Lucila Velázquez, one of the “Top Tamale” chefs at the St. Francis Center in Los Angeles, shows off one of her cheese tamales. (Blair Wells/KQED)
This morning, the bustling kitchen of the St. Francis Center in downtown Los Angeles, near Skid Row, is filled with the pungent aromas of chilies, onions and garlic. Four huge covered pots steam on top of large stoves. It’s a well-worn community kitchen that has been a beacon of support and services for the city’s homeless and low-income residents for decades.
But today there’s a twist. The people who normally receive services from the center are running the show. They’re giving back through a holiday tamale-making party, or tamalada. And it’s all thanks to the spirit of community and care that the center fosters -- one person and one meal at a time.
Lucila Velázquez obviously knows what she’s doing. Without stopping her conversation, she grabs a softened oja (corn husk) and spreads masa, or corn dough, onto the smooth side of the husk. “Jenny,” she yells sweetly to one of the younger kids across the room. “Are you going to help?”
She and a handful of other folks stand side by side at long tables lined with oversize metal bowls. They’re stuffing the masa-covered oja with cheese, shredded pork and chile verde. A few quick folds of the husk and they move on to the next one. The rush is on. The holidays are almost here.
For the past 45 years, the St. Francis Center (situated on a street appropriately called "Hope") has been providing hot meals to people living on or near one of the poorest stretches of the Los Angeles streets.
Marianne Kulikov, development director for the center, stands nearby admiring the volunteers making the tamales.
“We serve about 100,000 meals to our homeless guests every year,” she says with a clear sense of pride. “We have about 200 to 300 guests come in each morning for a hot meal.”
And sometimes it’s their only meal of the day.
The center also has a food pantry to help low-income people, many living on the edge of homelessness. People like Lucila Velázquez.
“I’ve been coming here for about 20 years,” Velázquez explains. “My kids have been coming since they were little for after-school programs, summer camps and even Zumba.”
Velázquez gets her groceries from here, too.
“The pantry program gives us different items like vegetables, beans, rice, meat and eggs. Sometimes they have hygiene products like shampoo and even dog food,” Velázquez says.
Items Velázquez says she couldn’t afford on her own. She works at a nearby clothing factory and says she barely makes ends meet with her low-wage job. She says that, without a doubt, the center is the reason she and her family survive.
“One hundred percent of the families we serve fall well below the federal poverty level,” Kulikov explains. “So being able to provide them with something where they don't have to worry about where their next meal is coming from to feed their family is just huge.”
Kulikov says recipients of the food bank can get groceries here once a week and take home about 50 pounds of packaged and fresh food.
“We go out and rescue food from the community,” she says. “So it equates to about $2.5 million worth of food that we're rescuing from local partners like Target, Costco, the Regional Food Bank and Trader Joe's.”
The center also offers health services and a hygiene program, where people can come in for a hot shower and receive clean clothes. It’s all run on a tight budget with a small staff, so it relies on volunteers.
That’s part of the reason Lucila Velázquez is here today.
“It's really important for me to be able to give back,” she says. “All my kids have been involved in the programs here. They've helped us out so much and in so many different ways that any time we can give back, we do.”
But there’s also another reason she’s in the midst of this community tamalada. Several years ago, a group of local women who rely on the food bank came up with a fundraising idea to help the center -- a tamale-making contest they dubbed "Top Tamale."
It was a little competition that made a big impact. Each year, the Top Tamale champs win the honor of having their family recipes used for the center’s tamale-selling fundraiser.
“I won,” Velázquez laughs. “Twice!”
This year Velázquez’s recipe won the cheese tamale competition. That’s why she’s here today with her family and friends, cranking out what will soon be 4,500-plus cheese, pork, sweet and chicken tamales.
“So right now we’re preparing the cheese tamales,” she explains.
It’s a traditional Mexican recipe she has since passed down to her five kids. Two of them are here helping: Heidi and Erik.
“I am wrapping the tamales in this sheet so the cheese can’t escape,” Erik explains, as he wraps a thin paper sheet around the oja of a finished tamale. He quickly added, “I wouldn't want to make them alone. If I have my sisters and my mom with me, yeah.”
That’s because tamales are hard work. They take many hands. Hands to mix the masa. Hands to shred the pork. Hands to chop the chilies.
“My hand is on fire because I was cutting chilies last night and I didn't put gloves on,” he admits. “So I have to dunk them in water like every five minutes.”
Making 4,500 tamales is no easy task. So every Sunday for the past two months, Velázquez and her kids have come here to cook.
Kulikov says all the proceeds from Top Tamale sales will benefit the food pantry. She adds that this couldn’t happen without help from people like Lucila Velázquez.
“Lucila has been a guest of our services for several years now and she would just come in," Kulikov says. "There's always those guests who want to give back, and that's what I think makes St. Francis Center so unique and so wonderful.”
The last of the tamales are finally packed in plastic boxes. This weekend, people from all over L.A. County will drop by to pick up their tamales just in time for Christmas. And whether they know it or not, they’ll be sharing in a tradition that has been carried across borders and passed down through generations.