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updated: 3/8/2013 1:39 PM

Moving Picture: Aurora woman's restaurant a haven for the hungry

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  • Video: Moving Picture: Rising Above

  • Maribel Molina Cortes hugs and kisses her daughter Mary Ortega during a recent visit. Mary often comes to help her mother run the business. She runs the front so her mother can cook.

       Maribel Molina Cortes hugs and kisses her daughter Mary Ortega during a recent visit. Mary often comes to help her mother run the business. She runs the front so her mother can cook.
    Paul Michna | Staff Photographer

  • Cortes prepares shredded chicken at Totopos in Naperville. She is at her business six out of seven days. She closes the business on Sunday so she can rest.

       Cortes prepares shredded chicken at Totopos in Naperville. She is at her business six out of seven days. She closes the business on Sunday so she can rest.
    Paul Michna | Staff Photographer

  • Cortes lives by these simple words -- be grateful, be content. She has them posted in her restaurant for others to learn from.

       Cortes lives by these simple words -- be grateful, be content. She has them posted in her restaurant for others to learn from.
    Paul Michna | Staff Photographer

  • Cortes chats with Bryan and Samantha Noble of Naperville during their recent visit to Totopos. Cortes loves to talk to her customers.

       Cortes chats with Bryan and Samantha Noble of Naperville during their recent visit to Totopos. Cortes loves to talk to her customers.
    Paul Michna | Staff Photographer

  • Cortes is all smiles during a conversation with a customer at her business Totopos, a Mexican restaurant in Naperville.

       Cortes is all smiles during a conversation with a customer at her business Totopos, a Mexican restaurant in Naperville.
    Paul Michna | Staff Photographer

  • Cortes makes steak tacos at Totopos in Naperville.

       Cortes makes steak tacos at Totopos in Naperville.
    Paul Michna | Staff Photographer

 
 

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.

• Do you know someone in the suburbs whose story we should document for our weekly feature? Let us know at movingpicture@dailyherald.com.

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