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The Flavors of Home

Sandra Gancz Kahan | February 22, 2024

People | The Cooking & Culture Project

The call of culture through food stays with us no matter how far we roam.

When Mayra Hernández Maldonado was just 12 years old, her parents surprised her and her four siblings with the news that they had received permission to emigrate to the United States. Despite the sadness of leaving the green hills of Tlalixtaquilla de Maldonado in the Mexican state of Guerrero, they shared a sense of adventure as they bid farewell to their friends and relatives to pursue the American dream. “Many people dream of such a chance,” her father told her.

Mayra’s family relocated to Austin, Minnesota, where her father was hired at the Quality Pork Processing plant and worked for a decade before accepting a job at Hormel Foods. Mayra’s first years in the U.S. proved challenging. On the bright side, walks over bridges to get to school became a thing of the past. In Austin, the morning commute was as simple as waiting at the bus stop. But language was a big hurdle. Conversations left her bewildered and tongue-tied, and she sometimes daydreamed of returning to Guerrero. “Give it time,” her mother would reassure her. “This change is tough on everyone.”

The family remained connected to their roots by preparing the traditional foods of Tlalixtaquilla. Together they recreated their favorite dishes, like huaxmole and picaditas. Her mother would grind corn in the manual mill she brought from her hometown in order to make traditional tortillas for every meal.

Mayra Hernández Maldonado dish

Working Toward Success

Her parents instilled the value of honorable work, teaching her that all occupations, when conducted with integrity, are worthy pursuits. “We brought you here,” her father would tell her, “but the path you choose forward is all yours.” Mayra finished high school and entered college, but dropped out to help support her family.

Mayra Hernández Maldonado and her family

In 2008, she started a job at Hormel Foods as a production worker. Soon she became a line worker and in 2023, she accepted the position of line supervisor, which helped her gain confidence and find joy in connecting with her co-workers on a deeper level.

She appreciates that she gets to work with people from many cultures and backgrounds, and part of her job as a supervisor is to make sure that newcomers grasp essential work regulations, understand the production processes, and become familiar with the necessary equipment. This sometimes involves finding translators to help clarify instructions that team members don’t fully understand because of language differences. She also values the continuous growth that comes with her position because it involves learning something new every day and feeling valued by her company and supervisors, which provides a deep sense of satisfaction.

Diversity in the Lunchroom

The Hormel Foods headquarters embraces a vibrant mix of nationalities, drawing individuals from all corners of the country and the globe. This diversity enriches the workplace but can also pose some challenges. The common goal among team members of pursuing a better life makes them feel like a second family. Through diversity they become a unified force.

Like Mayra, many of her co-workers retain their connection to their homelands through food. She loves the variety of cultural dishes team members often share in the lunchroom. She particularly likes to bring her quesadillas filled with mushrooms and nopal, the hearty pads of cactus that are commonly eaten in Mexico.

Mayra Hernández Maldonado and her team mates

A holiday gathering turned into a global feast when team members brought in dishes representing Mexico, Thailand, Burma, Ethiopia, Sudan, North Africa and the Philippines, just to name a few. Much of the food was new to her. What she thought was a familiar wheat tortilla turned out to be a spongy fermented flatbread from Africa called injera. Tasty Filipino steamed rice has become a group favorite. At the most recent potluck, Mayra prepared her family recipe for shrimp ceviche, a dish made by marinating shrimp in lemon juice, served cold with diced onion, tomato and cilantro.

The Goal Ahead

While the family remains deeply connected, getting together with her siblings has become infrequent given their busy schedules. Mayra makes a point of visiting her parents in Guerrero once a year with her children. She especially misses how her parents used to gather the whole family together for a big lunch every Sunday after church.

Her home country has never left her mind. Mayra’s senses come alive as she looks forward to being surrounded by the abundant mango trees that provide her favorite fruit among the lush beauty of Tlalixtaquilla. She can see in her mind’s eye the rolling hills and fruitful plains, where the fertile soil is used to cultivate the family’s milpa, an indigenous farming system where corn, beans, squash and chiles grow together for sustainability.

While she’s enjoyed her time in Minnesota and appreciates the opportunities it provided her and her family, Mayra looks forward to returning to her pueblito (little village) when she retires. The pursuit of a better life is a deeply personal quest that can sometimes lead us full circle, back to the places where our heart belongs.