Characters of San Miguel: Manuel “El Motor” López Ríos

Characters of San Miguel: Manuel “El Motor” López Ríos

RIP “El Motor.”

This article was originally published on August 10, 2018. Today we will remember its whistle, and the cakes of all the ingredients.


By Karla Ortiz


Who hasn’t bought a delicious stew torta (stuffed sandwich) from the man everyone calls “El Motor”? If you haven’t, then get your act together and go in search of that characteristic whistling sound that announces his arrival. 


Manuel López Ríos, 68 years old, is a character recognized by virtually any Sanmiguelense. Manuel goes whistling his way through the streets of Centro, and many people respond back to him with the same whistle as a way to get his attention to buy his wares. He even sells tortas to people in their cars; commuters and taxi drivers stop halfway down busy streets to catch his attention and buy a torta. And if a Sanmiguelense doesn’t know him because of his tortas, they probably knew about him from before, when he used to work as a driver. 


But believe it or not, it was not at that job where he got the nickname “El Motor.” 


Why “El Motor”?


According to López, at the age of 14, he was working in a carpentry workshop. He doesn’t remember why, but one day he tried to move a parked Volkswagen, and so he grabbed it from the back, where the engine is located, and slowly began to move it until he got it across the street. A person in a nearby store saw him and shouted, “Ay caray, motooor,” and from then on, everyone started calling him “El Motor” (The Engine), the man who could move a car.


The famous tortas and El Motor’s customers


Now that that’s explained, here’s how he got into the tortas business:


From a very early age, he loved the idea of being like his dad, who was a driver. He began to drive taxis, to deliver new cars, carry merchandise from city to city, anything that involved driving. He lasted a long while doing this, but then he experienced several carjacking attempts where his attackers tried to steal his car and merchandise. He thought it was too dangerous to continue, so he began looking for another job. He was offered a job as a bartender in a small botanero located in the El Chorro section of town, which worked out for a while, but that place later became a lunch shop and then closed. 


After he had to leave the botanero, he started selling basket tacos, but it was very difficult for him to get on the trucks with the sauces and the tacos basket, and there were times when he almost fell and spilled everything. So he began looking for another option, and that’s how he came up with the idea of selling stew tortas. 


He prepares all the stews himself. He learned how to make them from watching his mother cook. Since he was a child, he had also been trained how to cook beans. 


A normal day in Manuel’s life starts at 7am: he gets up to prep the beans and vegetables so that the first batch leaves at 10am. (In addition to tortas, he also sometimes makes tartar meat and marrow stews by special request.) Sometimes people show up at his house asking for a few freshly made tortas. He makes about 50–60 tortas these days with the help of his daughters (he used to make 100 daily by himself), who also help him wrap the tortas in colored napkins to distinguish flavors. Once the work is done, they help him clean up afterward. 


Despite the help, he has reduced the number of tortas they make daily in recent years because of his advancing age. He wants to do more in life than make tortas, he says. However, he also says he is determined that his business will keep on going until God revokes permission to go on living, as he puts it. 


After his morning work is done, López stays at home until 1 or 2pm and then goes out to sell any leftover tortas. He climbs up Canal, walks down a section of Quebrada, then turns around Umarán and takes a turn onto Zacateros, often running out of tortas before reaching the Jardín. Rare is the time when he has leftovers—at most 4–6 tortas—but when he does, he sells them in the cantinas, where he knows they will buy all the rest. 


López is open for business Monday–Friday, and sometimes also on Saturdays, from mid-morning until he runs out of tortas to sell. 


His devoted followers come from all over the San Miguel area, and even outside the city. Sometimes he gets people who come from Querétaro and buy up to 30 tortas at once. The folks at the immigration offices are also some of his best customers. López likes to think the immigration staff gives his tortas to the illegal immigrants they catch. 


A life of excess


If you ask López, who is eight years divorced and has gone two years and eight months now without consuming a single drop of alcohol, he’ll tell you that his fame is not actually due to his tortas but to the number of friends he made in cantinas and at parties, where he drank a lot for many years. He admits to having nearly failed in his business because of alcohol and that he missed many good moments in his life due to drinking. Ever since he was in the transport business, before he got married, he already had a drinking problem, he says, and it took up his whole life. 


But after many years, he began to see the consequences of being so caught up in his vice, as he began to see his friends and acquaintances die or get sick, his marriage dissolving, and his own health worsening. He realized he needed to make a change, for his health and for his well-being. “Life is very difficult,” he said. “You have to learn to deal with it, because you really fight a lot.”


Plans for the future


He has become very fond of his tortas business and says that it has basically become his life. But it is, first and foremost, his way to pay the bills at an age when he believes no one would give him a job. However, even at age 68, he still has goals for the future, one of which is to raise enough money to pay for his medicine, rent, and utilities and to start working less.


He would like his daughters to continue the business, because he knows that with the 50 they sell every day, it would be easy to keep it going. He would never open a shop in a fixed location, however, he said, even if his daughters wanted to. “I didn’t do it when I was younger, and I’m less inclined now that I’m older,” he said.


On Mondays through Fridays, when you hear the whistle of “El Motor,” that’s your cue to leave your home or office and find López, even if it is only to return the whistle. But López invites everyone to buy one of his tortas, if only so that the tradition of this traditional food is not lost. Oh, and he also recommends that you try the steak—one of his favorites. 


“When you hear my whistling, come out and see me and buy a torta while you’re at it,” he said.