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Arts & Culture

Singer, songwriter, businesswoman: One woman’s story from the fields to the stage to owning a restaurant

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Dora Orozco (right) and Dolores Huerta (left) at Dora's Restaurant in Woodlake.

Dora Orozco takes a sip of Fireball cinnamon whiskey, sets the glass down and starts belting out the first note of “Ya Lo Se” by Jenni Rivera. She’s standing on the small tile stage inside her Mexican restaurant in Woodlake and the customers are captivated.

But Dora doesn’t just sing karaoke in her restaurant. She’s sung in over 15 states across the country, opening shows for legendary Mexican singers like Pepe Aguilar. She was even good friends with Mexican singer and songwriter Juan Gabriel. He was the one who told her to start singing in her restaurant.

“He asked me if I sang in my restaurant and I told him no, because it’s small,” she recalls in Spanish. He told her she needed to showcase her talent, so she began doing karaoke.

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Courtesy of Dora Orozco
Dora Orozco and Juan Gabriel.

For the past 20 years, Friday night has been karaoke night at Dora’s Restaurant, except during the pandemic. And she invites her customers to sing karaoke, too. A woman named Gloria gets up to sing “La Reina es el Rey” by Beatrice Adrian.

Dora tells me she was 13 years old when she moved here from a small town in Michoacán in 1977. She says it was totally different from the life she knew back in Mexico. Here in California, her mom was a single mother of three kids and the older two worked in the fields picking oranges.

“For us, we didn't know anything about vacations or anything like that,” she says. “It was just OK, no school? Work, even on weekends.”

Dora says she liked working in the fields but she had a bigger passion: singing. When she turned 16, she started performing at Mexican rodeos in the area. She says her mom didn't approve.

“She said it was dangerous and there's a lot of drugs there. And I go, ‘Mom, I'm going to start doing my singing career and this is what I want to do,’” she says. “Really, I was so secure in what I wanted.”

She’d perform at events, even singing on local radio stations. After graduating high school, she got a job working at a packinghouse with her mom. But eventually she decided to go back to Mexico to sing.

Before she left, she noticed a restaurant for sale. She wanted to buy it, but not because she loved to cook.

“It's because my mom knew how to cook. She worked at different restaurants in Mexico, so I said, ‘Well, she has taste and skill,’” she says. “And that's why I thought about doing something like that, so we can work together instead of working at the packinghouse.” 

The owner and Dora made a verbal agreement. She would go to Mexico and sing, make enough money to buy the restaurant and return to Woodlake. At the age of 20, Dora became a businesswoman.

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Courtesy of Dora Orozco
Dora Orozco and Celia Cruz.

Back at her restaurant, Dora sings another song for the crowd. The turnout is better than she’s had since the start of the pandemic.

“The truth is, I was ready to close down the restaurant.” she says.

She was ready to shutter the business after the first few months of the pandemic. But her family and friends convinced her to stick it out. And now…

“It’s good.” she says. “No complaints about nothing.”

And she’s even performing shows in her home town in Michoacán. But she says she still has music aspirations.

“I feel like I didn’t get to where I wanted to get to in my music career,” she says.

She'd like to be the next Paquita La Del Barrio, a Mexican singer who performed at her own night club in Mexico City.