A big part of Trina Moralez’s story is unrelentingly hard, hot work and crushing tragedies, but in the end it is a triumphant one about faith in God and the value of family, friends and loyal employees.
Born Trinidad Acosta 74 years ago at Ojinaga, Chihuahua, Mexico, Moralez came to the U.S. without knowing English and worked at two Odessa linen companies after her father Cornelio was murdered at Fort Stockton.
One of 12 children, she watched her mother Dolores clean houses and sew to support the family and she credits Karen Hilliard of Potpourri Catering for teaching her the business that would bring her success starting with the 1993 opening of La Margarita Mexican Food at 1301 S. Grant Ave. She had studied accounting at a commercial college in Ojinaga, across the border from Presidio.
Born at Terlingua, Texas, Cornelio was a cowboy who had also worked at a ranch near Lovington, N.M. “Daddy would live in Mexico for half a year and go back to the U.S. to make money,” Moralez said.
“Mother did a lot of cleaning work till she was 89. Mickey Jones, who is a lawyer, and his wife Margaret helped me get a $175,000 loan from Billie Hubbard at NCNB (the forerunner of Bank of America) that I paid off in four years,” she said, explaining that she had made friends with the Joneses while cleaning Mickey’s and Margaret’s home for 16 years.
“I have been working hard all my life and I don’t owe anybody,” Moralez said, adding that representatives of the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts 10 years ago spent a week here examining her books because her profits appeared to be too high, then complimented her for an exemplary operation.
“The restaurant business is hard. To me, the hardest part is to control your money. I always pay my bills and I pay the governor and the government for my taxes. I make sure I have plenty of money to pay my employees. In all these years, I have never been late on my paychecks.
“Karen Hilliard was a real nice lady. She taught me food quality and to be nice with people. I learned English from her and from reading the Odessa American. I like the people in Odessa. They are good people, so friendly. It’s a good place to be.”
Moralez and her husband Augustin “Gus,” who retired after 28 years as a welder for J&J Steel, have two children, Denise Carbajal and Danny, and three grandchildren, DeAnna and Devin Flores and Darion Carbajal. Their 14-year-old grandson Nikolas, the son of Alma Paz and Danny, died in a May 3, 2012, car wreck. They are members of St. Joseph’s Catholic Church.
The restaurateur said City Parks and Recreation Director Steve Patton put a life-size statue of a young teenage boy driving a golf ball just north of La Margarita’s front door in memory of Nikolas, who was a student at Bonham Junior High. “He was a sweet boy,” she said.
“He liked people. It has been hard. He was like my son. Every morning when I open the door, I say, ‘Good morning, Nikolas, I love you.’ And at night, I say, ‘Goodbye, Nikolas.’”
There are photos of the boy on a bulletin board in the entranceway along with a poem, “As I Sit in Heaven,” by April Waldrep.
Moralez had a year’s false start with a Clements Street restaurant called Las Palmas and she continued her janitorial service for two years after opening La Margarita, sometimes working till 1 or 2 a.m. She was putting in 120 hours a week in the late 1990s and has cut back to 45 or 50. She is the only person at the restaurant who works over 32 hours a week.
Moralez is usually the sole operator of her catering business, which brings in 35 percent of her money, and before the pandemic her annual gross revenues were $1.5 million. That dropped to $1.3 million last year, when she kept paying her 19 employees during a two-month closure, and she said business has been slow to rebound because people got used to staying at home. She funds retirement accounts for her employees. Her husband sometimes helps at the restaurant.
“I wanted everybody to come back, work hard and be happy,” she said. “I like cooking and I love the people. I love my restaurant. I treat my employees like family. I don’t see any difference in anybody. Thanks be to God, I have been real blessed. I have good people working for me. The people like me and I like all the people.”
La Margarita’s gets its weekly supply of food from Carl Miles Food Services of Odessa and Sysco of West Texas in Lubbock and the leftovers are taken to needy families by the employees, the longest-serving of whom are cooks Laura Martinez and Maria Maldonado, who’ve been there for 14 and 24 years respectively, dishwasher Silvia Madrid and waitresses Alicia Carrasco, Nereida Venegas, Marienela Billings, Sandy Aguilar, Amanda Steele and Susanna Hernandez.
Waitress Dorothy Baker and dishwasher Ascension Mata retired two years ago after both had worked for 26 years.
As a family, the Moralez’s favorite hobby is playing golf. Most of them play and Denise excelled to the point that she went to the University of North Texas on a golf scholarship. “I thought Denise was going to be a Nancy Lopez,” Trina said, referring to the 64-year-old Torrance, Calif., native who won 48 Ladies Professional Golf Association tournaments.
“But for some reason she came to Odessa to marry and have kids. She is still a good golfer.”
Attorney Dan Hollmann said Moralez “works harder than anyone and loves what she does.
“Trina cares about her employees, her business and the community and she is one of the finest people I know,” said Hollmann, adding that he often has the plate of green chile and various meats that’s named for him. “She is at the restaurant when it opens and when it closes and she doesn’t send out other people for the catering. She is there, too.”
The lawyer, a fellow Catholic and one of Jones’s partners at Atkins, Hollmann, Jones, Peacock, Lewis & Lyon, said Moralez “has had to have faith to get her through because there is nothing easy about that business.”
Jones said Moralez “is the epitome of somebody who brought themselves up by the bootstraps because she didn’t have anything to start with.
“Margaret and Trina became friends and we helped her after the landlord at Las Palmas wanted $27,000 for one year’s rent in advance,” Jones said. “La Margarita took off and we sponsored her for the Chamber’s Entrepreneur of the Year in 2008. She had started cleaning houses and offices and she became very successful.”
The poem reads,
“As I sit in Heaven and watch you every day,
I try and let you know with signs I never went away.
“I hear you when you’re laughing and I watch you as you sleep.
“I even place my arms around you to calm you as you weep.
“I see you wish the days away, begging to have me home,
“So I try to send you signs to let you know you’re not alone.
“Don’t feel guilty that you have life, which was denied to me.
“Heaven is truly beautiful, just you wait and see.
“So live your life, laugh again, enjoy yourself, be free.
“Then I’ll know with each breath you take,
You’ll be taking one for me.”