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Interview with: Irma Galvan
Interviewed by: Megan Schneider
Date: April 23, 2008
MS: I am here with Irma Galvan at her restaurant, Irma's Mexican Restaurants. We are downtown. Today is April 23, 2008. I am Megan Schneider. I am going to be interviewing her about her history here in Houston for the Houston Oral History Project. So, Ms. Galvan, let's start at the beginning. How did you first end up in Houston and when did you come here?
IG: I was born in Brownsville and came to Houston when I was like about 6 years old. I was raised in this neighborhood between Canal, Navigation and St. Charles.
MS: And what brought your family to Houston?
IG: Brownsville was not booming in jobs. My mother being a single parent, came to Houston to get herself a better job and to raise her family where it would be better for the kids.
MS: Did you have any other brothers and sisters?
IG: I have 2 brothers and I have a sister. I am the oldest of the 4.
MS: So, what was the Second Ward like when you were growing up?
IG: The Second Ward? Work. As soon as we were able . . . I started working when I was 13 years old here in the neighborhood on Canal and Navigation. There used to be several Mexican bakeries where they sold the ________ Mexican bread. My sister and I, we started working at La Sabra Bakery and Nopal and Nacionale (sp?) which was on Navigation, St. Charles and Navigation. We kind of rotated among the bakeries. It was very good because we learned to work at a very young age to support my family and my mother.
MS: So, were you going to school as well?
IG: I went to Catholic school here on Navigation, Our Lady of Guadalupe School.
MS: Right over here?
IG: Yes. I was there until about the 7th grade. After the 7th grade, I went to Marshall and then I graduated from Jeff Davis High School. Going to Catholic school was very good for us. We used to go to confession. That was the Catholic religion. It was a very small school but it was a family school.
MS: Now, that school is still there, Our Lady of Guadalupe?
IG: Yes, our Lady of Guadalupe is still there but now it is much more expensive. When I was going to school, we were paying a dollar a month, and we could not afford a dollar a month so what I did is I would work in the kitchen, help the ladies serving lunch for the students so that I could get a discount on the tuition. And then, when my little brothers and my sister came on the line, I gave them extra food on their plate. So, that was the advantage of being on the line serving the food.
MS: So, you did not realize it but you have been in the restaurant business for a long time.
IG: I have. I really have.
MS: So, what was it like being the oldest of 4?
IG: It was a big responsibility because my mother was a single parent and she would leave us by ourselves because she had to work 2 jobs, and it was up to me to make sure that they were fed and that I took care of them. Just like a mother. I raised my kids. I always felt like my 2 brothers and my sister, like I was their mother instead of their sister.
MS: So, what is the age difference between you guys?
IG: My sister is probably . . . I am not good at ages but I would say my sister is about 64. Then, my brother, Leonard, is probably like 61, and then, my younger brother is about 58. So, we were all like one after the other.
MS: So, what was high school at Jefferson Davis like?
IG: It was hard. At the time that I was going to school, I thought it was very, very hard. I never thought I was going to make it from Marshall to Davis. When I was going to school, it was like the teachers are the ones that you have to look up to, listen to, and whatever they said, it was like God's word because we did not have what is going on right now. We respected our teachers. We did our homework. We never missed school and we were never late. It was really, really fun.
MS: So, why did you think you would not make it from Marshall to Davis?
IG: Because I was not very smart. I was never an A student. I had a lot of common sense. Physically, I can do this, do that and stuff like that but when it came to thinking, you know, I was like, nervous. But, you know, actually, if you sit down and think about the things that are right and wrong, it is not hard to do, O.K.?
MS: Have you been back to Davis at all to see what does it look like now compared to what it was like when you were there?
IG: I have been to Davis. As a matter of fact, I was at Davis a couple of months ago and it is very different. The kids dress different. I look back and I feel like when I was going there, it was much harder, and I am sure that it is harder now because when I was going to school, I thought graduating from high school, Jeff Davis, was like getting a degree and actually, it was for me because the minute I graduated, I had to get myself ready to work. We could not afford to go to college.
MS: So, what did you do? The day you graduated, after that, what did you do?
IG: The day that I graduated, I was working at Weiner’s part time going to high school and then I worked at the bakeries on Sundays, and worked at Weiner’s like during the week after school. So, right after I got out of high school, I started to work for Perse and Company (??) which was a wholesale furniture store which is right across from the restaurant. I started as a receptionist and I worked myself to the sales floor. I worked for them 28 years.
MS: So, after working for them 28 years, they went out of business, right?
IG: Yes, after working there a long time, for 28 years, I learned a lot working for Perse. I met a lot of good people, people that had money, people that were struggling, and I was in sales so it was good for me because I learned the needs of several people – the people that had money, the people that were barely getting by, but it was good for me because it was like going to school and it was helping me quite a bit. I had a variety of people.
MS: Did you like working there?
IG: I loved it. I loved working at Perse and Company because I was a receptionist, I took orders on the phone, I waited on my customers, I went into the warehouse and checked stock, I took inventory, and I am very, very familiar with the furniture business, the quality and the styles. And, again, I work with builders, decorators and individuals, and, of course, store owners that were furnishing the store.
MS: So, it sort of plugged you into a network?
IG: Yes. It kind of was getting me ready more or less for what I am doing now.
MS: Did you have any idea that you would open a restaurant at any point?
IG: Never. I never did. No.
MS: So, what happened after the 28 years of working at Perse and Company?
IG: You know, I was working there and I got married there, I had my 4 kids there, and I was putting my husband, Luis, through school. My husband, Luis, was going to Baylor College of Medicine. He was working with Dr. Harris Bush in the Pharmacology Department. He worked with Dr. DeBakey. He was going to be a cancer research doctor. My husband was killed when he was 41 years old. I think it was 1981, 1982. He was murdered and shot. And so, my years of putting him through school or helping him to finish school and the dreams that I had for my family, my kids and myself kind of went down under. And he had no insurance. And so, I lost my husband, I lost my job, and I just felt very depressed. Even though the sun was shining at noon, I felt very, very down and depressed. But I had to get out from that feeling that I had because of my kids. My youngest one was 5 at the time that my husband died and my oldest one was 14 years old.
MS: So, what happened after that?
IG: After that, when my husband died, I had about another year to work at Perse and Company and they were running out of business, going out of business sale. So, what I did was I started paying all my bills. I could not pay my house off because it was a 30 year loan but if I had a refrigerator payment, I got rid of all my payments and all that was left . . . what really helped me was that I was getting Social Security. Social Security for myself and for my 4 kids. And then, I started to work for Mr. Melvin Littman at Furniture Warehouse on the corner of Franklin and Chenevert right after Perse and Company.
MS: How long did you work there?
IG: I worked for the Littmans, I’d say about 5 years. They were very nice people. They were my managers. They trusted me with their money and making payments. I was devoted to them because they always took care of me. Jewish people always take care of their employees and that is the way that I felt with them.
MS: So, how was it different? Was it a smaller company than Perse and Company?
IG: It was a much smaller company because when I was working for Perse and Company, I was dealing with, like, decorators, Kickerillo Homes, builders and stuff like that, so when I went to work for Mr. Littman, it was a very downsized store and it was a building, a tin building, and we did not have any air, we had no heat. It was like a big warehouse building that was enclosed in and it was horrible.
MS: In the summer?
IG: In the summer, it was . . . we had to step out and get some fresh air. And then, the customers were very much different than what I had at Perse and Company. We had lower quality furniture. It was for people that could afford less than when I was working for Perse and Company. But nevertheless, I loved them because, you know, I love customers. I love to wait on my customers.
MS: So then, after working for them, what happened that pulled you towards opening a restaurant?
IG: I had a friend that told me that there was a little grocery store which was right here by the restaurant. It was the restaurant but it was not a restaurant then – it was a grocery store. So, he told me, he said, “Why don’t you quit working there?” because he knew what I was going through with the heat, the cold and everything, and I did it for 5 years . . . he said, “Open you up a sandwich shop right here on Chenevert.” And I told him, “Well, I am not good at that.” He said, “No, you are a good cook.” But this was a warehouse area and everybody was moving out of here. The warehouses were empty. People started to move out. Businesses started leaving and it was like a ghost town here. It was a very dangerous and very depressing area. Finally, he talked me into it and I opened up a sandwich shop, and I did not do very well for the last 2 or 3 months. It used to be where people would come in, grab a sandwich and get a bag of chips, a drink, and on the go. But I got stuck with a lot of sandwiches. Nobody would come over. Nobody came out here. So, I started fixing up the place because it was a very bad looking little building. Torn windows. People did not want to come up here. So, what I did – I started landscaping. I had my friends help me paint the building, decorate it a little bit, brought in little whatnots and I had started [to get] people coming in. I would get their cards. Well, I don’t have my cards right now but I usually have my cards hanging here, and I would put them on the wall. And people would come and say, “Oh, my card is on the wall,” or stuff like that. And so, people started coming in.
I was delivering tacos to the judges, to the courthouse. People were very much trying to help me, you know, and it was word-of-mouth that I started getting all my business here.
MS: So, what was it that your friend sent you that convinced you to open up? Do you remember if there was any specific . . .
IG: He said, “You know, Irma, you are a good cook. Why don’t you work for yourself instead of working for somebody else and making money for somebody else,” which I never thought of that. To me, a job is making money. Working for somebody is making money for yourself, too. You make money for them, you make money for yourself. But I think the thought of being in the heat and then this and that, it kind of got me here. I never thought of a business being my business, you know? I just started doing this. I would work for Mr. Littman on Saturdays, so in case I failed at this, I would go back to work for Mr. Littman.
So, after my business started getting better, I told Mr. Littman, “Mr. Littman, I won’t be able to work for you Saturdays. I want to concentrate on my business,” because the business was demanding more of my time. Even though I was not open Saturday and Sunday, I had to go out and get things to decorate, things to supply the restaurant, I had to get people here to work for me, and it was kind of hard but it was very enjoyable. Walking like one step at a time.
MS: So, after getting started . . . you said that this was sort of the area of town where everyone else was leaving . . . how does it compare to what this end of downtown is like now?
IG: You know, I was raised in this area back in Second Ward. I remember as a little girl that we used to go walking to downtown. We had Sakowitz, we had Foleys, Nieman Marcus, Battlestein, and every Saturday, we would go out there and just walk around and it was fun. I mean, we loved it. We could not afford to ride the bus so we had to walk but it was close by. After I got married and left here, everything started to go down in this area. But when I started to work at Perse and Company, the neighborhood was still bad because everybody was leaving. But when I opened up the business here, I felt at home. Even though I was not in the Second Ward area because this is more like to the downtown area, and started decorating my little place, feeling at home, and I was very proud of being, well, not only a business owner because I did not think much of a business owner but trying to get people to come to your place and for them to see the difference – plants, décor, everything – that made me feel like I wanted to be here all my life and why would not anybody be here? Why would anybody not want to be here? Because it was a place to be. You could get land cheap and get a beautiful warehouse. Well, it was not a beautiful warehouse. You could make it beautiful. And that is what everybody started doing, buying warehouses. I mean, I bought property here for as little as $5 a square foot. I bought the furniture warehouse where Mr. Littman used to be.
MS: Do you own that now?
IG: Yes, I own that and I own the little place here. And then, I bought 2 pieces of property which I expanded my parking lot right here.
MS: So, when do you think things started to sort of turn around for this side of town?
IG: I think things started to turn around about one year before the stadium was built. People were already living in some of the warehouses and then we heard about the stadium being built. Of course, I never thought that a stadium . . . to me, when things are going to be done, they are done. It is like, if it is meant to be, it is meant to be. Right? And I just happened to be here at the right place. And when I saw them building the stadium and then people living in the area and people roaming around looking for property so that they could build a business or have a warehouse, it just made me feel very happy, very happy. For me, fine, right? But I am talking about our property here, all over our area which is our downtown area.
MS: So, you are still involved with the Greater East End and also the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and all sorts of things?
IG: Yes. I just recently retired from the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. I belong to the East End management. I have been on the East End Chamber of Commerce, too. And I am with the Downtown District of Mr. Bob Guillory. And the Culinary Guild. And very much involved here in the area because it keeps me oriented on what is going on.
MS: So, what sort of work does the Greater East End District do?
IG: To protect us. Keeping the neighborhood beautiful. The East End is doing very, very well. Actually, from this area, going to the East End, they have homes that are being renovated. The area is going to do very, very well, and if there is anybody that wants to buy property in this East End or Second Ward, they’d better do it now because it is really going up.
MS: As a girl growing up in the Second Ward, did you imagine that you would stay in this part of town for your entire life?
IG: I never did. You know, people, when they are little, I was like . . . we had a family that was called Mr. Felix [Hessbrook] Morales. He was the first Mexican American that had a radio station, KLVL, and they still have Morales Funeral Home on Canal. I always admired people that had money. I looked up to them because I said, well, you know, one of these days maybe, maybe, O.K., but these people helped our Mexican people and they helped the poor and they were always helping people that were needing other things, like financially needing money or help or whatever or sick, and these people are always ready for them, you know, to help, and that is what I admired about Mr. Morales. So, just recently about 3 years ago, I was able to buy his house which is 2-1/2 acres on Jefferson and Polk. And buying his house was something I never dreamed that I could afford, O.K., but I bought it because I loved the family and I wanted to restore that place just for him. I’ve got to take you to see it. It is beautiful.
MS: I would love to see it. What did you think you were going to do when you were growing up? Did you have any dreams of like what your job would be?
IG: No, you know, when I was growing up, I was always in charge of helping my mother and helping my kids, and I always felt it was a responsibility to be there for my family which is my 2 brothers, my sister and my mother. And, of course, we all work hard. My brothers worked hard. They were shining shoes on Congress. You know, when you used to have your little box shining shoes – my brothers shined shoes. My sister and I were working at the bakery and my mother was working. We were very poor but my mother always taught us to be responsible, respect people, never expect anybody to do things for you because you’ve got to go after things yourself. Don’t depend on anybody. And don’t cut corners because if you do, it is going to cost you. So, that is one thing that my mother instilled in us. Even though we did not have a college education or a degree or anything like that, I think being raised by my mother who is still alive and we take care of, was better than having a college degree because it made me want things. You know, when I see people driving nice cars, I am not jealous. You only can do what you can, right? But sometimes you want things and when you want things, you’ve got to go after it. You’ve got to work hard to get it because I think when you get it, it makes you feel good that you have accomplished something that you wanted to do.
MS: So, tell us a little more about the restaurant.
IG: O.K., I opened the restaurant in 1989 and I started getting . . . first of all, I got people from the courthouse. Then, I started getting attorneys, judges, bankers, the police department, the sheriff’s department, and it was all word of mouth that I got these people in. I made it a point all the time to be here to wait on my customers. I greet them at the door, I go to their table. Sometimes I know what they like, how they like the stuff cooked, and they bring me customers from all over the world. Like, during the summer, the teachers come with the kids and during the summer, people travel from out of town to come to Irma’s. And I have to be here because when they travel from so far and for them not . . . not that I am so great but I want to make sure that I am here to take care of them, O.K.?
MS: I read a story about when you were first starting the restaurant, you had such a problem with people stealing things that people actually stole the plant out in front of the restaurant.
IG: Yes. Well, let me tell you, when I first opened up here, we painted the building real nice and I did not have any railings or anything like that but I put beautiful Mexican pots with palm trees and stuff like that. I am from the Valley so I like palm trees. I decorated really nice. So, I would come, and I said, something is missing. All my pots were gone. I started planting little palms along the side of the restaurant. They were pulled out. That kept on for a long time. So, anyway, I got a friend of mine who is like 6 foot 7 and there was a Fiesta Ballroom right here on the corner of Franklin so they were taking those plants up there to sell them to the ladies up there at the ballroom. I did is I knew who was doing it became they came and told me. So, I got my friend and we got a play gun – you couldn’t tell the difference. I approached the two guys and I said, “Do you know what, you have been stealing the plants from me.” “Oh, no, no.” “Yes, you have.” As a matter of fact, he had a little buggy with a couple of the plants of palm trees, so I knew they were mine. So, my friend told them, he said, “If you ever do this again, we are going to come up here and get you.” So, they were like, “Oh, no, we are not going to do it anymore.” Well, that kind of stopped, you know, but he had to do that. But the thing about it is they broke in the building here 2 or 3 times. They stole my meat. I mean, they stole things, stuff like that. So, that is the reason that I have all this wrought iron all over the restaurant. When I first opened it was very, very hard to keep anything that was not attached to the building.
MS: Literally anything.
IG: Yes. I had a tub, a beautiful antique tub that had beautiful ivy – they came and took the tub. It was chained to the building and they took it. So, do you see?
MS: Do you have problems with people stealing things anymore?
IG: Not anymore. No, not anymore. I think people respect the place. Actually, most of my friends . . . I am close to the Star of Hope. Then, I have Cornell Corrections in the back. And those are my friends. They are very good neighbors. We work together. They keep an eye on me and I keep an eye on them, O.K.?
MS: You were recently awarded the James Beard Foundation, one of America’s Classic Restaurants. What did that mean for you to get that award?
IG: You know, I understood that there were other restaurants involved in Houston and, to me, they are big icon restaurants here in Houston but for them to have chosen Irma’s little Mexican restaurant in the Hood meant a lot to me because who would think that a little hole-in-the-wall restaurant would get the James Beard award? But the thing about it: it is homey and it’s got a lot of history behind it. I decorated with Mexican, New Orleans, and Warehouse District. And, to me, being here in the area is like being a leader in the community because I have not changed anything in this building. Maybe painted and stuff like that. So, to me, this is an historical place in the city of Houston.
MS: So, as we can see, you are about 2 blocks away from the Minute Maid Park.
IG: A block and a half.
MS: O.K., a block and a half away. What did that mean, to have Minute Maid Park, well, then Enron Field, come downtown?
IG: You know, I lobbied for the stadium with the late Mr. Ken Lay. I went to Austin to lobby for the stadium with Gracie Fines and Mr. Bob Yuri. What it means to me is that more people are coming to this part of town. It puts this area on the map because everybody was fading away, going away, and now, everybody is coming to this area. And hopefully soon, we are going to get the soccer team, and a lot of new businesses are opening here, and with the stadium being here, it is like winning the lottery.
MS: Did you ever imagine when you bought, what was then Perce and Company, that there would be a stadium a block and a half away?
IG: No, never. I was running my little business and I just expected to run my business, take care of my customers, but God has been bringing lots of things over to this area. So, to me, that is a big blessing. It is something that I never dreamed but it happened. It happened.
MS: It is huge. You mentioned growing up in the Valley and growing up as a Mexican American. What was it like growing up as a Mexican American in Houston?
IG: You know, in our heritage, it was poor but it was very enjoyable, you know, because you learned to appreciate things like buying a hamburger when you could not afford one or riding the bus when you had to walk. We never went on vacation. We did not dress well. We never had a vehicle. TV, we got along. That TV was in the 1950s. But you learned to appreciate life and things more. But actually, you know, when I was little, I loved my neighborhood, I loved growing up because it was our neighbors that were kind to us. It was more of a family appreciative, cooking, visiting families – things like that you never forget. The upbringing of a family and the kids that I really loved that I remember.
MS: Did you grow up cooking?
IG: Yes, because since my mother was always working, I had to learn how to cook. There was a neighbor next door that was very good to us and she would keep an eye on us while my mother was working, so she was the one more or less teaching me how to cook, how to make the rice, what to add to beans, the little extras that you add to things to make it either go longer or make it taste better.
MS: Did you ever think that your cooking experience would come to pay off this way?
IG: No, I never did, but I love cooking. I love to experiment. Cooking is like working – you always want to do things better, you want to add this to here or decorating. So, I think cooking is the same thing.
MS: The process?
IG: Yes, right. You want to please people. You know, like, when my husband was alive and my kids were little, I enjoyed cooking for them on Sundays. Breakfast, and then dinner. We had breakfast about 11 o’clock so we did not have lunch. So, we would get ready for dinner and I loved to bake cakes, caldos, soups, mole poblano, and I loved it. So, the way I treated my family at home, my husband and my kids, is the way I like to treat my customers.
MS: Did you grow up speaking Spanish at home?
IG: I did. My mother speaks very little English but she understands everything. I am grateful. You know, when I moved to Houston, I spoke no English. But going to elementary school, kindergarten, I learned real quick. So, when we had recess, they had me teaching the kids English so I would never go out to play with the kids because they said, “Irma, come and teach the kids 30 minutes for recess. Come and teach them English.”
MS: The other kids your age?
IG: Yes. So, we started learning English and pretty soon, I learned like that. It was really good. And I have not forgotten my Spanish. I can spell it, translate it, and I speak a lot of Spanish.
MS: Were most of the people are your elementary school Hispanic as well?
IG: Yes, they spoke a lot of Spanish, and we had fun learning from each other. Like cigaro/cigarette, baril/barrel, animale/animal. It is very, very easy to learn.
MS: So, what do you think are some of the changes you have seen in the Hispanic community, having been here for 60 years?
IG: Oh, wow! I have seen a lot of . . . I don’t have too many of my friends that I grew up with, that I had kept in touch with. Some of them have gone to other parts of town. I run into a couple of them. But, you know, being raised with people that are leaders in the community, that people respect, that people look up to. But, you know, getting to that spot is what makes things worth it. I mean, you have to work yourself to whoever you are or wherever you are but the thing that depresses me sometimes is to see my people, that when we get up there, then we forget where we came from. I love my people but when I see something like that or I feel something like that, it depresses me a little bit. Is that right? Because I love people that are up there and leaders. They have done a lot. But some of us, maybe we forget where we came from. I remember when my husband died, it was like he was here one minute and then the next minute, he was gone. So, we can be up here one minute and the next time, we are down. So, we always have to remember where we are and who we are.
MS: How do you avoid forgetting where you came from, as you said it?
IG: I will never change. You know what? I love being myself. I love my Mexican upbringing. I don’t care how much money I’ll have or won’t have. I will always be myself. If I changed, I would be terribly disappointed in myself. It would not be Irma.
MS: We would not want that.
IG: Never. Honestly, never.
MS: You also were recently awarded the State Farm Insurance Embrace Life Award. Tell us a little about that. What was that like?
IG: My good friend, Gracie Fines, wrote a life story on my husband’s death and the way I raised my kids as a single mother, single parent, and I never wanted to get married because, you know, the responsibility for my kids was myself, not anybody else but me. I have seen things that happen like, “You’re not my father,” or “You’re not my kids,” and this and that, so I did not want to do something like that. So, that award I got was because of bringing your kids up ________. But I have to be very grateful to Gracie because she is the one that wrote the story. She took the time and we sat down and she put it so beautifully. I was one of five ladies that was one of the winners. I was very blessed. I had never been to New York and I was nervous. I said, “Why is Irma going to New York?” you know, but I loved it.
MS: You like New York?
IG: Yes. I love the food. I love the old buildings. Central Park. The Trump Tower. The martini!
MS: But it has nothing on Houston, right? New York can’t compare.
IG: I love Houston. Houston is my heart.
MS: What do you think it is about Houston, other than being from here?
IG: Well, I love Houston because I was raised here. Here, I know, north side, Fifth Ward, midtown, downtown. I don’t know River Oaks too well or West U. but I have heard of them.
MS: Well, you’ve got a good corner of town here. This is pretty nice. Well, just a few wrap-up questions.
IG: Am I doing all right?
MS: How would you describe the spirit of Houston?
IG: The spirit of Houston is, wow, vibrating! Boom place. Great mayor. Great City Council people. And a lot of good leadership in Houston.
MS: What do you see for the future of Houston?
IG: Getting better. There is no stopping to making Houston a better place to be.
MS: What will be here in 20 years?
IG: 20 years? I probably will be dead, O.K., but Irma’s will probably be gone. I don’t know. I see myself being here forever. Even if I am not here in life, I will be here in spirit. And I want my ashes on Chenevert Street, scattered on Chenevert Street in the Hood.
MS: Is there anything else you would like to . . .
MS: Thank you so much.
IG: You are welcome.