Manuel Rivas Alvarez learned on the soccer field that even the best game plan can run into problems. Challenges arise and the plan has to be adjusted to the changing circumstances. He has since learned that this state of continually evaluation applies to life as well.
A native of Galicia, Spain, Manuel grew into a semi-professional goal keeper with dreams of going pro. As goal keeper, he had to be aware of everything happening on the field and prepared for a kick from any direction. Also in Spain Manuel worked as a DJ in a large dance club. As DJ he monitored the patrons and played music that pumped the crowd up or calmed them down. Whether on the soccer field or in the club, he recognized that success depended on his ability to adapt quickly and decisively at a near instinctive level.
At age 23, Manuel immigrated to the United States. He went to work almost immediately as a laborer in the construction field. In Spain, his second language emphasis had been on French so when he arrived in the United States he knew little English. He credits music and movies as sources for his English lessons. After five years, he applied for and was granted United States citizenship.
An old neighbor from Spain was the owner of Espina Stone Company and he took Manuel on as a stone mason. For the next 20 years, Manuel worked in a variety of locations ranging from the Blue Ridge Parkway to Virginia Tech University. A particularly memorable project was the renovation of the North Lawn Fountain at the White House in Washington, DC. As Manuel describes his work as a mason, he exudes pride in his craftsmanship. He says that he was often the first to arrive on the job site and that his employer could always count on him. This led to Manuel’s promotion to supervisor and as a leader work crews.
Life seemed perfect – a wife of over 20 years, three children and fulfilling employment. Then a torn meniscus threw Manuel his most serious challenge to date. The surgeon anticipated a four month recovery yet after four months Manuel was still on crutches. Another year passed and it became obvious to Manuel that his days as a stone mason were over. He assessed the situation and adapted to his new reality.
Manuel had moved to Sparta from northern Virginia in 2009 while working on the Blue Ridge Parkway. His wife Janet, a native of Bolivia, moved down with their three children a year later. By the time Manuel faced his medical crisis, the family had come to consider Sparta home. They wanted to stay in Alleghany County.
This past July Manuel and Janet purchased La Mexicana Restaurant in Trojan Village. Their desire is to have a friendly, family atmosphere that serves freshly cooked food. While neither he nor Janet are from Mexico, they want to create an authentic Mexican tacqueria that has an intimate feel of a working class, neighborhood café. Manuel learned through his varied experience that while it may take years to develop a strong relationship, it only takes minutes to destroy one. His goal is to have a business where people from all backgrounds feel welcome. He say he wants a place that generates “that feeling you get at your mama’s house.” He is quick to credit many local people who have assisted him in getting the business started. Among those are Xavier Iglesias from the nearby Pizzeria and Steve Edwards of the Alleghany Meat Center.
Still the goal keeper at heart, Manuel has taken on this new challenge with enthusiasm. He describes life as a book. When one chapter is finished, we must turn the page to begin a new one. He points out that the first page of of each new chapter in life is blank. Manuel says that it is up to us to write that new chapter. For him and his family, that next page begins at La Mexicana Restaurant.
La Mexicana Restaurant is located in the north end of Trojan Village at 665 South Main Street, Sparta, NC.