Ledes from the Land of Enchantment

End of era for Santa Fe Plaza’s famed carnitas cart | Local News

There he is, walking along one of the streets surrounding the Plaza as he has done so many times over the past 40-plus years.

Nearby, the appetizing scent of grilled meat, onions, peppers and spices emanate from an old-fashioned food cart as if beckoning its owner to return so they can get down to business once again.

The man, Roque García, is something of a legendary figure on the Plaza, where he’s been cooking carnitas since 1984. Saturday was his last day.

“I’m happy, not sad,” he said of his decision to retire as a few customers lined up to peruse his menu, which lists the many magazines, newspapers and media sources that have written stories about him.

Besides The New Mexican and Washington Post, there’s the New York Times, the New Yorker, the Albuquerque Journal, the Santa Fe Reporter, USA Today and a host of others, according to a sign on the side of his cart.

How does he feel about his last days of cooking on the corner?

Roque Garcia didn’t hesitate.

“Like a champ,” he replies, his eyes and smile dancing like that of a man much younger. A man who is just starting life.

In truth, García is probably over 80 years old, although he won’t give his age. Other Plaza vendors who run booths near his Roque’s Carnitas stand say he gives them different answers when they ask. A Washington Post story about him from the summer of 1987 says he was 50 then. That would make him 85 now.

Age, he says, does not matter. He will say that since he started the food cart in 1984, he’s seen and survived three nearby lightning strikes, watched in horror as a woman was run over by a car and dealt with a tough guy with a knife who wanted to do him harm.

He endured, all for the sake of selling his world-famous carnitas, using a recipe his mother taught him decades ago as she sought to feed a big family on a limited budget.

“Carnita — meat, very small pieces, little strips, beef, not pork,” he said.

Roque (he’s a first name kind of guy) decided earlier this year to call it a day at the end of this year’s season, which was Saturday.

He smiles as he wields his spatula. “Ask me, ask me,” he says, prodding questions — some resulting in answers.

He was born up in Northern New Mexico near Los Alamos, but his family moved to Santa Fe when he was a little boy, so he likes to say he was born here.

He went to a local Catholic school as a child and teen, incurring the wrath of school officials and denying himself the chance to get a high school diploma after he fast-pitched an apple off a substitute teacher’s head, knocking the poor now out cold.

As a result, he got what he calls a “blank diploma.”

The teacher had thoughtlessly referred to Roque’s impoverished state in front of the classroom, offering to give the boy the apple because it was clear he wasn’t eating well.

From there it was off to the US Army, where he worked as a quartermaster. He said he broke his hip playing football in the service. That’s why, he added with a big laugh, “I get a disability [check].”

After that, it was back home to the West, where he began to teach himself to cook while working on an array of jobs that includes, by his telling, a stint in the uranium mines in Grants and work as a cook at a Holiday Inn in san francisco

Somewhere along the way, he worked for the county social services department in Santa Fe and found time to be an activist in the growing Chicano and civil rights movements of the 1960s.

Among other Santa Fe initiatives, he helped gain support to get speed bumps installed on some city streets, got involved with both Model Cities and Young Citizens for Action campaigns and befriended land grant activist Reies López Tijerina and supported his movement to restore communal lands to Hispano farmers and ranchers.

No, Roque did not take part in Tijerina’s historic 1967 raid on the Tierra Amarilla courthouse. According to the 2019 book Roque’s Corner: The Life and Times of Roque García and His Santa Fe, he got a late start for the event and got stopped by members of the New Mexico National Guard, who accepted Roque’s explanation that all the guns in the trunk of his vehicle were for a hunting expedition.

Around the time Roque ran for City Council in the mid-1980s, he started working the carnita cart just off the corner of the Plaza where the tall clock now stands.

He said the smoke from his stand wafted into the open doors of the nearby art museum, setting off the fire alarms and leading city officials to move him across the Plaza.

For a while, he was under the tree next to the Palace of the Governors off Washington Avenue, the one recently struck by lightning — an incident that sparks Roque to point to the two other spots where lightning struck while he was tending to his carintas.

Tragedy struck near that tree too: One day, Roque watched as a woman who had just bought a lemonade from him was struck and killed by a vehicle.

Then there was the guy with a knife who came at Roque for no explicable reason. Roque knocked him down and a passing tourist guide intervened with a scream, scaring the man off.

“I’ve seen so much,” Roque said, his eyes roaming the Plaza area and surrounding streets.

Roque, a father of three, can point out where all the now-gone downtown bars and grocery stores and pharmacies were in the area, as well as a shoe store where he once worked. Those were the days, he said, when most of the people on the Plaza were locals who came down to shop, talk, enjoy one another’s company and take in whatever activity might be popping on any given day.

Now, the vast majority of his customers are tourists, but he likes talking with them and finding out where they are from and where they are going.

Most of his old friends from the old days are gone, he said — “They’ve already kicked the bucket.”

He pauses to deal with another customer, carefully counting out the change at his cash-only business.

It has to be cash, he said. He doesn’t know how to run a credit or debit card machine.

“You think I’m going to have a credit card machine?” Roque said. “I can’t even use an iPhone.”

If he has engaged in vendor license battles with City Hall, as some say, he’s not talking about them anymore. He does think city policies allowing vendors just 45 minutes to set up on the Plaza need to be amended to give them more time. It takes time to prepare his meat, he said. And even parking a truck so he can get his stand pulled into place takes time, he added.

Liv Orovich, a busker on the Plaza, is one of the people who helps pull Roque’s cart when no one else is around. “She’s better than a man,” Roque said.

Orovich returned the compliment — sort of.

“He’s the only person I allow to sexually harass me on a daily basis and get away with it,” she said.

She is one of several locals who say there’s about to be a big hole on the Plaza where Roque’s cart once stood.

Patricia Wyatt, who has run an arts and crafts booth next to Roque’s cart for eight years, said he’s been “a huge part of the Plaza. It will be weird to have him gone. There will be an empty space where there is now life.

“He feeds the homeless, you know,” she added.

Former Santa Fe Mayor Sam Pick — who said he likes to swig Budweisers with Roque in one of the downtown bars every now and then — said the carnita king was “quite the activist as a spokesman for the Plaza vendors” when Pick was mayor in the 1970s and 1980s.

“He always stood up when he thought the vendors were being shortchanged,” Pick said.

He called Roque “a great ambassador to Santa Fe, a very good Chamber of Commerce-type guy.”

Roque says he’s not totally retiring. He plans to set up a cart selling hot dogs at a business off Siler Road, but not full time. He acknowledged he’s ready to leave the Plaza but will “miss lots and lots and lots” about it.

The best thing about all those years, all those carnitas, he said, is “the people. I served hundreds and hundreds of them, heard hundreds and hundreds of stories.”

One lingering question is left for the carnita champ of the Plaza: What will become of his beloved cart, the one the late artist Tommy Macaione helped paint and decorate?

Roque laughs at the question. A friend recently asked him the same thing.

“She said, ‘Maybe take it to the Smithsonian Museum in Washington,’ ” he says. “That’s where it belongs.”

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