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For founder of renowned Oaxacan restaurant, there's no place like home

Fernando Lopez is an immigrant success story.

He arrived in Southern California 20 years ago on a tourist visa and decided to stay. Soon after, he started selling food products door to door and on street corners to homesick “paisanos.”

He turned that into a mini empire. At the height of his career, he ran six restaurants, including the Zagat-rated Guelaguetza. He also published a newspaper and founded a Oaxacan expatriate organization. He obtained legal residency years ago.

And despite all his success over so many years, Lopez never got over the common immigrant yearning for home.

"As Oaxacans we're very rooted in our land, food, culture, and music. And that's helped us endure the hardships of living in this country," he said. "I've always wanted to return to Mexico."

On Sunday, he satisfied that yearning when he got on a plane and moved back to Oaxaca.

Fernando Lopez  and his kids describe Oaxaca in terms familiar to Irish or Italian immigrants: a culture that goes back thousands of years and a countryside with varied climates, geography, and food.

Oaxaca’s rich food heritage is on display daily on Guelaguetza’s stove. During a visit to the Koreatown restaurant last week, seafood soup simmered, red mole bubbled, and chapulines -- Oaxacan’s signature fried grasshoppers -- browned to a crisp.

Lopez, his son said,  created a Oaxacan bubble in Los Angeles. He spent so much of his time among Oaxacans that he never learned much English.

“A lot of his friends are the same people he grew up with,” said his son, also named Fernando Lopez. "His mechanic for a long time was his childhood friend. So even though he was here his heart has always been in Oaxaca.”

Guelaguetza is an L.A. institution. It's received commendations from city officials -- even Matt Groening made Lopez an homage. In the entrance is a framed hand-drawn drawing of Homer Simpson exclaiming: "Mmm Guelaguetza!"

But when the economy turned four years ago, it nearly sank Lopez’s American Dream. The business was overextended. Keeping all the restaurants open would have sank the whole business. So he sat his kids down and told them what he had to do.

“It’s hard for any person to lose everything, twice,” said his daughter Bricia Lopez. “In Mexico he went through this whole devaluation, came here was able to fulfill his dream -- was a millionaire at one point -- and then lost everything again.”

Lopez closed or sold all except the flagship Guelaguetza on Olympic Blvd. near Normandie Ave. His kids, all college educated, began to take over the finances, marketing, and day-to-day operations.

Hitting bottom financially made Lopez reexamine his life.

“I spent too much time working -- and I’d neglect my kids and my wife," he said. "We had family problems."

He became a born again Christian and started talking seriously about moving back home to Oaxaca. At first, his daughter thought it was the same old song she’d heard from her dad growing up. He'd say that, but he never did it.

“Up until last month I didn’t believe he was leaving," she said.

But during his last visit to Oaxaca, he brought back photos of the restaurant he's building. She was stunned.

"Oh my God, you’re really leaving." she remembers telling him. "And he said, ‘yeah.’"

After decades of feeding Oaxacan’s nostalgia for home in Los Angeles, Lopez is going to turn it around. He’s moving to Oaxaca to open a burger joint for Oaxacans homesick for a good, Southern California-style hamburger.

“He said, that’s what I’m going to do, I’m going to bring this food back for them because they miss it," Bricia Lopez said. "And I think about it and I think, of course, my dad’s a genius, of course it’s going to work.”

It’ll be called Pink Burger, because the pronunciation translates well into Spanish. Fernando Lopez said he also wants to bring U.S. cleanliness standards and entrepreneurship to Oaxaca.

It’s a dream that Lopez’s wife, Maria de Jesus Monterrubio, supports -- but doesn’t share. Her eyes well up as soon as she's asked about leaving.

“Yes, it’s hard,” she said. "I’m leaving behind my kids, my granddaughter."

She's following her husband to support his dream, like she did nearly two decades ago, but this time she’s not staying.

She’ll split her time between L.A. and Mitla. She's already bought a return ticket to Los Angeles this summer.

It’s not just her granddaughter that's stopping her. Unlike her husband, she feels American.

Monterrubio is two years from qualifying for U.S. citizenship and she can’t wait to cast her first ballot as an American citizen.

"I want to elect the government because in this country your vote counts. It's not like in Mexico."