Healing Helpings

After fleeing persecution, a family starts anew-- and now has one of Tucson's most-loved restaurants

"Guatemala, you know the pain we have felt / leaving our loved ones behind / leaving you, our beautiful, / tormented country."

So begins Sandra Sanchez's tribute to her homeland, Guatemala, a tribute she wrote that now hangs in her restaurant. Sanchez, owner of Maya Quetzal on Fourth Avenue, fled Guatemala in 1985 with her family and came to Tucson, where she opened her restaurant in 1993.

I listened as she told the story of her husband being captured during the Guatemalan persecution. Sanchez demonstrated with her hands, showing how he was tortured.

"We were forced to leave," she said. Sanchez and her family went to Mexico City, but once their work visas expired, they had to leave again, so Sanchez, her then-husband (they are now divorced) and family came to Arizona.

We sat next to each other at a table near the back of the restaurant one Saturday afternoon. Sanchez sat facing the door, watching the customers come in and out. From time to time, she got up to help carry steaming, aromatic dishes to the customers and talk with the new chef, Hector Jimenez. During the moments she was gone, I studied the endless Guatemalan decorations that covered the walls.

There were numerous brightly colored homemade weavings, many of which Sanchez brought with her from Guatemala. One wall displayed photographs of Guatemalan life and children. The photos were taken by a friend of the family and sent up to Sanchez to hang, framed, in her restaurant.

Another wall features wooden masks. The masks, which are for sale, represent Guatemalan traditions. They are intrinsically carved with such detail that one must look at them a few times before seeing everything.

Sanchez's daughter, Wendy Jimenez, was nearby, translating her mother's quick Spanish.

"The restaurant name comes from Mayan--the indigenous people," said Wendy. "Quetzal means currency, of course, but also, it's a bird." She pointed to the large painting on one wall. The picture, a landscape scenery of Guatemala with houses and Mayan children, is done in soft blues, greens and browns. Two quetzal birds sit perched on a tree.

The painting was created by the late Bernice Muller, an artist who helped Sanchez and her family cross the border.

In Tucson, Sanchez met Rick and Kitty Ufford-Chase, founders of Borderlinks, an organization aligned with the Central American sanctuary movement and aimed at promoting the issues, cultures, lives and economy of people along the U.S.-Mexican border.

The Ufford-Chases were so taken with Sanchez's homemade Guatemalan cooking for church groups, students and friends that they offered to help her form the restaurant she now owns and runs with her family.

"Some of the recipes come from my family, and some I made up," Sanchez said, with a wave of her hand. "Everyone here does part of the cooking. We're family." Her most popular recipes include the chile rellenos, a green Anaheim chile stuffed with cheese, spinach and walnuts cooked in egg. It is topped with a homemade tomato sauce.

Another favorite, she says, is the pollo en pepian, which is shredded chicken simmered in roasted sauce and mixed with chile peppers, peanuts, tomato, green tomatillo, pumpkin and sesame seeds.

When I went in to eat on another visit, Mara Salazar, a waitress, served me. Not being a big fan of spicy food, I decided to try the pollo en mole, chicken simmered in chocolate sauce with tomato, dry chilies, sesame and pumpkin seeds. I figured I couldn't go wrong with chocolate--but I'd never had chicken in chocolate sauce, and I wondered if it would taste as good as it sounded.

In less than 10 minutes, Mara brought out my dish. I dug in right away, letting the chocolaty smell take hold of my taste buds. In the background, the radio played softly, mixing in with the voices of the customers, Spanish- and English-speaking. With the first bite, I was hooked. The chocolate sauce somehow had more of a plum taste than a chocolate taste, and it was very rich. I could taste the sesame and pumpkin seeds, and the spices were mild yet tasteful. This was definitely a good bet for a non-spice-lover like me.

As Sanchez wrote in her tribute, "God helped my family find our way to the good people of Tucson who opened their doors and their hearts, and helped us heal our wounds and start our lives anew."

Given the high number of customers who frequent Maya Quetzal, it's obvious the people of Tucson are grateful that Sanchez and her family are here.

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