boss he didn’t give me the job.”
He recalled being angry at God for not getting the same opportunities that others did. “I remember talking to a priest and telling him, ‘I don’t think this is fair,’ and he told me, ‘God doesn’t control the social security office. God has a plan for you, just wait for it.’ And bendito sea dios, he was right.”
Ciriaco decided to move to the U.S. in search of better opportunities and to not feel discriminated against. He became a U.S. resident through his mother, and after he married Carmen she followed him. Carmen has her U.S. citizenship test in two weeks.
“Of course this is el sueño americano,” Carmen said. “Just think, when would I be able to buy a wheelchair like this over there [in Mexico]? I think if we had stayed in Mexico we wouldn’t have been successful. In this country we don’t struggle, we move around just like any normal person.”
The Lermas got in the food business because they would help Ciriaco’s sister with her food booths when they first arrived in the U.S.
“We would help her and then we became independent,” Carmen said. “We began with one food booth at the Mission Flea Market – All Mexican food from family recipes.”
Now, with more booths and a stable business, the Lermas have a large group of employees to help them with daily set up, cooking, and more. They can now take a back seat and supervise their operations. The Lermas most recently bought a van with a special wheelchair-accessible ramp.
“People once thought we wouldn’t amount to anything, but … look where are now,” Carmen said.
In addition to the food booths, the Lermas are active grandparents – after their daughter died from cancer at age 33, they took on the responsibility of raising their grandkids. Their oldest son still lives with them and helps them manage several of the booths.
“A few days ago someone asked me, ‘Are you Mexican?’ And I said, ‘No I’m not,’ because my country denied me everything and I was always blocked by my physical disability,” Ciriaco said. “There is no country like the United States. It’s benevolent. Yes, it’s still a lot of work but we are blessed because we’ve accomplished so much. God has blessed us in this country.
“I would tell others not to give up and to do everything the right way, slowly and legally,” he added. “You have to find your talents and use them and you will succeed because God wants us to succeed, not to fail. If you have a disability work with it and don’t lament yourself.
“If God has you here, he has you here for a purpose.”