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Mike Tharp: One man's two jobs lead the way

Juan Diaz is one reason Merced will make it.

He just reopened the venerable Hangar Café at Merced Airport. That's his second job. He and his son, Jose Antonio, 20, also run their own two-truck trucking firm. They haul ladders and aluminum for Warner Ladders around the Valley and to the Bay Area. He reckons he works 60 hours a week.

Diaz stands for the grit, guts and vision that will help Merced County hold its own during this depression. His family values and work ethic mirror those of the other Mercedians who will keep us in the game, whatever the odds.

The fact that he's a Latino -- a bilingual, bicultural man who moves freely in two worlds -- also adds a vital dimension to his role as a county trailblazer. He's truly a post-political figure, reading 19th century Mexican poet Amado Nervo and Edgar Allen Poe; listening on the radio in his International Eagle truck across the dial, from NPR to Rush Limbaugh; lauding Cesar Chavez while criticizing how some of the farm labor organizer's colleagues corrupted his dream; one of his heroes is Gandhi.

This is a man who, spelling out a Spanish word, says "E as in entrepreneur, I as in international." How much government funding -- Small Business Administration, state, county or city agency -- did he get to reopen the café?

"None whatsoever."

He refuses to let race or ethnicity serve as an excuse. When his oldest boy was playing water polo at Golden Valley High, he once mentioned to his dad that he was the only "brown" player on the team. Don't worry about it, Diaz told him: "If you're good enough, if you're on the team, you'll fit in."

Diaz leads from the front. He's plowing his own capital into restoring the Hangar Café. He'd been working on the café's interior since September. At 4:55 p.m. on Dec. 12, he got the final red-tape approvals. He reopened the next day. "We ran to the store to get supplies for breakfast -- our grand opening," he says in a voice so soft you have to lean forward to hear.

Nearly 52 percent of our county's population is Latino. Latino leaders hereabouts? "If I count them on my fingers, I'd have a couple of fingers left," Diaz says matter-of-factly. The difference between European and Latin American immigrants to America? "Europeans come here to stay and grow roots," Diaz says. "Latin Americans, Mexicans -- they come here thinking they can go back to their country, so they don't create wealth in this country -- even if in the end, they don't go back. (Those) immigrants send their money down south instead of investing here in the community."

The 39-year-old onetime freelance writer was born in South Central L.A. and grew up in the Mexican province of Nochistlan. He returned to the United States with his parents when he was 16, to San Jose. After high school and three semesters of community college in Modesto, he worked as a butcher, as did all his brothers.

Then he started driving trucks, which he's been doing for 18 years. In 2003, he moved his family to Merced.

"Because of the university," he explains. "I wanted university for my kids." Besides Jose Antonio, who's at Merced College, he and his wife Rafaela have three other children, Miguel, 18, Isabel, 16 and Diego, 4.

Once he landed here he started his own trucking business.

"Many truck drivers' dream is to own their own rig and do business on their own," he says. "I decided to move in order to improve the income of my family."

After some of his long nighttime truck rides over the years, Diaz began writing. In notebooks. In both English and Spanish. He'd hear something on the radio that made him think. When he stopped, he'd research "things the general Hispanic public doesn't know much about."

Such as pork projects attached to politicians' bills in Sacramento. The process of how to get people involved in politics. International issues, especially the Middle East "where the American people are so ignorant."

In Modesto, he wrote a play for his kids' school on Cinco de Mayo. The editor of a local Spanish-language newspaper saw it and asked for the author. She offered Diaz a part-time job. He wrote several articles for the weekly before he moved to Merced.

Diaz and his oldest son used to eat breakfast at the Hangar. They drove out one morning and found it was vacant. Ron Elliott, the airport's superintendent, told them it was up for lease, did they want it? "I said, 'All right -- sounds like a deal,'" Diaz recalls. He signed a five-year lease.

Says Elliott: "Juan's a super guy and great to work with. He's very supportive of the airport and the clientele here. The café is showing improvement every day. The food's great and the price is right."

Gail McCullough, a Merced Realtor and a longtime pilot and aviation instructor, observes that "it's imperative that every airport have its own restaurant where pilots gather and talk hangar talk." She goes so far as to say that the success or failure of a smaller airport "depends on having a restaurant such as Juan has at the Hangar Café."

Dwight Ewing, a longtime member of various airport boards and committees, recalls the days in the '70s of Cap'n Billy's Fly-In Cafe when Bill Engels featured a set menu every week. He liked the clam chowder on Fridays. Tom Frazier, a 22-year Air Force veteran, drove out for the chili on Wednesdays.

"Every one of us who fly will do our share and do our role of buying (Diaz's) food because it's important to have this," says Ewing.

The airport itself is crucial to Merced County's ability to weather the present economic storm. It now gets a $2.4 million federal subsidy because the feds realize how much an airport means to a city and county our size. Including the industrial zone, it covers 538 acres and has a $2 million annual budget. "It's a huge draw," says Elliott.

Maybe as soon as next month, Great Lakes Airways will reinstate a route to Las Vegas. Now the airline flies twice a day to and from Ontario.

Frank Quintero, the city's manager of economic development, spends his days and weeks and months trying to get companies to come to Merced. While admitting that's sometimes a hard sell, he also believes that "we sell the community as a product."

Here's an easy sell:

Juan Diaz.

The Hangar now holds eight tables. One recent morning, fresh lilies graced each one. The priciest item on the menu is a $14 New York steak. Sometimes the fog is so thick you can't see across the parking lot to the terminal.

Diaz hopes to get all the old regulars who've sat at the cafe tables over the decades to return and re-tell their flying yarns. He wants folks from nearby businesses to show up for breakfast or lunch -- American and Mexican fare. He seeks families to drive out on a weekend for an ambience they can't find at any other place in town.

"I want it to be a second home" for his customers, he says.

If the Hangar Cafe makes it, no one will wonder why. One man and his family. His basic outlook on life came from his own father:

"If you really want it, get up early and get it done."

Juan Diaz is one reason Merced will make it.

Executive editor Mike Tharp can be reached at (209) 385-2427 or 385-2456 or mtharp@mercedsun-star.com.

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