'Home' Cooked Mexican Offering Opportunities to Women in U.S.

El Paso, TX—Customers say the rare menu items, fresh juices and community atmosphere separates Mercado Mayapan from most Mexican restaurants in El Paso.

“I’m used to this type of food. I’m from Mexico and this is the best place to come,” said Gabriel Acosta, who dines at Mercado Mayapan multiple times a week on his lunch breaks. “They use original ingredients.”

Mercado Mayapan and its sister restaurant, Café Mayapan, are located on El Paso’s south side. Mujer Obrera, a non-profit organization that offers job training and education services for women, operates the two restaurants. A couple decades ago, both locations’ buildings were garment factories, but after they were transplanted to Mexico in the early 1990s, several women were put out of work. Mujer Obrera came to their aid.

In 2001, they opened up their first cafe, Café Mayapan, to teach women the basics of working in a restaurant.

“Everything from how to be a waitress to be the head cook,” said Lorena Andrad, a center coordinator for Mujer Obrera.

The menu items come from home in Mexico, they are meals that have been passed on from generations.

“The women have authentic recipes. They aren’t anything you would find in any recipe book. They come from Mexico—many from the indigenous people,” said Isabella Rodriguez, events coordinator of Mujer Obrera.

In 2009, they opened a second location, Mercado Mayapan. The restaurants are known for their homemade molé, a rich sauce that goes on traditional Mexican dishes. Soups are also a hot item—beef, chicken, and tortilla soups are popular among customers.

All of the items on the menu are made from scratch.

“We are trying to cook our food in the most natural way possible, in the most natural ingredients,” said Ana Gomez, a café worker. (Andrad translated for Gomez.)

The restaurants don’t use processed cheeses or anything from a can.

“We don’t use any preservatives,” Gomez added.

Andrad said they are building relationships with nearby sustainable farmers, with the goal to eventually buy everything local. The meals are affordable. One can get a large meal for $5 or $6.00.

Jennifer Lucero is a regular at both locations. She said the love and commitment that goes into the food reminds her of a grandmother making food for her grandchildren.

“This Mexican restaurant goes beyond just the food, it’s the food that brings us here. Then we explore the other avenues,” Lucero said.

On the weekends, the 40,000 square foot warehouse where Mercado Mayapan operates is full of visitors, according to the staff. The space has a large venue area for dances, concerts and plays. Independent business owners set up shop at small booths on the side to sell artwork and handcrafted items. A market is also open daily for fresh produce as well as traditional Mexican candies and baked goods.

The staff members who operate the two locations say they have survived the economic downfall because of their rich reputation among El Pasoans.

“Our people make the business. It’s not an owner telling you what to do or how to do it, it’s a cooperative effort made by the women and they contribute—each and every one of them,” said Rodriguez.