American Breadwinners

Deron Neblett

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.

"¿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?")


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.  

Guatemala's civil war formed a bloody backdrop to Juan's youth. The U.S.-backed military regime used broad strokes to paint whole indigenous regions as sympathetic to leftist guerrillas, clearing the way for right-wing death squads to massacre thousands. San Cristóbal maintained a low profile through the conflict and was spared the deadly violence of other areas. However, the artisan economy took a hit because people were afraid to travel and sell wares at markets in neighboring villages.

Even in the best of times the prospects for the Maya and other indigenous people were few. Juan's formal education ended after elementary school. He spent his early teenage years working in the weaving shop of an aunt. When he was 17, his uncle Esteban set him up with a job stitching sweaters in a factory in nearby Quetzaltenango. Paltry as it was, the regular paycheck allowed Juan to marry his sweetheart, Florinda, in 1974. Their first child was born later that year. Marco Antonio would change the course of their lives, but not in the usual ways.

The toddler kept falling ill. Juan's grandmother dug into her bread earnings to pay for doctors in Quetzaltenango. They diagnosed the problem as an "infection" and prescribed antibiotics, to no effect.

"We never knew what was wrong," Juan, 46, says today.

Toiling in a dead-end job was bad. Being unable to cure his child was hell. Juan was stuck in this awful bind when a fellow factory worker mentioned that his brother had just returned from the United States, and hadn't done half badly for himself. These were passing words, but they stuck with Juan and pointed to a way out.

In September 1978, he kissed Florinda, Marco Antonio and their newborn baby girl good-bye and boarded a northbound bus.

"I was afraid and I was sad, because I had never left my family," he says.

According to Juan, the Border Patrol nabbed him trying to sneak into Laredo five different times, and each time he claimed he was Mexican and got deported. On the sixth try, he says, he got through. Juan knew of a pair of elderly sisters from San Cristóbal who had gone to Houston to work as housekeepers. He tracked them down and they helped him secure work as a live-in for a family in the Memorial area. It was during a shopping outing at a Randall's that he met a Guatemalan who told him of a job opening on the grocery store's cleaning crew. Juan applied and got the job.

His steady remittances home allowed Florinda to bring young Marco Antonio to Guatemala City for tests. On Christmas Eve in 1980, she called him with the news: Their little boy had leukemia.

Within a month, Juan was back in Guatemala to fetch his family. Against long odds, he says, he was able to obtain passports and tourist visas for all four of them. The next month they were settled in Houston. Juan felt certain that the doctors at Texas Children's Hospital would work wonders. His hopes were soon shattered: Marco Antonio's cancer had advanced beyond any hope of saving him.

The child spent the last year of his life shuttling between home and hospital in a strange new land. Tutors came to give him some schooling. His parents showered him with love. Despite their best efforts, Marco Antonio died in February 1982 at the age of seven. Juan and Florinda brought him back to Guatemala and buried him in the family plot.

Juan's journey out of the highlands did not, in the end, save his son. It did offer a new life for hundreds of his struggling townspeople who followed him to Houston.

In the 1980s Randall's hit a growth spurt, jumping from 15 supermarkets in the Houston area at the beginning of the decade to 42 by the end. With the opening of each new store came jobs. From his cleaning post, Juan Chanax had the inside scoop on the company's needs. He would send word to family and friends back home whenever positions became available. Each recruit added his or her own fresh connections to the network, until hundreds of Maya were at work at the stores.

Rodriguez, the UH sociologist, has studied the Houston Maya since 1985, and visited San Cristóbal numerous times. He says the built-in social relations within this community gave Randall's a highly disciplined labor force.  

"If you came late to work, you didn't just have to explain to your boss why. You had to explain to your uncle," he says. "That's a huge source of authority in traditional Mayan culture."

People in the highlands began to view the future not in terms of the meager living they could scrape from the family loom or maize fields, but with an eye to the faraway place relatives returned from each year in shiny cars and new clothes. They faced the thorny problems of illegal border crossings and obtaining false documents, but became skilled at overcoming those obstacles. Different amnesty measures and other opportunities would ultimately allow many of the Houston Maya, including members of the Chanas family, to become legal.

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."

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.

"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.

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.

"The only way to have all of this is to work more than the regular," he says of his house.

With an eye to the future, Juan and Florinda have built another two-story home, this one in San Cristóbal. Replete with a deluxe kitchen and furnishings from Houston superstores, the abode is ready. They plan to go back for good after they've saved a little more and the younger of their two daughters has finished school.

Americans to the quick, his girls rarely wear the traditional clothing of Mayan women. But Juan shrugs this off as a tolerable trade-off for what they have in the United States. Griselda Soledad is a beautician, and Marisely is studying to be a nurse -- opportunities they never would have had in Guatemala.

"Life there is slower and a little calmer. You could say healthier," he says. "But we can't aspire to something more."

The San Cristóbal to which he returns will not be the same one of his childhood, thanks in no small measure to his role in creating a bridge to Houston. Satellite dishes now sprout up next to the small plots of corn, and the drone of television has replaced evening conversations. Professors Rodriguez and Hagan note in a chapter they co-wrote about the Maya that the number of stereos, appliances and other electronics from Houston "gave rise to a movement to convert the town's 220-volt European-style wiring to 110-volt U.S.-style wiring." And San Cristóbal today sometimes seems like a town of the very old and very young, says Rodriguez, who estimates that 2,000 working people and their families live in Houston.

The period of rapid growth for Randall's is now a memory. In the 1990s, the stores began replacing in-house cleaning crews with contractors, blocking off one avenue that had led many from San Cristóbal into the workforce. In 1999, the chain was purchased by grocery giant Safeway Inc. The number of employees was cut. The bakeries started making less from scratch and relying more on premade goods. Through all the changes, though, the chain continues to provide hundreds of Houston Maya with jobs.

"Randall's opened the doors and welcomed us," Juan says gratefully.

Like Juan, Esteban Chanas wants to retire to San Cristóbal. Going back would separate him from his children but bring him closer to his 92-year-old mother, who still gets up before dawn every day to make bread for the local markets. Maria has no intention of giving up what she has worked for in the United States. She still makes yearly trips to Guatemala and even sent her son to live with relatives for a month to learn Spanish. But she became a U.S. citizen last year and continues to dream big.  

She will help finance the sports bar that brothers Edgar and Edwin intend to open, and has her sights set on more bakeries.

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