There he is, walking down one of the streets surrounding the Plaza as he has done so many times over the past 40+ years.
Nearby, a mouth-watering aroma of grilled meat, onions, peppers and spices wafts from an old-fashioned food cart as if inviting its owner back so he can get back to business.
The man, Roque García, is something of a legendary figure in the Plaza, where he’s been cooking carnitas since 1984. Saturday was his last day.
“I’m happy, not sad,” he said of his decision to retire as a few customers lined up to browse his menu, which lists the many magazines, newspapers and media sources who have written articles about him.
Outraged The New Mexican and Washington Postthere is the New York Timesthe New Yorkerthe Albuquerque Journalthe Santa Fe Reporter, USA today and a host of others, according to a sign on the side of his cart.
What does he think of his last days cooking around the corner?
Roque García did not hesitate.
“Like a champ,” he replies, his eyes and smile dancing like those of a much younger man. A man who has just started his life.
In truth, García is probably over 80, although he doesn’t give his age. Other Plaza vendors who run stalls near his Roque’s Carnitas stand say he gives them different answers when asked. A Washington Post story about him from the summer of 1987 says he was 50 then. That would make him 85 now.
Age, he says, doesn’t matter. He will say that since he started the food cart in 1984, he has seen and survived three nearby lightning strikes, watched in horror as a woman was run over by a car, and dealt with a badass with a knife that wanted to hurt him.
He endured, all of this to sell his world famous carnitas, using a recipe his mother taught him decades ago when she was looking to feed a large family on a limited budget.
“Carnita – meat, very small pieces, small strips, beef, not pork,” he said.
Roque (that’s a type of first name) decided earlier this year to call it a day at the end of this year’s season, which was Saturday.
He smiled, brandishing his spatula. “Ask me, ask me,” he says, raising questions – some leading to answers.
He was born in northern New Mexico near Los Alamos, but his family moved to Santa Fe when he was a little boy, so he likes to say he was born here.
As a child and teenager, he went to a local Catholic school, angering school officials and robbing himself of the chance to graduate from high school after promptly throwing an apple at his head. a substitute teacher, knocking out the poor nun.
As a result, he earned what he calls a “blank degree.”
The teacher had made reference to Roque’s state of poverty in front of the class, offering to give the apple to the boy because it was clear he was not eating well.
From there he went to the US Army, where he worked as a quartermaster. He said he broke his hip playing football on the ward. That’s why, he added with a great laugh, “I have a handicap [check].”
After that, he was back home in the West, where he began learning to cook while working a range of jobs that he says includes a stint in the Grants uranium mines and working cook at a Holiday Inn in San Francisco.
Somewhere along the way, he worked for the Santa Fe County Department of Social Services and found time to be an activist in the growing Chicano and civil rights movements of the 1960s.
Among other Santa Fe initiatives, he helped garner support to install speed bumps on some city streets, got involved with the Model Cities and Young Citizens for Action campaigns, and befriended the land-grant activist Reies López Tijerina and supported his movement to restore communal lands in Hispano. farmers and breeders.
No, Roque did not participate in the historic 1967 Tijerina raid on the Tierra Amarilla courthouse. According to the 2019 book Roque’s Corner: The Life and Times of Roque García and His Santa Fehe took a late start for the event and was arrested by members of the New Mexico National Guard, who accepted Roque’s explanation that all the weapons in the trunk of his vehicle were for shipment of hunting.
Around the time Roque ran for city council in the mid-1980s, he started working the carnita cart just off the plaza where the big clock now stands.
He said smoke from his stand was entering the open doors of the nearby art museum, setting off fire alarms and prompting city officials to move it to the other side of the Plaza.
For a while, he was under the tree next to the Washington Avenue Governors’ Palace, the one recently struck by lightning – an incident that prompts Roque to point to the other two places where lightning struck as he walks took care of his carintas.
Tragedy also struck near this tree: one day, Roque saw a woman who had just bought him a lemonade being hit and killed by a vehicle.
And then there was the guy with the knife who came to Roque for no explainable reason. Roque knocked him down and a passing tour guide intervened with a scream, startling the man.
“I saw so many things,” Roque said, his eyes scanning the Plaza district and the surrounding streets.
Roque, a father of three, can point to where all the now-defunct downtown bars, grocery stores and pharmacies were, as well as a shoe store where he once worked. It was the time, he said, when most of the people in the Plaza were locals who came to shop, talk, enjoy each other’s company and take part in whatever activities might arise. on a given day.
Today, the vast majority of his customers are tourists, but he likes to chat with them and find out where they are coming from and where they are going.
Most of his old friends from the past are gone, he said — “They’ve already kicked the bucket.”
He stops to tend to another customer, carefully counting the change in his cash-only business.
It must be money, he said. He doesn’t know how to operate a credit or debit card machine.
“Do you think I’m going to get a credit card machine?” Roque said. “I can’t even use an iPhone.”
If he got into vendor license battles with the town hall, as some say, he doesn’t talk about it anymore. He thinks the city’s policies allowing vendors just 45 minutes away to set up shop in the Plaza need to be changed to give them more time. It takes time to prepare its meat, he says. And even parking a truck so he can set up his stand takes time, he added.
Liv Orovich, a busker in the Plaza, is one of the people who helps pull Roque’s cart when no one else is around. “She’s better than a man,” Roque said.
Orovich returned the compliment – sort of.
“He’s the only person I allow to sexually harass me on a daily basis and get away with it,” she said.
She is one of many locals who say there is going to be a big hole in the square where Roque’s cart once stood.
Patricia Wyatt, who ran an arts and crafts stall next to Roque’s cart for eight years, said it was “an important part of the Plaza. It’ll be weird that he’s gone. There will be an empty space where there is now life.
“He feeds the homeless, you know,” she added.
Former Santa Fe Mayor Sam Pick – who said he enjoys drinking Budweisers with Roque at one of the downtown bars every once in a while – said the king of carnita was “all right”. made the activist as a spokesperson for the Plaza Vendors’ when Pick was mayor in the 1970s and 1980s.
“He always stood up when he thought the sellers were wronged,” Pick said.
He called Roque “a great ambassador for Santa Fe, a really good kind of chamber of commerce.”
Roque says he’s not fully retiring. He plans to set up a cart selling hot dogs at a business off Siler Road, but not full time. He acknowledged that he was ready to leave the Plaza but that he “will be missed a lot and a lot and a lot” about it.
The best thing about all these years, all these carnitas, he said, is “the people. I’ve served hundreds and hundreds of them, heard hundreds and hundreds of stories.
One lingering question remains for the Plaza’s carnita champion: what will become of his beloved cart, the one the late artist Tommy Macaione helped paint and decorate?
Roque laughs at the question. A friend recently asked him the same thing.
“She said, ‘Maybe take it to the Smithsonian Museum in Washington,’ he said. ‘That’s where it belongs.’