NEWPORT BEACH — The story of Salvador and Margarita Avila began long before they started the Avila's El Ranchito restaurant chain in Southern California.
The two met in the small colonial town of Guanajuato, Mexico, in the 1940s. She was 21 and he was 22. By the standards of the time, it was considered late for someone to marry in their early 20s.
At the end of April, the couple celebrated their 65th wedding anniversary, but 87-year-old Salvador was hospitalized for more than a week in the days leading up to the milestone. Family members worried that he wouldn't be able to celebrate the occasion April 26.
Salvador told the priest at his hospital bed to give him his last rites, that if he was to die, he just wanted to be beside his wife, daughter Maria Elena Avila said.
Salvador recovered, and was able to come home days before the anniversary. He and his 86-year-old wife celebrated it quietly, holding hands and eating dinner together.
The early years
The beginnings of their relationship were far from conventional, at least by American standards. Dating for Salvador and Margarita followed Guanajuato tradition, with the local women walking in a circle around the large gazebo in the town square. Each was accompanied by a family member.
Men would buy a gardenia from a flower vendor and give it to the woman they had their eye on, said Maria Elena, who runs the Costa Mesa location of El Ranchito on Placentia Avenue.
The two never kissed before their wedding on April 26, 1946. Margarita remembers Salvador as being very forward for touching a lock of her signature curly hair before the marriage. Guanajuato conventions at the time forbade most contact between couples.
Their wedding was modest, with just a few relatives from both families present. The two came from humble beginnings and, following tradition, Margarita wore all black on her wedding day. Black was reserved for women of little monetary means; only women of material wealth wore white.
The two wasted no time in starting a family and considered seeing a specialist after not conceiving three months into their marriage. But eventually they began their family with twins, then went on to have four more children.
In 1958, the Avilas moved to the U.S., and Salvador began working 14-hour days at various factories in Southern California.
In 1966, the first El Ranchito opened its doors in Huntington Park, and the running of the restaurant involved the whole family. The boys helped mamá chop vegetables in the kitchen, the girls bused tables after school.
In 1972, the family opened a Long Beach location, and shortly afterward moved into Orange County, where they've been for more than 40 years.
The Avilas have 14 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. The El Ranchito chain has 11 locations, each run by a family member.
'She assures the way'
Now Margarita and Salvador live on Spyglass Hill, with most relatives within a five-minute drive. Salvador makes weekly visits to the farmers market, where he's well-known among vendors, and buys Margarita orchids. Few counters and tables around the home are without one.
Mondays at the Avila home are chicken soup day, and there's an "open door policy" where family members can wander in at anytime for meals or just to visit. The door to the family home is always open.
Although they have been away from Mexico for 53 years, daily life for the Avilas is steeped in tradition.
Each day, a large meal is served at 9 a.m. and then again at 3 p.m., following a Mexican routine. Christmas cooking with the tías (aunts), who are scattered throughout Southern California, is an annual occurrence, according to Maria Elena.
Margarita is known for her deep love and has a reputation among the family as a sas¿n — someone with that special touch for making wonderful dishes. Salvador is known for his strength, work ethic and determination, Maria Elena said.
The two have had many close calls where family members worried that they wouldn't see 65 years together.
When asked their secret to a happy marriage, Salvador replied without a moment's hesitation: "La mujer!" The woman. "She assures the way," he said.
Margarita's answer was a bit different: "Patience. A lot of work. It's not easy."
She said the other key to their success was "a lot of affection toward the other person."