As customers walk into Villa Mexico Cafe on Water Street, Bessie King greets each and every one of them from behind the counter with, “Hello my dears.” As they order one of the best burritos in Boston, she says again, “Sure, my dear.”
Bessie and her mom Julie moved from Mexico to the United States when she was 14 years old. At this same age, Bessie started working at the family restaurant and has been ever since. She went on to attend Northeastern University and Columbia for degrees in journalism, marketing and digital media, which she pursued for six years.
“I don’t belong in an office,” Bessie eventually realized, though she still handles marketing and social media for the restaurant.
“My heart wasn’t in it,” she says of her former corporate job, “and [Villa Mexico] put me through school. Literally, through college, through graduate school, through trips, through everything.” So Bessie returned her mother’s side at the restaurant, where her heart had belonged for so many years, and where it remains today.
“[Villa Mexico] has helped my mom, it’s helped me, it’s helped us meet so many amazing people,” she said.
What is it that puts your heart in Villa Mexico?
“I think my mom, for sure (…) she makes so many people happy. Literally, this establishment, this brick and water, is her retirement money. So for me there’s also that responsibility that she’s invested so much in me and now she’s invested so much in this business. What is she left with? So I want to see her happy. I want to see her succeed and have a place of her own and not just be known as the unique gas station burritos, but the unique Mexican food in Boston.
It sounds like a gargantuan task but it’s possible. I know her food’s stellar. I know she is such a character, that all of the ingredients are there to make this a success. So how do I make that happen? And in two years make sure that she can retire, and live off of the income that this is having, and run it for her? So that is, to me, the most important task right now.”
What was it like to move to the United States as a teenager?
“What was really a shock was the education system. I’ve been really lucky, both my parents really were very strict about education and learning before doing. So I went all my life to a private school in Mexico and there I learned English as well. But it was very very strict and much more intense than school here.
So when we moved here it was kind of a shock because I was used to having 14 subjects a week and tests every quarter and then at the end of the year. So it was really just that the education thing was kind of a shock because I had all this free time, but it helped me because then I got involved in other things. I started travelling very young, doing exchange programs at school and really occupying myself with something other than just hanging out.”
How has this background affected you as a person?
“It really taught me that, even as a child, we have responsibilities. Your parents have expectations of you and you have to respect others, your teachers, your pencils for chrissake. It is just a different level of politeness and respect towards everybody and everything that is at the core level of the education. You respect your teachers, you respect your subjects, you respect your materials. Then it develops into how are you achieving what you are supposed to do, how are you scheduling your studies, how are you studying, how are you memorizing – all of these things that really do help us comprehend better”.
Have you ever tried to make a difference in the education system?
“Through Northeastern or Colombia [my mom and I] try to donate, but specifically to scholarships which are for inner-city students. That’s what I do through Northeastern. The Latin American Student Organization became like my second home when I was there because, of course, they speak Spanish, it’s a Latin culture and everything. So we give to them specifically at the school. At Columbia I give specifically to fund inner-cities and scholarships for these students who don’t have as many resources.
Then we also mentor or tutor. I have two mentees at Northeastern and one at the Boston Chinese Neighborhood Community Association (BCNC). It is pretty much a commitment of two years, trying to get a high school student, who is also ‘fresh off the boat’ like I was, [into] college. So we try to do as much as possible, but because of our time commitment many of these things are kind of like once a month things or donations. “
Is there a reason you address all of your customers as “my dear?”
“I think it’s just like I said, the politeness in Mexico. Or if you notice, we say ‘lady’ or ‘gentleman’(…) This is something that both my grandparents and my mom have always instilled in my generation. No matter what you do, if you want to be a secretary, make sure you are the best damn secretary you can be. If you want to be a maid, make sure you are the best damn maid you want to be. If you want to be president, make sure you are the best damn president you want to be. Because you are no better than anybody else or worse than anybody else. You can only be as good as you want to be.”
“If someone is coming in here, we want to make them happy. They are not here to face something that they don’t like or face something that they disagree with. They are here to get something that they love, which is food, and that we made with a lot of effort and love. And when they leave, we want them to know that we are appreciating them, you know, that to us they are gentlemen, they are ladies, and that they are appreciated.”