Maribel Molina Cortes knows what it's like to be truly hungry.
Years ago, without money for meals, she would scrounge for scraps near her workplace, including searching garbage cans. But now that she owns her own Mexican restaurant in Naperville, the Aurora resident is able to look back on those times as learning experiences.
From the young age of 8, Cortes was the queen of her family's kitchen. Her mother taught her their family's recipes and she did the majority of cooking at home in her native Mexico.
Cortes met her husband in Mexico and soon moved to Aurora. Soon after arriving, Cortes noticed there weren't many good Mexican restaurants in the area and she dreamed of opening her own place. While family problems kept her from pursuing her dream at the time, she never abandoned it.
Almost five years later, Cortes found herself divorced and struggling to support her daughter. She even lived in shelters for a time while trying to further educate herself and find better work.
At that time, Cortes was working above a deli. She noticed they threw out their day-old bagels. On one occasion she replaced the garbage bag just before they bagels were thrown out, so she could take the clean bagels with her.
Feeling ashamed, Cortes remembers trying to keep her actions hidden from her daughter.
She also recalled making a promise to herself.
"I'm never going to eat bagels from the garbage can again," she said.
However, this moment in time has forever shaped her heart. Now that she owns Totopos restaurant in Naperville, she doesn't want anyone to go hungry. On occasion, she will let people pay later for their meal if they are short on cash, not wanting to send anyone away.
Now that her restaurant has been open for nearly two years, she hopes that her story of rising above hunger will be an inspiration to other women.
She enjoys making traditional Mexican dishes, and even some vegetarian items, with her wealth of cooking experience from her native land.
"For me to be here and help other people, it's a blessing for me," Cortes says.
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