By Jack Jurgens / El Inde
On a Monday in early February, Juan Antonio Suazo, co-owner of Taquerias Juanitos, had just woken up to the early morning sun shining on his face. For Suazo, it signaled that work needed to be done, and another day began, another fight for survival. It is the only thing he has ever known throughout his life: fighting. This same strategy was the key to turning his family’s local Michoacán restaurant into a staple for the community of Tucson.
Arriving at the restaurant, he immediately got to cleaning even before his employees. He wrestled with the large bags of corn tortillas brought in directly from his truck. Suazo takes personal pride in his work, even taking a few extra moments to properly tie off a garbage bag for his bus boy.
Juan Suazo Jr. has been knocked down countless times in life, and if anyone knows how to get up after a critical blow, it is this former professional super lightweight boxer. He stands at almost 5-foot-9, the average height for his previous weight class. Lightweight fighters often weigh in at 135 pounds, 5-foot-8 and a half. It was never supposed to be just tacos and tortas for the former Golden Gloves champion.
At 40 years old, Suazo is still very fit, with a face marked by shadows where bruises swelled near his nose and eyes from an extremely active career. He carries himself with confidence, greeting new and regular customers like they had been longtime friends. His posture is surprisingly straight for someone who has landed on his back constantly throughout his short fighting career.
Everything changed for him in 2009 when he was arrested in connection to hundreds of pounds of seized marijuana that crossed over Arizona state lines. Suazo was fined $15,000 by the federal government and was sentenced to 84 months in prison after pleading guilty to conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute more than 100 kilograms of marijuana.
Suazo was ordered to serve his time at the Federal Correctional Institution in Phoenix. The U.S. federal government seized over one million dollars throughout the investigation. The sentence would ultimately cut his career short as a professional boxer and he would leave the sport with an official fight record of 8-7-1.
“It was an extremely rough time for me because I felt like I still had more to give as a boxer. I was in the prime of my career and the mistakes I made cost me a lifelong passion,” Suazo said. “I never expected it to catch up with me.”
Without boxing, Suazo turned to his family for support to stay positive while incarcerated. The love and encouragement he received from his mother, sister and other family members inspired Juan Suazo Jr. to devote the rest of his life to working for them.
“My family was always there for me even on the darkest of days, so it inspires me to run the restaurant with my sister,” Suazo said. “It is also for my mother, who has worked so hard to keep this place as authentic as it is.”
While he was in prison, Suazo’s family continued to run the restaurant and inspire Juan Jr. anytime they could visit him in the medium-security federal institution. “All I had was family at that point, and I couldn’t wait to get back and help,” said Suazo.
Throughout his 10-year amateur and professional boxing career, Suazo has always had a soft spot for his family’s restaurant and style of cooking. “Even before I started boxing, the family business and cooking was always my first love,” said Suazo.
As Juan Jr. pursued his passion for fighting in the ring, he would work in the restaurant whenever he was out of training or had a day off. “It didn’t matter if I was exhausted or if I really wanted to work, I always got in early with my mom and stayed at least 12 to 14 hours every day,” Suazo said.
The family has been the heart and soul of Tucson’s southern Mexican street food community for the last two decades.
In 1987, Juan’s father, also named Juan, his mother Antonia and his uncle Tony started their street-style take on Michoacán cooking out of a food truck in the Los Angeles area. The cuisine originated in the western state of Bajio, Mexico, and is heavily influenced by the Indigenous cultures of the region. Most dishes consist of a corn-based diet, agricultural staples of the state and aspects of Spanish cooking.
At the restaurant, the family has been serving classics such as street tacos, tortas, tostadas and other Michoacán dishes for over two decades. Each taco is served with the classic diced onion and cilantro combination. Juanitos does not serve chips because they want the focus to be on the food. The Suazo family sticks to what they know and focuses on perfecting the smallest of details that only the most observant customers may notice.
When they started out in the 1980s, the Suazos did not have legal paperwork and were constantly harassed by Los Angeles police. Officers would interfere with business which motivated the family to make enough money to lease a restaurant building. Now, 33 years later, there are two official locations under the new owners near Van Nuys, California, and the family-owned establishment in Tucson.
“I remember my father telling me when he first started in a little neighborhood called Tijuanitos near LA.,” Suazo said. “Within three months, police did not interfere, and the food was so popular that he had made over $60,000.”
Both of his parents are first-generation immigrants, born near Tumbiscatio in southwestern Michoacán. They crossed the border into California and the family began selling jewelry, clothes and other items to make ends meet. Juan Sr. first found a job working for a local junkyard and Antonia worked in a factory that manufactured soap.
“My mother and father each had their own struggles because they came from different backgrounds,” Suazo said, “but they wanted their children to have better opportunities and get ahead in life.” Juan began working at five years old, breaking down boxes, sweeping and cleaning the restaurant while his parents tended to eagerly hungry customers.
“For me, I think it always felt amazing to help my parents run their business, because they had worked so hard each and every day to make a living doing what they love,” Suazo said. The entire family decided to move out of Los Angeles due to his mother’s severe allergies and made their way down to Tucson to continue their dream in 1997.
They would lease the building that became Juanitos that same year and it became a hit. Juan Jr. and his family eventually bought it from the previous jewelry store owners, whom the Suazos have come to consider dear friends over the years.
From an early age, Juan had been taught to never give up, even when obstacles stood in the way. “As second-generation immigrants, my sister and I work so hard to pledge our lives to this business because of family. We want to give back to them and the community of Tucson the same way they have done for us,” Suazo said.
That resonated with Juan Jr. and ultimately fueled his passion for fighting as a boxer at such a young age. “The way my parents fought for the life they wanted their children to have definitely played a huge part of why I loved the sport and why I was good,” Suazo said.
Taqueria Juanitos has flourished even throughout the Covid-19 pandemic that has devastated many local and national businesses. At a time when restaurants must raise prices to avoid going out of business, Juanitos has provided the community with excellent food for an affordable price. One could buy each of the six variations of street tacos Juanitos offers and only spend a total of $11.
“By offering quality food at such a low price, I think people recognize how much we care about each customer,” Monica Suazo, Juan’s 24-year-old sister and part-owner, said. There are people really struggling financially during the pandemic, and we just want to put a smile on people’s faces any way we can.”
For Michael Espinoza, a 21-year-old University of Arizona student and regular at Juanitos, the restaurant represents a little slice of home. “My cousin Noelle brought me here on my first visit to Tucson as a senior in high school. It makes me feel like I am back in LA, and you can tell they really care about the little details like the onions or even cilantro,” Espinoza said.
The siblings have been attracting visitors to the restaurant since Monica appeared on a Telemundo ad for Juanitos as a young girl waving behind the counter with her parents. Juan had also made a name for himself as a promising amateur and professional boxer. The Suazos have made it their goal to give back to the community of Tucson in any way they can through their business. This year Juan hired a former felon looking to get his life on track as a busboy and also employed many Tucson locals that need to work to make ends meet.
Juanitos also hosts an annual Thanksgiving turkey dinner for those in need and continues to reinvent how they give back to their adopted city. “If we can make someone overly happy through great service and the effort we make to get the tiniest aspects of the food right, then I feel like I have done my job,” Suazo said.
“Everyone who comes in always shows love and we try to recognize their faces when they come again,” Suazo said. Even after fighting for most of his life, Juan continues to persevere each day and to pass down the essence of family that his own parents taught him. And when he wakes up the next morning, he’ll fight just as hard as he did the day before.