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Monday, Jun 5, 2023

Behind Sunday Tacos, Alejandra savors home from Mexico to Middlebury

<a href="" rel="attachment wp-att-55379"></a> <span class="photocreditinline">Courtesy Photo</span><br />Alejandra prepares all food by hand out of a make-shift kitchen in her garage.
Courtesy Photo
Alejandra prepares all food by hand out of a make-shift kitchen in her garage.

Stuck on campus for the entire semester, many students long for home-cooked meals and the warm smile of someone preparing food just for them. Alejandra’s Tacos supplies both, accepting orders for tamales, empanadas, tacos and more.  

The go link go/sundaytacos leads to a sign-up form for Alejandra’s email list. And the menu, which goes out to her email list Friday evenings, changes each week. Alejandra makes the deliveries Sunday at 12:30 p.m. at the drop-off shed in front of 75 Shannon Street.

Alejandra prioritizes affordable prices over profit — $3 for each item on her campus menu — because, above all else, she wants to be able to share the joy of her cooking and culture with those around her. 

“I was born poor, and I’m sure I will die poor as well,” Alejandra said. “I’m never going to be a millionaire, but that’s not my goal. I have a different, more human goal: to create bonds, to give a little bit of Mexico to those who don’t know her, and, for my countrymen, to give them a dish that makes them remember their mother, their home, their grandmother. That’s what I want, and that’s what makes me happy.” 

Alejandra makes all of her food by hand, including the flavorful salsas that accompany each order of tacos and the corn masa shells encasing each empanada. Students can order for a Sunday lunch or stock up on items like tamales to pop in the microwave for a delicious meal throughout the week whenever dining hall food isn’t quite doing it for them.

In addition to now selling food to Middlebury students, Alejandra sells a wider variety of dishes out of her home in Addison County each Sunday and prepares meals for migrant workers on a daily basis. She hopes to continue to grow her business and save up enough money to eventually return to Mexico.  

Alejandra first immigrated to the U.S. in 2009 from her hometown, Querétaro, in central Mexico, joining her father in North Carolina. He owned a Mexican restaurant and taught her how to cook when she was not working her job at the paper factory. Within a year, her father moved back to Mexico to be with her mother, and Alejandra moved to Vermont, where she struggled to adjust. The cold came as a brutal shock to Alejandra, who had never seen snow before. She spent her first winter stuck inside her house, unable to drive on the icy roads, longing for the community she left behind.

Soon, she met and fell in love with the man who would become her husband and began cooking for her own family. Over the next couple years, they had three daughters together — twins who are now 11 years old and their now nine-year-old little sister.  

While her husband went to work at a dairy farm, Alejandra struggled to find a job. She takes great pride in her work ethic, and she couldn’t afford to sit idle. She needed to support her parents back in Mexico, and her medical bills for her diabetes were a constant strain on the family’s finances. Alejandra decided to start her own business selling food to other migrant farmworkers, many of whom work 12- to 14-hour shifts, leaving them little energy to cook.  

Her business and her reputation grew steadily as she began to cater some college events, providing food for the Spanish house, Juntos and other groups. Two years ago, she was offered an opportunity to teach a Mexican cooking class at City Market in Burlington. She quickly befriended her students with her vivacious personality and unfailing optimism, and they encouraged her to branch out and sell more of her own food. 

She started a mini restaurant out of a makeshift kitchen she set up in her garage and began selling food on Sundays. Over the last two years, her business has grown considerably, almost entirely through word of mouth. She now employs one or two other women each week to help her out. 

Sundays are a marathon. Alejandra begins cooking at 4 a.m., and the other women arrive to help her five hours later. They cook “until the meat runs out,” sometimes stopping at 2 p.m. and sometimes continuing until 5 p.m. It's grueling work, standing on her feet in a hot kitchen all day, though the music and the company of her friends lightens the load considerably. “My body is tired,” Alejandra said. While the hard work combined with her diabetes symptoms leave her completely drained, she still loves to cook. 

“Cooking is like therapy; it takes away a little of the sadness,” Alejandra said. “I’m not thinking about when I can return to Mexico. Instead, I feel comfortable and relaxed. It excites me to think about how my dishes will taste, if it will taste good. I love to see the happy faces of people when they say, ‘This is delicious!’” 

Though she loves Vermont, Alejandra longs for home. She misses the market she used to visit with her mother. Perusing the stalls for ingredients to use in their dishes, they would chat with local farmers selling their harvests and friends and acquaintances they ran into. She misses Sunday evenings when she would sit on the benches outside of church after mass and lick an ice cream cone from one of the vendors parked right outside the gates as everyone mingled in the afternoon glow. Most of all, she misses the sense of community and togetherness imbued in every aspect of life in Mexico. 

Some days, Alejandra closes her eyes and imagines she is a bird. With just a few flaps of her wings, she is airborne, soaring over the Vermont pastures, past the Carolinas where she first lived after migrating to the U.S. She flies across the border, over the Rio Grande, and through the desert. She imagines in just a few minutes, a few wingbeats she will find herself back home. But when she opens her eyes, the spell is broken.

She feels closest to home on Sunday afternoons when her customers gather on her lawn to eat her food. They set up picnic blankets and chat amongst themselves about their lives, troubles and families. Gazing over the picturesque tableau each week, Alejandra is reminded of the community she left behind in the new one she is creating through her food. 

“I think that cooking is a form of communication, of demonstrating love, of creating bonds with those you love,” she said. “It’s a form of saying, ‘I love you, and I care for you.’ And that’s why it makes me so happy to cook.”

Editor’s Note: The interviews in this piece were conducted entirely in Spanish, and the quotes were translated by the reporter, Sophia McDermott-Hughes. The translation of all quotes featured in the piece were corroborated by an independent native speaker. Alejandra’s full name has been redacted to protect her privacy.

Sophia McDermott-Hughes

Sophia McDermott-Hughes ’23 is an editor at large.

They previously served as a news editor and senior news writer.

McDermott-Hughes is a joint anthropology and Arabic major and Spanish minor.

Over the summer, they worked as a general assignment reporter at statewide digital newspaper VTDigger, focusing on issues relating to migrant workers and immigration.

In 2018 and 2019, McDermott-Hughes worked as a reporter on the Since Parkland Project, a partnership with the Trace and the Miami Herald, which chronicled the lives of the more than 1,200 children killed by gun violence in the United States in the year since the Marjory Stoneman  Douglas High School shooting in Florida.