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Meet the Powerful Mujer Who Helps Feed L.A.’s Oldest Street

11:34 AM PDT on March 8, 2020

    Los Angeles, CA – March 07: A customer licks sauce off her finger at Cielito Lindo at Placita Olvera in Los Angeles on March 07, 2020. (Brian Feinzimer/LA Taco)

    In the coming weeks, DoorDash and L.A. TACO will be profiling some of the most fascinating people behind the restaurants, trucks, and stands that make up Taco Madness. 

    Trends in tacos come and go in L.A.

    None are yet to demonstrate the staying power that a single legendary item at Cielito Lindo has.

    Los Angeles, CA - March 07: Customers line up to order food at Cielito Lindo at Placita Olvera in Los Angeles on March 07, 2020. (Brian Feinzimer/LA Taco)
    Los Angeles, CA - March 07: Customers line up to order food at Cielito Lindo at Placita Olvera in Los Angeles on March 07, 2020. (Brian Feinzimer/LA Taco)

    The tiny taquito stand endures on Downtown L.A.’s Olvera Street after 86 years, having weathered endless shifts in the downtown landscape, nationwide economy and attitudes towards both immigrants and women who own businesses.

    Behind this legacy are three sisters: Diana and Mariana Robertson and Susanna MacManus, who took over the small stand that was started by their mother, Natalia, and grandmother, Aurora Guerrero, in 1934.

    “This is definitely a business built by women and sustained by women,” MacManus tells L.A. Taco. “It’s a symbol of immigrants’ contribution to this vibrant city.”

    MacManus grew up on Thomas Street in Lincoln Heights, a self-described “girl from the hood” from a household packed with “tios and tias,” not far from the family business. She grew up on wonderful meals made by her Zacatecan grandmother.

    And of course, there were also taquitos. Lots of taquitos.

    “All the tios and grandmas would be making the salsa and tortillas and rolling the taquitos,” the 76-year-old MacManus recalls fondly. “And then everybody, all the nietos, would stick their hands in to see if they could make taquitos, but you know, they weren’t very good at it.”

    It was a wholly different Los Angeles than the one we share today. One where Broadway was bedecked in opulent department stores and the taquitos were cooked at home and carried by trolley in a big bundle.

    Food made by immigrants was far from the fashionable coastal obsession it is today.

    “There’s a lot more interest in our cooking in the food scene today,” she says. “We’re proud to show this is an iconic food item and it’s not from your local grocery store.”

    Of course, times changed. Suburbs sprouted up in the 1950s, drawing people away from downtown to leave a mere ghost of its glamorous past, idling in decay over decades.

    As a student at Sacred Heart High School in the late 1960’s, she watched with great interest as friends at Lincoln High participated in walkouts over subpar educational and on-campus standards.

    There are numerous teachers in the family and MacManus herself spent years teaching Spanish at her alma mater of UCLA as well as at Occidental College in Eagle Rock.

    Los Angeles, CA - March 07: A customer licks sauce off her finger at Cielito Lindo at Placita Olvera in Los Angeles on March 07, 2020. (Brian Feinzimer/LA Taco)
    Los Angeles, CA - March 07: A customer licks sauce off her finger at Cielito Lindo at Placita Olvera in Los Angeles on March 07, 2020. (Brian Feinzimer/LA Taco)

    Then in 1997, her sisters and she took over operations at Cielito Lindo when their mother retired, a legacy they’re proud to uphold to this day. Especially in the face of a downtown renaissance and wider appreciation for Mexican culinary traditions.

    “There was nothing downtown,” she recalls. “Nothing. But now that more young people want to live in an urban setting, it’s reviving downtown and the living situation and the arts. All these places I remember as a child that we’d go to pick up produce, now they’re foodie centers and nice bars and restaurants.”

    Not that everything she sees there is rosy. Susanna bemoans the explosion in homelessness in Los Angeles that has only become more widespread, calling our collective failure to feed and shelter so many people “immoral.”

    Los Angeles, CA - March 07: Left to right, Rose Mackenzie and Gloria Palacios pose for a photo before eating at Cielito Lindo. They both worked at the stand as their first jobs in the 1980’s when they were 16 and 14. Gloria picked Cielito Lindo as her first meal after getting out of surgery - at Placita Olvera in Los Angeles on March 07, 2020. (Brian Feinzimer/LA Taco)
    Los Angeles, CA - March 07: Left to right, Rose Mackenzie and Gloria Palacios pose for a photo before eating at Cielito Lindo. They both worked at the stand as their first jobs in the 1980’s when they were 16 and 14. Gloria picked Cielito Lindo as her first meal after getting out of surgery - at Placita Olvera in Los Angeles on March 07, 2020. (Brian Feinzimer/LA Taco)

    But as she looks to the next generation of Cielito Lindo, MacManus is pleased that the family business has created opportunities for her grandmother’s descendants, hoping that the restaurant will continue feeding Olvera Street and serving the city just as it has done for so many years.

    Los Angeles, CA - March 07: A customer holds a plate of taquitos at Cielito Lindo at Placita Olvera in Los Angeles on March 07, 2020. (Brian Feinzimer/LA Taco)
    Los Angeles, CA - March 07: A customer holds a plate of taquitos at Cielito Lindo at Placita Olvera in Los Angeles on March 07, 2020. (Brian Feinzimer/LA Taco)

    “Our kids are learning the legacy and what it takes to make a lasting business,” she says. “Fortunately, all the grandkids are college-educated so no one has to do the hard work of, say, making the tortillas every day. But they respect the legacy and what went into this.”

    When asked what advice she would give others hoping to create a business with similar reach, she counsels to, “Look at your family history and think of the women. Appreciate the sacrifice that the family has made to get you rooted here.”

    Los Angeles, CA - March 07: Customer and former employee Gloria Palacios picks up a taquito from Cielito Lindo at Placita Olvera in Los Angeles on March 07, 2020. (Brian Feinzimer/LA Taco)
    Los Angeles, CA - March 07: Customer and former employee Gloria Palacios picks up a taquito from Cielito Lindo at Placita Olvera in Los Angeles on March 07, 2020. (Brian Feinzimer/LA Taco)

    Her own family’s legacy rests incredibly on just one fantastic dish: a humble taquito served with guacamole sauce that continues to awe both proud Angelenos and newcomers alike.

    “It’s the magic of simplicity,” MacManus says. “There’s nothing artificial. No preservatives. Even the corn is non-GMO. Just simple, fresh and produced daily. It’s the simplicity of excellence.”

    Los Angeles, CA - March 07: A couple feeing their partner taquitos from Cielito Lindo at Placita Olvera in Los Angeles on March 07, 2020. (Brian Feinzimer/LA Taco)
    Los Angeles, CA - March 07: A couple feeing their partner taquitos from Cielito Lindo at Placita Olvera in Los Angeles on March 07, 2020. (Brian Feinzimer/LA Taco)

    Though she treasures her heritage and the honored recipe that boosted her family into the highest echelons of Mexican food royalty in L.A., MacManus herself might be among the few people who aren’t eager to rush to Cielito Lindo for taquitos come lunchtime.

    “I ate so many taquitos as a kid,” she says. “I’m a foodie now and I always wonder why I never crave taquitos? My daughter says, ‘Mom, you’re getting so gringa.’”

    You can order Cielito Lindo right now using the official partner of Taco Madness, DoorDash. In the coming weeks, DoorDash and L.A. TACO will be profiling some of the most fascinating people behind the restaurants, trucks, and stands that makeup Taco Madness. 

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