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When Hilario Vargas immigrated to the United States from Mexico over 30 years ago, all he wanted was a better life for himself; an opportunity to succeed. He ended up attaining the American Dream.
Vargas traveled from San Martin Zacatepec, Mexico to Aberdeen when he was 17 years old. The oldest sibling with five sisters, it was a monumental change for Vargas, whose hometown is a small village in the southern Mexico state of Oaxaca, about 200 miles southeast of Mexico City.
“He came here with hopes of achieving what every hispanic person would like to achieve; get money and get a stable job,” said Nya Vargas, Hilario’s daughter.
He came to the U.S. by himself with no family — three of his sisters moved to Centralia last year — but he did have friends in Washington state, so he made his way to Grays Harbor County. He began working in the Christmas tree industry and before long he had climbed his way up to a managerial position. But that wasn’t his endgame.
Hilario saved every penny he could and eventually decided to buy a Mexican store, El Amigo Tienda, in Centralia on West Main Street near where Kentucky Fried Chicken is now located. The name was sold along with the store and it carried only basic items, such as spices and flour, and didn’t gain the traction he had hoped.
So Hilario relocated downtown to its current location on North Tower Avenue and added a bakery and meat counter. Business soon took off.
“His hopes and dreams for this store were to help all hispanic people feel at home, since we are a ways from home,” Nya said. “Get the things they need, their customs that they’re used to. It took a lot of work, sleepless nights. There were days when it was family time, but he couldn’t be there.”
Three years ago, Hilario and his family decided to expand from their grocery store by opening a taco truck, El Amiga, Taqueria Juliani, which sits in the small parking lot next to the store. It was a way for the family to share their regional dishes with the community.
“There were days when we were like, ‘OK, we want something that reminds us of Mexico, a snack or hispanic food,’” Nya said. “And we would have to drive all the way up to Tacoma just to get something like that. And Hilario was like, “OK, what if we make our own taco truck?’”
The taco stand started off small, both in the size of the truck and menu. The Vargas family offered a limited menu with no photos of the food items on the front of the truck like there are now. They slowly added more and more items over the years, including two types of horchata, regular and strawberry. Now they sell everything from $2 tacos, to $1.50 tamales and $8.99 burritos.
The store, meanwhile, is also thriving. Currently the closest hispanic grocery store that offers anything close to what El Amigo Tienda does is the Ramirez Mexican Store in Tumwater, 26 miles north of Centralia.
El Amigo Tienda gets most of its items imported from California and Mexico, Nya said. Hilario prepared for the COVID-19 pandemic by recognizing early there may be food shortages and ordering pallets of flour, beans, rice, toilet paper, etc. in early March to make sure his store was well-stocked.
“He ordered everything ahead before this really got bad,” Nya said. “Since we’re a pretty big building people can spread around. And sales did go up, due to the fact we’re the only local hispanic store.”
The store draws people from all heritages, including customers who emigrated from Mali in west Africa and Saint Lucia in the Caribbean who stopped by because they heard about the store from word-of-mouth.
“Since coronavirus started they’ve become our regular customers,” Nya said.
El Amigo Tienda is open seven days a week, from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. El Amigo, Taqueria Juliani is open from Wednesday to Monday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.