By Brenda Palomo, Culinary School Program Manager
Every Thanksgiving is a chance for the American people to reflect upon their lives and actively express gratitude. Some days this task is harder than others, considering the news of natural disasters abroad, political discord at home, and in the business of hunger, so much poverty. But somehow, this time of year we are able to come together with our loved ones and be grateful – despite our personal trials and tribulations, notwithstanding the state of the government, and regardless of the negative headlines; heroes in our own tragic stories.
But there’s something to be said for being thankful not only around Thanksgiving, and in spite of hardships, but because of them, all the time, without self-proclaimed martyrdom.
“To complain at all is an embarrassment! It’s so embarrassing when you see other situations. You have to be thankful for every day and thank God, not just for life, not just for your food, but for all the bad things too! Or how else do we learn and grow,” says Maria Montoya, a student at The Culinary School at our Milford Branch. Her tone is dutiful and stern, and so is her attitude in everything she does.
When she applied to begin classes in September at our brand-new Culinary School, this passion of hers was what was immediately apparent. As Chef Tim and I walked her through the shiny new industrial kitchen, something besides the reflection of the stainless steel shone in her eyes. And though she nodded often in response to our commentary, she seemed genuinely speechless; she uttered not one word, and she held her hands clenched, occasionally and urgently rubbing with her thumbs. Soon thereafter, I found out exactly how extraordinary it was for Maria to be speechless, as she became more comfortable and descended on a mission to explain how she dreamt of being able to become a chef and what it would mean to her to attend The Culinary School. Maria’s words tend to have an essence all their own which demands the type of attention you don’t just hear, but you feel. That day, we decided to award her one of the scholarships we had available to prospective students.
Since that day, Maria’s gratitude has shone through every one of her tasks in school. She works with a fervor and determination unlike any other I have seen, eager to squeeze the most out of an opportunity that she clearly considers a Godsend. The more she very kindly shared with me about her life, the more apparent it became that she considered every step in the journey of her life a blessing. And it has been a long journey for her.
It began, as many great journeys do, in a very small town; the town of Rio Bravo, in the state of Tamaulipas, Mexico, bordering Texas to the North and the gulf of Mexico to the East. “The ham of the sandwich,” as Maria describes herself as the middle of seven children born into a humble family. They lived in a home made up of two rooms: The kitchen and a communal room where the family slept and generally lived under a roof made of aluminum sheeting. Maria’s father never attended school, but he instilled in his children a drive to learn as much as they could, telling them how he would ask to borrow his friends’ notebooks as they came out of school to admire symbols he would later practice on the dirt. Eager to make her father proud, Maria still retains her report card from elementary school documenting a near perfect record.
Similarly, Maria to this day honors every piece of advice her mother gave her. Any time I have vocalized my admiration for her efforts in the kitchen, whether it be her delicious cooking or her meticulous cleaning, Maria’s response tends to be prefaced with “My mother always told me….” Maria’s mother seemed to have had a strategy for everything from how to properly hold the broom so that its angle is most effective to how to season the perfect Mexican enchiladas, and it is evident in everything Maria does. She already has a reputation for making some of the best tamales in the area, and her fellow classmates always appreciated the days when she was responsible for preparing lunch. In the classroom, Maria is extremely organized and engrossed in every lesson, paying close attention to make sure nothing gets lost in translation. She has shown me the notes she takes, in which she has translated to Spanish every passage to make sure her comprehension is perfect. At quiz and test times, Maria is extremely focused, for if she misses one or two questions, she becomes very frustrated.
“I stayed up past 1o’clock translating the book, Brenda, because I needed to make sure I took care of my family before I could study. But I studied everything and I cannot believe I still got one wrong. My mind just isn’t what it used to be,” She confessed to me one day as I approached her desk with curiosity.
But it wasn’t exactly Maria’s frustration that drew me to her desk that morning. It was a tiny little stub of a pencil, no more than about an inch long between the eraser and the base of its point. I wondered if all of the school supplies I provided her with at the beginning of class had been lost; they couldn’t possibly have been used up by now. Before I could ask her anything, she shared with me something amazing.
As she spoke about her frustration with having missed a single quiz question, she reminisced on how as a little girl she had always strived to be at the top of her class despite the many setbacks her family faced. She remembered, “The teachers would always be asking for materials for class, and I would complain to my father because he wouldn’t buy it, but they simply didn’t have the money. We would use our pencils until they were smaller than this one right here, and I would try to borrow my friends’ materials, like a protractor which was very expensive, but it was very embarrassing.”
Maria dropped out of elementary school at age 12 so that she could begin working and helping her family. She reasoned that she would rather drop out than for her older sister to do so, since she was so close to finishing, and this way she could help provide her and her younger siblings with the school supplies they were lacking. Their eldest sister had already attained a relatively lucrative job at a tortilla shop on the other side of the Rio Grande, and Maria decided she would join her. So one day, instead of going to school, Maria headed towards the border, and paid a lady to send her across the river in an old tire.
Maria saved every penny she earned for her family. She bought her mother her first refrigerator, her first real dining room table and living room set, and installed a sink in their little house. Eventually, she and her sister managed to rebuild the little house and add a couple more rooms. “My mother was always telling me that I shouldn’t buy her so many things because it was in bad taste. But I wasn’t trying to be boastful, I was driven by the love I have for my family, and the desire for them to live better.”
Maria spent three or four years working with her sister in Texas, sneaking back and forth across the border by paying someone to carry them in the trunk of their car only a couple of times a year to visit the family. When she went back to Mexico she was old enough to attend adult night school and work at a local manufacturing plant during the day. Her dream was to save enough money to build a little room in the house where she could hold a salon and seamstress business, since she had quite a talent for both trades. That all changed when her sister died from cancer, and left behind 3 children under the age of 5. Maria took responsibility for her nieces and nephew, and to this day she calls them her children. But in order to take care of all their financial needs, Maria was forced to return to the United States to work as a housemaid, office cleaner, and babysitter. After some years she landed a job in a Delaware chicken plant, where she met her husband. Here, they built a life together and raised four children, now ages 10, 14, 17, and 19. Maria’s eldest son became state champion in wrestling, her eldest daughter is currently completing her senior year of high school and recently received an achievement award for having been on the honor roll her entire school career. The younger two are well on their way to following their siblings’ footsteps.
A few years back, after Maria was detained by immigration on a trip to visit her sick father in Mexico, Maria and her family’s accomplishments and clean record in the US compelled a judge to award her residency.
She begins her internship at one of Matt Haley’s newest ventures, Papa Grande’s this coming Monday. It is Maria’s first opportunity to work full-time since she became pregnant with her first child. Her work ethic in the classroom, the kitchen, and quite apparently throughout her life, is a perfect match with the principles of SoDel Concepts, and I have no doubt she will thrive in a busy kitchen environment.
“I can’t help but think that this opportunity came to me as if by some blessing. I never feel like I deserve such good things to happen to me. I felt like that when I met my husband, who is the most wonderful man I know, I felt like that when he bought me my house, I felt like that when I had my first child at 30 even though the doctor had said I could never have children, and I felt like that when I was able to come to this school. I have lived many things and I am eternally grateful for everything in my life. I never complained, I was always thankful and then I just tried harder if things were difficult, but I never dreamt that I would have the opportunities that I have now. I will always be grateful for this school, and I will feel indebted to everyone that made it possible for me.”