STOCKTON -- He was born in Guanajuato, a hilly city in the heart of México. Its tenement-lined streets are so narrow some bear names such as Sal Si Puedes: 'Get out if you can.' His father was a weaver. He worked on an old-fashioned loom in their small adobe home, making shawls he hawked to vendors at mercados in Guanajuato and beyond.
"Mother, I remember she would struggle to feed us, clothe us, put shoes on our feet," recalled Saúl Bedolla, 48. "There were some days when there was no food at all. Just a little bit of tea with a small piece of bread, and that was it."
When he was young, his father tried to teach him the loom. "It was kind of boring. I poked my fingers a couple of times. That right there made me quit the job."
As he grew to a teen, his parents said he should stay in school. Become a soil scientist, an agronomist. Help farmers with plantings.
But he didn't see it that way. He envied migrant workers who returned from U.S. fields with new clothes and money. He wanted to go there. He fought with his parents over it. They were afraid. Crossing the border was dangerous.
One day during his 16th year, his father relented.
"He told me, 'We're not going to stop you if that's what you want to do.' "
They didn't have the money to send him to college, anyway.
For his journey, they gave him $30.
Crossing was way more drama than he expected. Days of hiding in the hills, days without food, nights jumping fences and eluding helicopter searchlights.
Finally, he made his way to Stockton. Here, his brother worked as a chef in a downtown Mexican restaurant. His brother got him a job as a dishwasher.
"It was a huge disappointment. Huge."
The pay was low. The hours were crummy, 8 p.m. to 3 or 4 a.m. The shady owner was ultimately busted for distributing cocaine. A dead-end. Sal si puedes. Again.
"I kept telling my brother, 'Send me to school.' "
His brother remained complacent. He got himself into a school and learned English.
He labored at different jobs: lawn mowing, fabricating fiberglass pools, pushing a broom at a bakery, where a couple of racist employees taunted him. "Hey, man. You here illegally? You a wetback, Saúl?"
But the owner observed his good work ethic. One day, he approached Bedolla. "We really like the way you keep this place nice and clean," the owner said. "We'd like to offer you the opportunity to be a baker."
He said yes.
"Once I learned the hours, I thought, 'Oh, my God, what have I got myself into?' "
The head baker, a man named David, mentored him. Starting with the basics, he fried donuts, learned baker's math and the proportion of ingredients and how much butter to roll into a Danish. He worked up to mixing doughs and difficult formulae.
He found he loved the chemical reactions. Bread, cakes, pastries, pies, tarts, coming to life under his kneading hands and the heat of convection ovens.
Above all, he loved making bread. In the levain, a more natural sort of yeast, there's an element of primordial creation, a page from the book of Genesis. Pretty darned delicious, too.
"How you put flour, water together, leave them in a bucket for a matter of hours, and how that wakes up something in the flour," he rhapsodized. "All the nutrients, and they become a living bacteria, which ends up being the wonderful flavors of the finished baked product."
He rose to head baker. And he remained head baker for 25 years. He married, had children, taught other apprentices in turn. When the bakery closed, he worked as head baker in the company's wholesale plant.
Five months ago, he opened his own bakery: Panne Levain, 4780 West Lane, a spotless bakery and café with a granite counter top, custom granite tables and maple cabinetry, and white-clad bakers working in the back.
Panne Levain sells artisan breads and sandwiches, cakes and pastries, artisan pizza and hamburgers, and croissants with ham and eggs for breakfast and chorizo in spinach wraps.
His hours are worse than a dishwasher's. He rises at 1 or 2 a.m. and works until 2 or 3 p.m.
But he got out.
"No matter who you are," Bedolla said, "we all have talents and gifts within us. And once you discover your talent, you can become someone."