Munchies

Nation of Immigrants: A Slice of Guatemala in Small-Town Nebraska

"There is a lot of religion in Schuyler," says Marlon Lugo, the owner of Garnacha's House. "They just order to-go. I'm fine with that."

by Dave Simpson
Mar 4 2017, 12:00am

All photos by Nick Gomer

This is the fourth in a series of articles featuring immigrant- and refugee-owned restaurants  in enclaves located outside of major US cities.

Driving into Schuyler, Nebraska from the northeast at dusk, I stopped on empty roads waiting for long freight trains to pass. It was mostly emptiness and when I did cut through small towns they were dark. I knew that Schuyler—a city of 6,200 people, 70 miles west of Omaha—was 65 percent Latino, according to the 2010 Census, and that 12.6 percent of the residents were born in Guatemala. Yet I hadn't been able to find a Guatemalan restaurant online and the dark streets and silhouettes of fading industrial skylines in the towns leading up to Schuyler (pronounced Skyler) were discouraging.

One quadrant of the little city was breathing. In the old section, a few cobblestone streets were lit by the glow of open storefronts—restaurants serving a range of simple Central American dishes. There was a woman in front of a pupusa-speckled griddle laughing harder than I've seen anyone laugh in 2017.

A heavily trafficked train track splits the town in two. An elevated highway mounts the tracks and holds the city together. At the library, which sits in the shadows of the highway, I asked a librarian, a white woman, if there were any restaurants in town owned by Guatemalan immigrants. She asked her Latina colleague who recommended a "pool hall with the giant chicken on top of it."

I crested the elevated road and sat at the city's only stoplight for a minute, heading toward the giant chicken.

The giant chicken outside Garnacha's House. All photos by Nick Gomer.

"It's not a pool hall! It's a restaurant!" insisted Marlon Lugo, the owner of Garnacha's House, once I arrived. "There's only two pool tables! There used to be another but I got rid of it to make room for more seating. There are people who don't like the pool table. There is a lot of religion in Schuyler. They just order to-go. I'm fine with that."

In 1998, Lugo left Zacapa, Guatemala at 13 years old. His father was murdered (he did not want to talk about it) and his mother had travelled to the United States eight years earlier to support the family. He crossed all of Mexico alone and, with the help of a coyote, passed into the United States near Brownsville, Texas. He was detained almost immediately. The first meal he ate in the United States was a sandwich from a vending machine purchased by a man whose leg was chained to a table.

Because he was a minor, he was released into his mother's custody. She and a friend raced to the border from Schuyler where she, like most immigrants in the city, had taken work at the Cargill beef-processing plant.

Schuyler, Nebraska.

In the 1990s, Schuyler had just over 4,000 residents but was, like many Rust Belt cities to the east, bottoming out as jobs moved overseas. At the same time, meatpacking plants were moving from city centers to rural areas, closer to the farms. The work is hard and the wages are low so the companies sought laborers from outside of the United States. In Schuyler, Lugo said, it was first Mexicans, then Guatemalans, Salvadorans, Peruvians, Africans, and Cubans. Lines of trailers, filled with new laborers, are visible in the distance from the main drag, where Lugo's restaurant sits.

Monday through Friday, Lugo wakes up at 5 AM and drives to his job as an engineer tech, where he designs shunts for electric cars. If he doesn't have to work overtime, he's out by 2:30 PM and he drives to the restaurant to help out until 5 PM. Then he heads to the Cargill plant, where he manages a dozen employees in the laundry department. He started working in the laundry department as soon as he arrived in Schuyler. He held onto the job while he was in high school, where he met his wife, while he got his associate's degree, while he opened a thriving but short-lived food truck downtown ("I got bored"), and while he dumped tens of thousands of dollars into a failing clothing retail store. These days he gets out of Cargill between midnight and 2 AM.

Marlon Lungo with his take on a Philly cheesesteak.

His paychecks go right into the restaurant.

"I'm here every day. I don't have time off. I've been losing money but it's not like I'm going down—I'm starting like a little plane, you know," Lugo said, gesturing with a slowly inclining hand. "I'm going like this: little by little."

The restaurant is named after a Guatemalan dish—a thick, fried corn tortilla topped with pork, red sauce, and pickled cabbage.

Some of his Guatemalan customers come from an hour away to get his Guatemalan-style refried beans.

"Nobody else sells them here. Nobody," he said. "The flavor is different. They get extra to-go. They sell them in cans but you can taste the flavor of the can when you cook it."

Garnachas.

His michelada is also a local legend, served in a giant glass goblet for $5. Lugo once sold 130 in a night.

He stole his beef soup recipe from his mother, who still works at Cargill. He often buys his beef from Cargill's scalehouse.

"The soup, she likes it to be clear. It has to be clean," he said. "So she boils the meat and then she's watching it because when it starts boiling, she wants to see all the fat or blood come up. She skims it. She cleans it off. Let it sit for a little bit. Then she starts doing it again. She cleans it again, after she knows it's clean and the meat is almost cooked. Then she starts putting in cilantro. Potatoes. Yucca root. Carrots. And some other vegetables I don't know how to say in English."

Inside Garnacha's House.

Lugo's wife is from El Salvador and she makes the Salvadoran dishes, like the pupusas and their popular chicken sandwich. His only employee is from Mexico and she handles the tacos and the Mexican breakfast.

Non-Latino customers love his Philly cheesesteak.

"It's way better," Lugo told me.

Better than in Philly? "Oh hell yeah."

It goes like this: Thinly sliced steak, mozzarella, a spice that his friend brings in from California, french fries, onions, and a chimichurri sauce mixed with mayonnaise that's also soaked into the bread—a technique he learned from watching the women cooking in the markets when he was a kid back in Guatemala.

Lugo can't remember the name of the person he voted for in the presidential election but he thinks it was the Libertarian candidate. He didn't like either of the major party candidates.

With the exception of some bullying in high school, Schuyler has been good to him, Lugo said. Still, the town has had its growing pains, according to a 2004 study from the University of Nebraska. Though a majority said they were happy, longtime residents expressed frustration over the pressure the influx of immigrants were putting on the housing stock. Many of those residents perceived that crime was on the rise.

I reached out to members of the all-white city council for comment but did not hear back, though at least some members have defended the importance of immigration in the past. I asked Lugo, who has a dry charisma, if he'd ever run for office.

"No time," he said. "Are they going to pay me?"

The menu.

After Lugo's father was killed, he inherited some land in Guatemala. He flipped that land for undeveloped waterfront property in his home country.

"After this starts paying off, I got plans," he said. "I want to open another business."

Would he leave the restaurant? Leave Schuyler for Guatemala?

"This takes a lot of work," he said. "I'm always thinking of something. Rentals is just take the money and go. I want to get into rentals. Water stuff. Jetskis."