Note: The details of the following story are derived from “Acapulco Joe’s: One Proud Gringo” by Vesle Fernstermaker, as published on the back of the menus at Acapulco Joe’s Mexican Restaurant.
The story of Joe Rangel, founder of Indianapolis' Acapulco Joe's Mexican Restaurant, is one of a Mexican immigrant who had the courage to achieve the American dream. After unsuccessfully crossing the Rio Grande seven times and ultimately landing in a U.S. prison, Rangel "mistakenly" found himself in Indianapolis, where he founded what remains one of Indy's most popular Mexican dining establishments.
Born into poverty in 1925 in a small town in Mexico, Joe went to extremes to live the American dream, and his story is both an inspiration and a reminder of the privileges most Americans take for granted.
At the age of 13, Joe began what was to become a long journey. He did a variety of odd jobs along the way -- from working as a mortician’s assistant to working for a meager 37.5 cents an hour as a stoop laborer in the fields – but he never gave up his dream of living a better life in the land of promise.
Making Progress -- with a Prison Stop
Joe crossed the Rio Grande six times, only to be sent back to Mexico every time. On his seventh try, he was sentenced to a 9-month prison term in a Missouri penitentiary. After his release, he walked seven nights (to avoid immigration officials) to Corpus Christi, Texas, guided by the lights on the highways and the railroads. There he got a job as a busboy in a Greek restaurant, working 12 hours a day for $50 a week until a friend told him about an opening for a waiter at a restaurant in Minneapolis. Joe headed for the bus station, where a misunderstanding changed the course of his life. He asked for a ticket to Minneapolis, and wound up with a ticket to Indianapolis instead.
"Beautiful Country, Wonderful People"
In Indianapolis, he found a rundown diner for sale on Illinois Street and set his heart on buying it. To his amazement, a friend offered to loan him the $5,000 he needed to buy it – that unsecured loan was just one of the many things that would make Joe shake his head in disbelief and say, “Beautiful country, wonderful people.”
Such were the humble beginnings of what was to become one of Indy’s favorite diners: Acapulco Joe’s. Not only did Joe’s friend get his money back , but Joe took him food nearly every day to show his gratitude.
Pursuing U.S. Citizenship
Joe’s next mission was to become an American citizen. He returned to Mexico to sort out his status, and found that it would cost him $500 to “fix his papers.” He sought help from his friends in Indianapolis who promptly obliged. Again Joe was said to have shook his head saying, “Wonderful country, wonderful people.”
In 1971 the day finally came that the United States claimed Joe as a citizen. He hung a large sign outside the café that read, “Hear ye! I, Joe Rangel, became a U.S. citizen. Now I’m a proud Gringo and can raise hell about my taxes like any other citizen. Come in and share my bliss.” Hundreds of people did just that, toasting to the tune of 15 cases of champagne.
The Legend Lives on
Joe passed away in 1989, but Acapulco Joe’s lives on. To this day, a recording of Kate Smith singing “God Bless America” is played religiously every day at noon. The song expresses the feelings in the heart of Joe Rangel, a man who dearly loved his adopted country and was willing to do whatever it took to make it his own.