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.

"Not every woman can make atol de elote," Maria says, watching Angelica stir. "If her blood is hot, the corn will crack."

Maria and her mother, Liberata, taught Angelica the long process of mixing up the thick drink of pure corn, cinnamon, sugar and salt, and also how to make Guatemalan tamales of rice and potato, wrapped in banana leaves. Liberata and Esteban divorced in 1994 for reasons no one in the family seems inclined to discuss. Now she spends her days at El Quetzal working the cash register, while he and son Eri run a second bakery, which they opened on Long Point in July 2000. Meanwhile, Maria's younger brothers, Edgar and Edwin, divide their time between business courses and managing the original bakery.

As for herself, Maria spends much of her day preparing cakes for weddings and quinceañeras, in addition to crunching the numbers. She arrives at work at 3 a.m. and is out in time to pick up her seven-year-old son, Andrew, from school and be at home when 12-year-old Alyssa steps off the bus.

Juan and Florinda plan to retire to this recently completed home in San Cristóbal.
Courtesy of Juan Chanax
Juan and Florinda plan to retire to this recently completed home in San Cristóbal.

Maria says she always thought she and her ex-husband, Juan Carlos, a bakery manager at Randall's, would grow old together. However, he became increasingly frustrated by her crazy schedule and round-the-clock worrying about the business. A self- professed workaholic, she chided him for lacking ambition. Last year, he asked for a divorce. Family members tried to intervene in the manner of elders in San Cristóbal. Juan and Florinda Chanax, the two to whom many turn in difficult times, sat them down to talk through their troubles. They divorced anyway.

"The fortune that one seeks has a cost. In [Maria's] case, it was the divorce," Juan says. "I don't know what I would do if my wife got a store and I never saw her."

Maria has no regrets, except for the emotional toll on her children. She says she and her ex-husband had been growing apart for a long time because she was not willing to play the role of the subordinate wife. She relishes life in Houston, where she can drive, manage her own checking account and run her own business.

In Guatemala, "the woman has to take everything from the man even if he cheats on her," she says, mixing a pot of arroz con leche in the kitchen of El Quetzal. "She has to wait at home till he returns and gives her money. Here you don't depend on them. Here it's really good."

It wasn't the old battle song about the "halls of Montezuma" that grabbed him, but Edgar Chanas thinks it might have been the commercials -- heady testosterone-heavy depictions of tough guys with guns doing cool-looking stuff around the globe. At least that's what he says today, with a robust laugh. Actually, he saw the military as his best ticket to college and therefore entered the Marine Corps in 1997. For two years, he was stationed in Japan and eventually had dozens of men and millions of dollars' worth of machinery under his command.

In some ways it's not hard to imagine. At 26, he's a scrappy fellow with a buzz cut and muscles and a certain melodic elasticity to his voice that makes it seem well suited for barking out orders even to people far taller than he.

With his copper skin, high cheekbones and a nose that's both rounded and flat, Edgar could easily be mistaken for an Asian man, as he often was on the streets of Okinawa. UH professor Rodriguez says that is only fitting since the indigenous people of the Americas came from Asia, crossing a land bridge that formed in the Bering Strait during an ice age thousands of years ago.

"He may well be the first of the Maya to return to the land where their ancestors are from," Rodriguez enthuses.

Edgar seems less apt to cast his experience in some groundbreaking ethnographic light. But he smiles at the memory of how people in Japan and Thailand would go straight to him and start talking whenever he was out with his marine buddies. He even got hired as a bartender by a Japanese business owner to earn a few extra bucks.

"Certain people, you could feel the warmth," he says.

Edgar's military service ended in 2000. A former sacker and pricing manager at Randall's, he now is studying business administration at UH and plans to open a sports bar with members of his family. He says his military experience helped clarify his feelings about his bicultural upbringing.

"This is my country, and I'll do anything for it," he says. "Same with Guatemala."

The house looks much like the other middle-class dreams along this cul-de-sac near where Bellaire Boulevard intersects State Highway 6. It's two healthy stories of red brick and gables. A green SUV sits in the garage, an American flag in the front yard.

Inside is an image of the suburban good life. The furniture is faux-colonial and shiny enough to cast a glare. Juan Chanax, in a navy-blue sweater and khakis, sits on a plush sofa in the spotless white living room, opining softly on life. For a man whose journey has inspired books and academic papers, he maintains the humble bearing of a devout evangelical Christian who still works 75 hours a week. When he is not toiling as an assistant produce manager at a nearby Randall's, he takes care of lawns and assists his wife, Florinda, with her housekeeping work, among other things.

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