In the shadow of the border wall, a Catholic kitchen provides hope and a hot meal
By Christina Morales
Twenty years ago, Amelia Lopez Patrykus stood outside Sacred Heart Catholic Church, waiting for a free meal and groceries. The line was just blocks from the Rio Grande, separating Mexico from her new home in the United States.
She had just arrived from Jalisco, Mexico, with her children, and in those first few years in Texas, the church provided a lifeline, offering staples like rice and cans of tomatoes, and spiritual and educational support. It is where her daughter sang in the choir and had her first Communion, and where Lopez Patrykus took free adult education classes and found a job — at La Tilma, the restaurant that offered her that early meal.
In the center of El Segundo Barrio, where many Mexican immigrants live in poverty, Sacred Heart is known to the mostly Spanish-speaking residents as a place to get rental assistance, take English classes and find a hot meal.
La Tilma, named after the cloak worn by St. Juan Diego when the Virgin of Guadalupe is said to have appeared in Mexico nearly 500 years ago, has been a community mainstay since it opened in 2003, run by a chef who often makes dishes familiar to new immigrants from Mexico.
Fish or vegetarian specials, like lentil soup, enchiladas and capirotada — a type of Mexican bread pudding served only in the lead-up to Easter — appear on Fridays during Lent, when many Christians forgo red meat.
“If it’s not good, I don’t eat it,” said Dolores Dominguez, 88, who lives in public housing in the neighborhood.
If La Tilma didn’t exist, her children would have to drive from a nearby Native American reservation to assist her, she said.
Before the pandemic, La Tilma served a full Mexican menu, including plates with huevos rancheros, burritos and aguas frescas, for under $5 to the public on weekends. Parishioners sipped on menudo, a traditional Mexican soup, after Sunday Mass, and church staff delivered meals to older adults in the neighborhood. A while ago, an immigrant living in the United States without legal permission even delivered food to immigration officers on the Paso del Norte International Bridge that connects El Paso with Ciudad Juárez, Mexico.
The pandemic forced La Tilma to shut down the restaurant and pivot to strictly takeout. But, on Easter Sunday, the restaurant plans to open to the public once more.
“We’re reopening on resurrection day,” said the Rev. Rafael Garcia, 69, the priest in charge of Sacred Heart. “It’s a time of new life.”
Meals here are available to anyone who needs them, no questions asked. Many days, Lopez Patrykus can be found pushing a cart stacked with takeout meals from La Tilma around the neighborhood, giving food to migrants, homeless people, abused women and men waiting for temporary work. They call her “Mami” or “La Jefita,” which means little boss.
She is second in command to James Martinez, the restaurant’s chef, who took over the kitchen in 2005. On a recent Lenten Friday, Lopez Patrykus scooped pico de gallo into a large container of lentil soup. Portions of rice, seasoned with chicken broth and cilantro, joined snap peas, broccoli, mushrooms, squash and carrots coated in a spicy yellow curry sauce in takeout containers.
“When I crossed over, the church helped me a lot with food,” Lopez Patrykus, 63, said in Spanish.
Her 12 years at La Tilma have become a way for her to give back to others in return for how the church helped her.
“God will help us when we need it,” she said.
La Tilma provides meals and groceries to about 250 families. Volunteers fill grocery bags with staples like rice, pinto beans, noodles, peanut butter and tomatoes.
Catering helps pay for the outreach. In 2018, its highest-grossing year, La Tilma made about $220,000 preparing food for weddings, diocese events and quinceañeras. Various grants, donations and money from the Society of Jesus, a Roman Catholic order — also known as Jesuits — and food donations from organizations like El Pasoans Fighting Hunger make up the difference.
Each week during Lent, employees and volunteers at La Tilma cut hundreds of tomatoes and onions. Dried red chiles are boiled for hours for vegetarian enchiladas rojas. Bread is cut and toasted for capirotada.
For his version of capirotada, Martinez mixes the toasted bread with a sauce of unsweetened evaporated milk, butter, brown sugar, Abuelita hot chocolate and cappuccino mix. Coconut shavings, peanuts and raisins offer flavor, and Muenster cheese and rainbow sprinkles add the final touch.
“I don’t want to see any white,” Martinez, 54, shouted, referring to tortillas, as a volunteer ladled salsa roja over a tray of enchiladas.
Martinez trains the volunteers to prepare and portion food as he might a sous chef in a restaurant.
“I tell them to just be generous,” he said. “Échale,” he added in Spanish, meaning, “Go for it.”
Sacred Heart has a long history of outreach in the community. The only Society of Jesus parish left in Texas, it was founded in 1893 for Spanish-speaking Catholics and staffed by the Jesuits.
Today, the majority of El Paso’s more than 865,000 residents identify as Catholic, according to the Roman Catholic Diocese of El Paso.
“Their relationship with God is very vital,” the Rev. Daniel Mora, 42, said in Spanish about the primarily Mexican American parishioners at the church.
The church serves only a small portion of El Paso’s needy. El Pasoans Fighting Hunger, the area’s only food bank, feeds about 200,000 food-insecure people. Almost 18% of the county’s residents are in poverty, about 6 percentage points higher than the national average, according to census data. In 2020, the average median household income here was only about $48,000, about $19,000 less than the national number.
The area’s proximity to Ciudad Juárez makes El Paso a largely immigrant community. Almost 83% of the county’s residents are Hispanic or Latino, and a language other than English is spoken in nearly 70% of households here.
Maintaining human dignity, especially for the poor, is Sacred Heart’s mission, Garcia said. Because of this, Martinez prioritizes quality. If donated produce is rotting, he apologizes and turns it away.
For Martinez, a good meal is one with texture, and he seeks to preserve that as he cooks — keeping tomatoes and onions chunky in the pico de gallo and retaining crunch with the peanuts in the capirotada. He wants the people receiving his food to know exactly what they’re getting.
“Everything that I do is a standard for myself,” Martinez said. “I wouldn’t put anything out there that I wouldn’t serve myself, eat myself or present to somebody else.”