A Decade of La Cocina Reaching for the Stars

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La Cocina stole my heart many years ago when I had just moved back to San Francisco, looking for work and eager to throw myself into a cause I believed in. It is a non-profit incubator kitchen in San Francisco for low-income and immigrant food entrepreneurs that cultivates exceptional talent and has helped to launch many a successful food business. Tonight, La Cocina celebrates its 10th Anniversary with a blow-out gala and hopefully a great many funds raised for their noble organization.

In honor of their ten years of inspiring existence, I wanted to re-post a story I wrote over five years ago (!!) about Maria del Carmen Flores, an early graduate of La Cocina’s incubator program. I hope you’ll read it, allow your heart to swell a little for Maria, her fellow food entrepreneurs and La Cocina, and then DONATE. (I promise La Cocina hasn’t put me up to this.)

Maria has been pro­duc­ing her snacks in the La Cocina kitchen since 2005, with the help of her children and her children’s children. Estrellita’s Snacks was coined in honor of Maria’s daugh­ter and grand­daugh­ter, who are both named Estrella. It means star in Span­ish. Of course, Maria is a star in her own right and she has stars on her front teeth to prove it. (She really does. Look closely.)

Las Estrellitas: Little Stars

From the Happelsauce archives: March 10, 2010

This morning I met Maria del Carmen Flores at La Cocina – San Francisco’s first non-profit, incubator kitchen. I’ve been volunteering there for a few months, mostly writing and editing web content, but today was something new. I interviewed Maria, the owner of Estrellita’s Snacks, for an inaugural recipeplusbioblurb on La Cocina’s website. (Read it here, if you like.) When I scheduled the interview, I envisioned it taking about 20 minutes or so. I would ask Maria a few questions, Leticia would translate, and that would be that. Ummm, or not.

The interview somehow morphed into a two hour conversation. Maria told me her life story and it was truly incredible. It’s why I’m still awake at 2:30am. Because somehow, hearing Maria’s story made me fall even more in love with the world. Because her life has been riddled with trials and hardships that I can’t fathom, and yet she assured me that she “is a star” and I agree. Because she never gave up hope, and with her smartsharpstellar entrepreneurial spirit she has made her dreams come true.

Maria del Carmen Flores. I mean, that’s a beautiful name! Her story began when she was 6 years old and selling tostadas, pupusas and fresh fruit con limon y sal with her mom on the streets of Berlin, El Salvador. Her parents married her off when she was only 13 years old. She had her first child at 14. All in all, she bore 7 children – 6 boys and one girl. 3 of the boys died when they were young. Her husband was abusive and living with him was “muy mal”, and so after 12 years on a farm in rural El Salvador, Maria escaped to Guatemala. She lived there for a year and learned to cook Guatemalan food, then returned to El Salvador for her children. They moved (slowlypurposefully through the forest to avoid border patrols) and ended up in Oaxaca, Mexico, where they stayed for more than 20 years.

It was in Oaxaca where Maria had a dream about starting her own business. She borrowed 100 pesos from her neighbor and bought beer, a chicken and beans. She cooked and sold it all. The next week, she had enough money to buy a table and set up a small stand on the street. Her nickname around town was “La Picara Sonadora,” which loosely means “The Quirky Dreamer” because Maria was always dreaming big.

From what I understand (and Leticia patiently explained), relations between the Salvadorans and the Mexicans was and is very strained. While in Oaxaca, Maria always helped people from outside of Mexico to sneak in. She would hide them and feed them – reinforcing a real-life Mexican Underground Railroad. It was through this network that Maria met a woman who asked for her help getting to the United States. Maria had Mexican papers, so she acted as this older woman’s daughter. They rode a web buses all the way to Tijuana. It was there, in Tijuana, where they got off the last bus and walked across the border and into California. No questions asked.

Maria ended up in San Francisco on the #14 bus without her friends or family. As luck would have it, the bus driver spoke Spanish and gave her a rudimentary tour of the city. He pointed out the places she should go where she would be able to speak Spanish. He directed her to 24th Street. She explored the city, always returning to walk the “escaleras electricas” at the 24th Street BART station. She stood in front of Carlo’s Bar because the patrons spoke Spanish. Pretty soon, she was working the night shift at Carlo’s and cleaning at Safeway on 30th Street during the day. She also found time to she con­tin­ued to do what she’d always done best — mak­ing pupusas, tostadas, tamales and aguas fres­cas — and sell­ing them to passersby. Only this time, the $20 she used to pur­chase the plan­tains, oil and salt for her tostadas turned into $300 in her pocket. Soon there­after, Estrellita’s Snacks was born.

A year after she arrived in San Francisco, Maria had saved enough money to get her first son and his family into the U.S. Her other children followed soon thereafter and now they all live in the Mission. Maria has been pro­duc­ing her food in the La Cocina kitchen since 2005, with the help of her chil­dren and her children’s chil­dren. Estrellita’s Snacks was coined in honor of Maria’s daugh­ter and grand­daugh­ter, who are both named Estrella. It means star in Span­ish. Of course, Maria is a star in her own right and she has stars on her front teeth to prove it. (She really does. Look closely.) Maria sells her food at the Alemany Farmers Market on the weekends and Civic Center during the week. The End.

(Except, this is absolutely not the end. This is Maria’s LIFE and it will continue on, hopefully for decades to come. I guess The End is never really the end anyway. There’s no such thing. Okay, it’s almost 4am now. I’m delirious. I’m at My End.)

After Maria had finished telling me her story, she walked to her house and brought me back a sack full of Estrellita’s Snacks and a few of her dolls to admire. Then, we went outside on Folsom Street so I could take her photo. She said, “Se podria escribir un libro sobre la historia de mi vida.” You could write a book about my life.

My new friend, Maria of Little Star Snacks, might be on to something…

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