American Breadwinners

Two decades ago, the Chanas family joined an exodus of Mayan people from Guatemala to a Houston grocery chain. Today they are self-made entrepreneurs working to stay true to their roots.

As an interviewer, Maria Chanas-Ordoñez is more engaging than intimidating, but between her new freezer breaking down, a reporter's unannounced visit and the imminent arrival of her accountant, she doesn't have a lot of time for small talk. The pint-sized 32-year-old leans forward, fixes the young woman from Mexico with a steady gaze and asks what she knows about baking.

Quite a lot, it turns out. The woman has been working at a nearby panadería,where she has learned to make pastries, flan, cheesecake, you name it. She's even gotten good at cake design, Maria's specialty.

A co-owner of El Quetzal bakery near the intersection of South Gessner and Harwin, Maria is looking for someone to work full-time in the afternoons and evenings. She seems to like what she hears from this eager candidate.

Deron Neblett

Spanning the generations: Soledad with great-granddaughters Griselda (left) and Marisely.
Photos courtesy of Juan Chanax
Spanning the generations: Soledad with great-granddaughters Griselda (left) and Marisely.

"¿Tienes permiso de trabajo?" ("Do you have a work permit?") Maria asks, adopting a familiar tone.

The woman glances at the guy who came with her, an emaciated man with timid black eyes who has been quietly pacifying a baby with a bottle of juice.

"No, no," the woman says, almost apologetically.

"¿Eres residente?" ("Are you a resident?")

"No."

Maria apologizes but says she cannot hire a person unless she is legal. She refers the young mother to a notary public who might be able to help, and tells her to come back when her papers are in order.

"It's hard because I know these people need a job," she says when they've gone.

It wasn't so long ago that Maria and her family were the ones who needed a break. Mayan Indians from the western highlands of Guatemala, they arrived in the 1980s as part of an improbable exodus that led hundreds from their community into jobs at Randall's supermarkets. The hardworking Chanas clan showed uncommon drive in their rise from grocery-store grunts to self-made entrepreneurs. But each step up the American ladder threatened to alienate them from the culture from which they sprang.

Walking the razor's edge between the traditions of home and the enticements of a land obsessed with all things new is an age-old theme for immigrants to the United States. As descendants of the first inhabitants of the Americas and natives of an area that seems straight from a different age, the Houston Maya add new dimensions to that tale. The mass migration north has transformed their rustic hometown almost as much as it has changed the immigrants themselves.

"Materially and economically, they're better off," says University of Houston sociologist Nestor Rodriguez, who has studied the Maya here and during repeat visits to the Guatemalan highlands. "But in other, human ways they've sacrificed a lot. They're leaving behind a beautiful culture."

Today Maria finds herself in the same position as many contemporary American women: independent, driven, divorced. She is raising two children as a single parent in a land that can baffle even the most jaded native.

But her business offers a deep, sustaining connection to home. It was inside her grandmother's adobe kitchen in San Cristóbal Totonicapán that she learned the art of baking -- slowly, patiently, by hand. The family matriarch's recipes are a key ingredient to El Quetzal's success, even if the Houston bakery has all sorts of gleaming machinery to speed things along.

Of course, when Maria's cousin Juan set out alone for the north more than 20 years ago, bread was the last thing on his mind. He was looking for a way to save his dying son.


San Cristóbal is a town of red-tiled roofs and family-tilled plots of maize in the lush forests of Guatemala's Sierra Madre. Sitting at the crossroads of the Pan-American Highway and the road to Quetzaltenango, Guatemala's second-largest city, it is the center of a municipality that includes a handful of outlying hamlets and farming settlements, according to UH professor Jacqueline Hagan, author of a book on the Mayan community in Houston.

The Mayan people who inhabit the region have been there for about 2,000 years, descendants of the storied civilization that peaked around 750 AD. Many in San Cristóbal speak the indigenous language, Quiché. Women to this day dress in the intricate, colorful garments that people in the area have been weaving for centuries.

Like most, Juan Chanax was born into a family of artisans and subsistence farmers. His heavy-drinking father died when he was just five, and his mother went off to find work in the capital, leaving Juan to be raised by his grandmother Soledad, a baker with five grown children, including Maria Chanas-Ordoñez's father, Esteban. (Family members attribute the discrepancy in the spelling of their last name to a bureaucratic mix-up in Guatemala.)

Soledad's kitchen was a hive of warmth and crack-of-dawn enterprise, as she and her workers fashioned a variety of baked goods to sell at local markets. Each town had its own feria, a weeklong celebration connected with the local patron saint. Such festivities -- as well as holidays and simple day-to-day life -- required bread. Juan would help load the goods into the bed of a hired pickup and accompany his grandmother on her excursions into the villages.

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