Featured bartender: Lala Guerra of Conejito's Place
Lala Guerra moved to Milwaukee 25 years ago from León, Guanajuato in Mexico. After leaving a Mexican convent where she studied to be a nun, Guerra gave birth to a daughter who was born with spina bifida – a serious spinal chord birth defect – and required top-notch medical attention. Consequently, Guerra, who was only 19 at the time, moved to Milwaukee to live with her sister and find proper medical support for her infant daughter.
Not long after, Guerra found work in the kitchen at Conejito's Place, 539 W. Virginia St. A few years later, despite her initial resistance, she found herself behind the bar, and today, Guerra is a permanent fixture at the popular Mexican restaurant in Walker's Point.
OnMilwaukee.com recently stopped in for a couple of margaritas and to chat with Guerra about life, tequila and the recent loss of beloved Conejito's owner, Jose "Conejito" Garza.
OnMilwaukee.com: How many years have you worked at Conejito's?
Lala Guerra: For 25 years. I started working in the kitchen. I liked cooking. Back then, we had a very simple menu, and one day, I made a tray of chicken enchiladas in the kitchen for the workers. Mr. Conejito said, "Let's make one tray for the customers." So, I made one at 11 a.m. and by noon there were none left. Two weeks later, I made cheese and onion enchiladas. They have been on the menu ever since.
OMC: How did you get from the kitchen to behind the bar?
LG: Three or four years after I started working in the kitchen they needed help behind the bar, but I didn't want to be a bartender. I was in the convent for four years in Mexico. I was supposed to be a nun, and I wasn't supposed to be behind a bar. So I went back there, but I would only wash glasses. But so many bartenders started leaving and leaving and Mr. Conejito asked me to serve the drinks and so I did.
OMC: You were in a Mexican convent? How did you end up in Milwaukee?
LG: I had a daughter and she had spinal bifida. And my sister lived in Milwaukee. So we came here from Mexico so she could have more help.
OMC: When you moved here, did you speak English?
LG: I already spoke a little English that I learned in the convent.
OMC: When you started bartending, had you ever had an alcoholic drink before?
LG: No. I had my first shot seven years ago. One time, Mr. Conejito's cousin, who was a cook here, died. And everybody had a shot and I had a shot and I was so crazy. I can't drink tequila. One shot makes me crazy.
OMC: Now that you have been doing it for so long, is there something that you particularly like about bartending?
LG: I like making people happy. I like when a couple comes in, and they have a little problem and I can help them. Like George and Marie, they came in and they started fighting and she said, "That's it!" but I helped them make peace. I told her, "You are not enjoying your husband but think about people who are sick and in the hospital. You have to stay, say "salud" and forget. They were hugging and kissing by the end of our talking.
Another couple, I do not know their names – but that's OK because I call everybody "honey" – she wanted to get married and he did not. But I told her you do not need signed paperwork to be happy.
OMC: How have things changed since Jose Garza ("Conejito") passed away last year?
LG: He took care of his customers like family. Now they are taken care of like money. Love and material are two very different things. Mr. Conejito was there for us. He was someone who protected us and supported us all the time. He called me "My Licha." (Writes it out on napkin.)
OMC: You have a special birthday ritual for your customers, right?
LG: Yes. When it's someone's birthday I give them a shot of tequila with a (lit) match on it. I had this 45 from Mexico of the "Happy Birthday" and I would turn off the lights and play it. Now, I still play a birthday song but it's a different record. Mine got broken.
OMC: What's your favorite drink to make?
LG: Margarita. It's so easy.
OMC: What's in your margaritas?
LG: Tequila, triple sec, lemon sour and lots of love.
OMC: What do you like to do when you aren't working?
LG: I go home and I clean the house.
OMC: How much should people tip their bartenders?
LG: We have such wonderful customers here. Sometimes they try to tip too much. I say, "Put your money back. You have a wife. You have a child." I feel badly if people tip too much. $2 or $3 is enough.
OMC: What do you say to people when they drink too much and still try to order drinks?
LG: I say, "I want to see you tomorrow and the next time after that and I want to see you smiling, not in a wheelchair." Sometimes they say to me, "What do you care? It's not your business." And then I say to them, "It is my business, because who's gonna tip me when you're dead?"
Ah, Lala has been one of my favorite waitresses for over 20 years! Nice to see her recognized here - thank you!
Mmmm nothing says margarita like pre-blended!
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