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.

One of the first people Juan set up in Houston was his uncle Esteban, the same man who had landed him the job in the sweater factory a decade before. Juan returned the favor by getting Esteban on a Randall's cleaning crew in 1980. While he was in the United States, his wife, Liberata, took Maria and their three sons to live with her mother in Guatemala City. The family would eventually join Esteban and become part of a generation of Maya who got to know the United States through the bright, antiseptic world of plenty that is an American supermarket.

Eri, the eldest, was not yet 20 when he started working at a Randall's in well-heeled Kingwood. He felt comfortable enough among his fellow workers. After all, his father headed the crew. The terror came from contact with the mostly Anglo clientele, largely because his scraps of English disappeared whenever he was put on the spot.

"Somehow…you get afraid," he says with a laugh. "You don't know what they're saying."

Rolando Cahuex heads the baking of the diverse offerings at El Quetzal.
Deron Neblett
Rolando Cahuex heads the baking of the diverse offerings at El Quetzal.
Quetzal worker Alicia Aparicio delivers a tray of freshly baked goods.
Deron Neblett
Quetzal worker Alicia Aparicio delivers a tray of freshly baked goods.

The fear melted as his English improved. The Chanas clan became a model for the kind of upward mobility Randall's afforded those who played the system right. After graduating from high school in 1988, Maria went to work preparing salads at the store at Voss and San Felipe. The 18-year-old, who had spent years as a child helping her mother sell tamales and other dishes in the chaotic streets of Guatemala City, quickly mastered that skill, and began casting about for other opportunities. She became a cashier and later took a position in video rentals.

At 19, she married a man from San Cristóbal who worked on a Randall's floor crew. A daughter soon followed. Despite these responsibilities, Maria continued to push herself professionally. One day she decided, "It's time for me to move to the courtesy booth," a position that involved cashing checks, counting money and other key accounting matters. She says she was the first Hispanic in her store to land such a job. At 24, she was making $11 an hour. She twice earned employee-of-the-year honors. Her father garnered similar accolades at his store.

It was Esteban's clear vision for the future that guided the family's rise up the food chain. An upbeat soul with a jutting jaw and blocky build, he spent his youth learning the bread maker's craft in his mother Soledad's bustling kitchen. He longed to open a bakery of his own, but Guatemala's dire political and economic situation rudely booted that dream away.

In Houston he found a plethora of Mexican bakeries, but none that specialized in the sweet coronas, anise-flavored xecas and doughnut-shaped roscas of his homeland.

"We are Guatemalan bakers," he says proudly of the family birthright.

Rodriguez, the UH professor, came to recognize the significance of bread to the Maya during his visits to Guatemala. Frequently, as he was preparing to return to the United States, someone in San Cristóbal would ask him to take back samples to a loved one in Houston.

"This is bread of Holy Week or bread of fiesta. This bread has symbolism. It represents community and culture," Rodriguez says.

At Randall's, Esteban moved from the floor crew to the bakery. There he learned styles and techniques that reflected the eclectic tastes of American consumers. He found himself making doughnuts, bagels and loaves of European-style bread. He operated a gas oven that dwarfed the brick horno at the heart of his mother's kitchen. Son Eri made a similar switch and got his first lessons in the art of baking bread amid the machines and high-speed production of Randall's.

At Esteban's urging, Maria took a pay cut to transfer to the bakery department to learn cake design. The store sent her to Houston Community College to increase her speed and skill. By the mid-1990s, the Chanases were scouring the area for a suitable location for a bakery of their own. They learned of a Mexican woman who was looking to sell her panadería on South Gessner. Esteban, Eri and Maria put up their houses as collateral to secure a loan, and bought the space. Maria left Randall's in December 1996 and went down to San Cristóbal to take a crash course in baking from Soledad, who was then approaching 90.

The family opened its first Houston bakery in May 1997, naming it after Guatemala's reclusive national bird.

The aromas of many baked goods blend into one seductive scent at eight o'clock on this recent morning at El Quetzal, as customers ponder the enticing spread behind the Plexiglas of the bread cabinets. The selection is a fusion of influences: croissants, doughnuts and kolaches; Mexican conchas, empanadas and bolillos; and numerous Guatemalan varieties, some directly from Soledad's culinary arsenal.

With marimba music bouncing happily in the background, the early risers wield tongs to pluck the items that catch their fancy. In back, head baker Rolando Cahuex makes coronas, a sweet bread named for the jagged strip set atop the main body, like a crown on top of a head. A woman from central Mexico named Angelica stands over a large vat stirring a sweet-smelling corn drink called atol de elote.

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