Juan Barron's eyes light up as he handles one of his masterpieces — a handmade 12-string bass guitar he painstakingly carved and detailed for one of his children.
Showing off his name inside the guitars and the different types of wood he used for each one, he doesn't know how many hours he spent on them. Spending time in his small shop in his spare time is a hobby, not a chore.
Barron proudly boasts that one of his guitars, if made really well by someone else, could run about $5,000, he said through his interpreter and son-in-law Angel Alfaro. But he's never sold one.
The shining, detailed guitars are his love — second only to his wife of 56 years, Prisca Barron.
Barron, 76, grew up in Salamanca, Guanajuato, with five brothers and two sisters. In Mexico, he was a musician, playing the accordion, 12-string bass guitar and other instruments, as well as singing occasionally, in a band that performed in taverns. He also made guitars, as well as violins, cellos and other wooden instruments.
Barron taught himself how to make the instruments just from looking at one and drawing his ideas on paper. When he told his friends he was going to make a guitar, they said he was crazy. It took him three years to perfect it, he said.
In 1977, at age 40, Barron moved to the United States after visiting a son living in Tyler. He said it was hard to leave his native Mexico, but he followed family.
When he moved to Tyler, he stopped playing music to work at a meat-packing plant. Working at the slaughterhouse was the first hard job he had, he said.
Mrs. Barron, 75, moved to Tyler from Mexico a few years later, and now all of his five sons and two daughters — Salvador, Arturo, Carlos, Juanita, Felipe, Alex and Silvia — live here. All have been involved in the family business over the years.
What started out as a side business — selling tacos during soccer games on Sundays — has grown into three successful restaurants.
In 1977, Barron watched soccer games at the fields near Caldwell Elementary School. A lady would bring homemade gorditas for sale until, unexpectedly, she stopped coming. Seeing an opportunity, Barron told his friends he would make tacos to sell during the games the following Sunday.
That first afternoon, he brought a small pot of his homemade tacos, selling them for $1. Barron began selling tacos every Sunday during the games out of his 1966 red Ford Falcon. The pots of tacos he sold each weekend continued to grow — from a 5-quart pot to a 40-gallon pot. Eventually, he was making them on a grill at the fields.
Barron worked at the slaughterhouse until it shut down in the early 1980s, and then focused on selling tacos. In 1986, the health department told him he would have to get a concession trailer if he wanted to continue. Equipped with concession trailers, he and his wife and children split up to sell tacos at two soccer fields, adding Lindsey Park, and did that for 10 years.
It wasn't Barron's dream to open a restaurant; he felt he was busy enough with the weekend business. But Mrs. Barron wanted to open a restaurant where their family could work and she could offer her recipes, he said.
In 1997, Barron opened Don Juan Mexican Restaurant at 1313 E. Erwin St. In Mexico, Don Juan translates to Mr. Juan. A small restaurant with 16 tables, there were only 10 items on the menu and about 10 employees, mostly family.
Two of Barron's children, Alex and Juanita, have worked for the family business from the start, while all of the children have helped out in some way.
After a few years, they expanded the restaurant and bought the parking lot across the street. In 2002, they opened Don Juan on the Square, at 113 E. Erwin St.
It was his son Alex's dream to open a seafood restaurant and sports bar, so Barron supported the idea and opened Mariscos DJ's, at 1201 E. Erwin St., two years ago.
The menu at Don Juan has grown to 42 items.
"We make everything we love in the kitchen, but listen to people's demands and create those dishes," Barron said through an interpreter. "We try to create unique plates here."
The dishes are very lean, made with boneless, skinless chicken and other lean meats, and everything is made from scratch.
"What separates us from everyone else, we do everything fresh on a daily basis. … You order something and we make it right here," he said.
His wife's sopes, made with thick, small corn tortillas, are one of Barron's favorite dishes, along with the Don Juan Plate, which consists of two enchiladas, carne asada, rice and beans.
Tacos are still the No. 1 seller, and after 36 years from when he sold the first one at the soccer field, they still sell for $1 on Wednesdays, when cars fill the downtown streets and East Erwin Street parking lot.
"We're real busy Wednesday all day here," Alfaro said.
Although all three restaurants are within a mile of each other on the same road, they all remain busy. The original restaurant sees the busiest lunch crowds, while downtown has the evening crowd, Alfaro said. And while the downtown restaurant is closed on Sundays, the other two restaurants are busy that day. Mariscos draws big crowds for its Mariachi nights on Fridays and Sundays.
The business also does a lot of catering, from small groups of 15 people to events for 300, he said.
Last year, Mrs. Barron became a U.S. citizen, and Barron followed her in May. He said he had mixed feelings about it after wanting to become a U.S. citizen for years but still wanting to hold on to his Mexican roots.
Years ago, Barron studied grammar and history at the Literacy Council of Tyler, but because he couldn't speak English, he decided not to take the test to become a citizen. Recently, he decided to try again and took the exam in May, he said.
Barron is proud that his restaurants have done so well, and that his family has been involved with running them, Alfaro said. To Barron, the family working together is the most important thing.
All three restaurants combined have about 85 employees, including about 20 family members made up of children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews.
"If it was up to him, he would open up several more chains but I don't think we have enough family members to support it," Alfaro said laughing, interpreting for Barron.
Barron said being recognized by others makes him happy. Last year, Don Juan received the Restaurant of the Year award from the Hispanic Business Alliance.
Barron plans to pass on the business to his children, but he and his wife don't have plans to retire anytime soon. They still visit all three restaurants often to make sure they are running smoothly.
"Believe me, that's the key to making sure the whole thing runs properly — their involvement," Alfaro said.
Barron gave up his hobby of making instruments to work until a few years ago, and has since made about 10 of the guitars to give to his children. He makes them out of cedar, pine and other kinds of woods he brings back from his trips to Mexico.
Everything he does, it seems, is for his family.
DREAMS COME TRUE
"I feel so great to see our dreams come true," Barron's daughter Juanita Alfaro said. "It makes me happy when people recognize the sacrifices we make."
Mrs. Alfaro, 47, came from Mexico in 1984 and helped with selling tacos on the soccer fields. When the original restaurant opened, she and her brother, Alex, ran it until Alex moved to the downtown location. Now, Alex runs Mariscos, while her brother, Carlos, and her niece, Argel Barron, run the downtown restaurant, and she and her husband of 26 years, Angel Alfaro, run the original.
Their brother, Arturo, works at all three and is in charge of maintenance and decorating all of the restaurants, down to the painted tables.
Alfaro said they work about 60 hours a week running the restaurants.
"We love what we do," he said. "When customers love your product and keep coming back, it makes you feel good."
He and his wife have four children — Angie, 26, Deby, 25, Michel, 21, and Diana, 13. The three oldest children wait tables at the original Don Juan while the youngest helps wash dishes on Sundays.
"We get along well," Alfaro said of working with his family. "It's teamwork."
While his wife is in charge of the kitchen, he is in charge of the front of the restaurant, greeting customers and running the cash register.
"We're both making sure we're doing the No. 1 thing, which is taking care of the customers," he said.