Tuesday, May 20, 2003 | 10:55 a.m.
In the dust kicked up by the wind and the 18-wheelers carrying rock and dirt, Erica Tarin's easy smile lit up the lunch hour for an arriving group of construction workers, most of whom, like herself, had come from Mexico in search of something better.
The workers were building 74 houses on 10 acres of Henderson desert not far from Warm Springs and Pecos roads. Tarin was serving up tacos, burritos and tamarind soda from a silver truck known as a lonchera.
The scene is increasingly common in recent years.
The Las Vegas Valley's growth is fueled by the sweat of Hispanics, mostly Mexicans, as immigrants raise houses and buildings from nada. And the trucks, driven by Hispanic women, mostly Mexican, move from site to site to sell the workers food from the land they all left behind.
The result, according to interviews with these men and women, is an unusual blend of the American dream lived out by immigrants mixed with an affirmation of self, via thousands of tortillas filled with meat, vegetables and chile. It's a growing trend, according to the Las Vegas business license office, which has seen the numbers increase in recent years.
"I feel good contributing to the economy of Hispanics like myself, so that we can all progress," said Jose Martinez in Spanish Thursday at the future site of Eldorado Homes, off Topaz Street and Warm Springs Road. Martinez had just rolled in with a truckload of dirt to grab a bite.
A block away and a day later, at another construction site nearby, several workers explained what eating tortillas for lunch meant to them.
"The thing is, Mexican people are always going to look for their roots, their culture, if at all possible," said Javier Robles in Spanish Friday, after heating up his mouth with a fried jalapeno that Tarin sold to him moments earlier.
Another worker piped in.
"To tell you the truth, we don't like McDonald's or Burger King. It's not ours and it makes us sick," Miguel Angel Garcia said.
Both Tarin and her colleague Kathy Ruiz, whose hands put together the tacos from inside the truck, said their job was more than a job.
"You feel like you're giving something to eat to your brother, to your family," said Tarin, who came to Las Vegas from Chihuahua five years ago and has been working on the lonchera ever since.
"These are your people, and you get hit with a kind of nostalgia," she said.
Ruiz, originally from Guadalajara, said she ran into a cousin at a construction site whom she hadn't seen in 10 years.
"What a surprise," she said. "I said, 'What are you doing here?' "
The two women start their day before dawn and finish about 3 p.m., seven days a week.
Ruiz, who has been flipping tortillas in the trucks for 14 years -- the last four in Las Vegas -- has been able to buy herself a house with her salary.
Tarin hopes to be able to do the same soon.
Both say competition has gotten tough in recent years, as more and more loncheras line the roads of the valley. To claim the dusty site off Warm Springs where dozens of houses will spring up over the next year, Tarin and Ruiz had to wait every day for two weeks while workers began arriving -- without selling a thing.
"I didn't want to lose the site to another truck," Tarin said.
Jim Difiore, Las Vegas business services manager, said that licenses issued to sell food from trucks went up from 58 in 2000 to 72 by the end of April 2003.
The trucks also have to be inspected by the Clark County Health District, and the workers on the trucks have to obtain health and work cards, he said.
The number has gone down a bit in recent months, which Difiore said could be caused by a slight dip in construction.
Tarin said that many Hispanics had gotten into the business after seeing others do well.
"It's like a fever," she said.
At the end of each day Tarin and Ruiz leave their lonchera in a huge North Las Vegas warehouse run by Joseph and Gerrie Aguirre. The husband and wife team owns four trucks and rents parking spaces to 50 more. They also have a complete commissary to supply the dozens of trucks.
Joseph Aguirre, born in East Los Angeles to a Mexican father and a second-generation Mexican mother, met his wife about eight years ago, when he was working on the construction site of Green Valley Ranch Station Casino.
"She pulled up in a truck and went straight to my heart," he said.
His future wife, also of Mexican descent, then owned two trucks. He left iron work and teamed up to build up a business that still has space for 50 more trucks, Joseph said.
Joseph said many of the ma and pa teams who own the trucks that park and fill up with supplies at his warehouse are recent immigrants, some without their papers in order.
"We're the only ones who speak English here," he said.
The business has allowed him to buy a house for his family, which includes five children. He also said the business has let him get to know the culture of his parents and grandparents.
"I talk with these people and it's a way of getting something back," Joseph said.
"I hear how they talk, how they grew up, where they came from."
One guy had a business selling agave juice to the loncheras. He told Joseph about his daughter's First Communion. The celebration included slaughtering five goats for a large, outdoor meal.
"I didn't know about that whole ceremony before, the religious part, the preparation of the meat.
"And that's my culture."