In the shadow of the border wall, a Catholic kitchen offers hope and a hot meal

EL PASO — Twenty years ago, Amelia Lopez Patrykus stood outside the Catholic Church of the Sacred Heart, waiting for a free meal and groceries. The line was a few blocks from the Rio Grande, separating Mexico from its new home in the United States.

She had just arrived from Jalisco, Mexico, with her children, and during those early years in Texas the church provided a lifeline, offering basic foods like rice and cans of tomatoes, as well as spiritual and educational support. It’s where her daughter sang in the choir and had her first communion, and where Ms Lopez Patrykus took free adult education classes and found a job – at La Tilma, the restaurant that gave her that morning meal.

In the center of El Segundo Barrio, where many Mexican immigrants live in poverty, Sacred Heart is known to mostly Spanish-speaking residents as a place to get rental assistance, take English lessons, and find a hot meal.

La Tilma, named after the coat worn by Saint Juan Diego when the Virgin of Guadalupe is said to have appeared in Mexico nearly 500 years ago, has been a mainstay of the community since it opened in 2003, led by a chef who often makes dishes familiar to these new immigrants from Mexico.

Fish or vegetarian specialties, such as lentil soup, enchiladas and capirotada – a type of Mexican bread pudding served only before Easter – appear on Fridays during Lent, when many Christians give up red meat.

“If it’s not good, I don’t eat it,” said Dolores Dominguez, 88, who lives in a neighborhood housing estate. If La Tilma didn’t exist, her children would have to drive from a nearby Native American reservation to help her, she said.

Before the pandemic, La Tilma served a full Mexican menu, including plates with huevos rancheros, burritos and aguas frescas, for less than $5 to the public on weekends. Parishioners sipped menudo, a traditional Mexican soup, after Sunday mass, and church staff delivered meals to neighborhood seniors. A while ago, an undocumented immigrant even delivered food to immigration officers on the Paso del Norte International Bridge that connects El Paso to Ciudad Juárez, Mexico.

The pandemic has forced La Tilma to completely close the restaurant and shift to strictly take-out. But, on Easter Sunday, the restaurant plans to reopen to the public.

“We are reopening on Resurrection Day,” said Reverend Rafael Garcia, 69, a priest in charge of the Sacred Heart. “It’s a time of new life.”

Meals here are available to anyone who needs them, no questions asked. On many days, Ms Lopez Patrykus can be found pushing a cart full of La Tilma takeaways around the neighborhood, giving food to migrants, homeless people, abused women and men waiting for a temporary employment. 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 Friday in Lent, Ms Lopez Patrykus poured hotpots of pico de gallo into a large container of soup with lentils. Portions of rice, seasoned with chicken broth and cilantro, snow peas, broccoli, mushrooms, squash and carrots coated in a spicy yellow curry sauce in take-out containers.

“When I crossed, the church helped me a lot with food,” Ms Lopez Patrykus, 63, said in Spanish. Her 12 years at La Tilma have become a way for her to give back to others for how the church has helped her. “God will help us when we need it.”

La Tilma provides meals and groceries to approximately 250 families. Volunteers fill grocery bags with staples like rice, pinto beans, noodles, peanut butter and tomatoes.

Restoration helps pay for this awareness. In 2018, its highest-grossing year, La Tilma earned around $220,000 preparing food for weddings, diocesan events and quinceañeras. Various grants, donations, and money from the Society of Jesus, a Roman Catholic order — also known as the Jesuits — and food donations from organizations like El Pasoans Fighting Hunger make up the difference.

Every week during Lent, La Tilma employees and volunteers cut hundreds of tomatoes and onions. Dried red chilies are boiled for hours for vegetarian enchiladas rojas. The bread is cut and toasted for the capirotada.

For his version of this bread pudding, Mr. Martinez mixes toast with a sauce of unsweetened evaporated milk, butter, brown sugar, Abuelita hot chocolate and cappuccino mix. Coconut shavings, peanuts and raisins add flavor, and muenster cheese and rainbow sprinkles add the finishing touch.

“I don’t want to see any whites,” Mr. Martinez, 54, shouted, referring to the tortillas, as a volunteer poured salsa roja onto a platter of enchiladas.

Mr. Martinez trains volunteers to prepare and portion food as he would a sous chef in a restaurant.

“I tell them to just be generous,” he said. “Echale”, he added in Spanish, which means “Go ahead”. Sacred Heart has a long history of community outreach. The only such parish in Texas, it was founded in 1893 for Spanish-speaking Catholics and run 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,” Reverend Daniel Mora, 42, said in Spanish of the church’s mostly Mexican American parishioners.

The church serves only a small portion of El Paso’s needy. El Pasoans Fighting Hunger, the region’s only food bank, feeds approximately 200,000 food-insecure people. Nearly 18% of county residents live in poverty, about six 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 figure.

The region’s proximity to Ciudad Juárez makes El Paso a predominantly immigrant community. Nearly 83% of county residents are Hispanic or Latino, and a language other than English is spoken in nearly 70% of households here.

Upholding human dignity, especially for the poor, is the mission of the Sacred Heart, said Father Garcia, pastor of the church. For this reason, Mr. Martinez is not afraid to prioritize quality. If the donated products rot, he will apologize and refuse them.

For Mr. Martinez, a good meal is one with texture, and he seeks to preserve that while he cooks – keeping the tomatoes and onions chunky in the pico de gallo and retaining the crunch with the peanuts in the capirotada. He wants people who receive his food to know exactly what they are getting.

“Everything I do is a standard for myself,” Mr. Martinez said. “I wouldn’t put anything on there that I didn’t serve myself, eat myself, or present to someone else.”

La Tilma, 602 South Oregon Street, El Paso, 915-532-5447, Sacredheartelpaso.org/la-tilma.

Recipe: Capirotada