Rubí Orozco shows Mexican-Americans a traditional way to eat better

In a poor area of El Paso, Texas, Rubí Orozco has pushed aside the junk food and reintroduced fresh, nutritious traditional Mexican dishes.

Courtesy of Lauren Villagran
Rubi Orozco talks with Latino children at a daycare center in El Paso, Texas. She's improving the diets of children by returning them to eating traditional, and healthier, Mexican foods.
Courtesy of Lauren Villagran
Rubi Orozco is improving the diet of Latinos in El Paso, Texas, by helping them return to a more healthful traditional Mexican diet, which includes more vegetables and grains.

It’s a Sunday morning and the Mercado Mayapan in El Paso, Texas, is bustling with activity. People order breakfast – variations like eggs scrambled with onion and nopales, or cactus; bowls of steaming pozole, a spicy soup with fat kernels of white hominy corn; black beans and handmade flour tortillas.

Spanish is the dominant language as customers order; cooks set plates on the glass counter and friends greet each other among the wood tables and benches.

Rubí Orozco pauses between bites of her breakfast burrito to describe the food revolution at hand in the Mercado Mayapan and in the community it serves. A traditional Mexican food market, paired with a cafeteria, museum, and cultural center, the Mercado Mayapan was created in 2009 as a center for hope in one of the poorest zip codes in America, where education levels are low, unemployment is high, and health challenges such as obesity and diabetes are widespread.

Ms. Orozco says she believes that healthy eating can be as simple as returning to one’s roots. Here, just blocks from the southern US border, that means going back to the natural foods of Mexico.

Grains of amaranth, corn, dry beans, and herbs adorn a small table Orozco has set up at the market. The foods are accompanied by explanations in Spanish and English about the health benefits of a Mesoamerican diet – what indigenous Mexicans ate before the Spaniards arrived.

That traditional style of eating is reflected in what the Mercado Mayapan serves in its cafeteria and at a daycare center that serves 40 area children – thanks to Orozco’s efforts over the past year.

A native of Cuernavaca, Mexico, just south of Mexico City, she grew up in El Paso and has witnessed firsthand the cultural disconnect that happens when families cross the border.

So she has instituted workshops on pre-Hispanic foods; she has pushed the Mercado’s cafeteria to cook healthier, more traditional fare; and – perhaps most importantly – she has created a healthy, culturally sensitive foods program for Mercado Mayapan’s daycare center.

The daycare center previously served heat-and-serve, packaged foods for breakfast, lunch, and snacks. Orozco arrived in 2010 and turned the model around: It now provides three fresh meals daily. Instead of Oreo cookies, the kids receive jicama (a turnip-like vegetable) or a smoothie made with amaranth grain. There is “less meat, more lentils,” Orozco says.

Practices also changed: Instead of shopping once a month for foods with a long shelf life, the daycare center workers shop once a week. And the fresh food costs less. Orozco notes that she has reduced the food budget to $800 monthly from $1,200.

Some children receive their most nutritious meals of their day at the Mercado Mayapan, given the difficult circumstances in which many live.

Some 60 percent of residents in the Chamizal neighborhood that surrounds the 40,000-square-foot Mercado Mayapan live below the poverty line. With a dearth of reliable grocery stores and not a single supermarket – in a neighborhood where 44 percent of residents don’t own a car – many families have restricted access to fresh foods.

In a 2004-2005 study, 69 percent of 4th, 8th, and 11th graders in the neighborhood reported eating 0 or 1 serving of vegetables daily. More than a third were at risk of being overweight or obese.

Adults in El Paso don’t fare much better: 24 percent are obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

The kids at Mercado Mayapan have learned to eat foods their parents have either forgotten or never tried – beets, for example, Orozco says.

She finds creative ways to get adults involved and educated, too. She sends out a food newsletter every three months. On occasional weekends, she holds picnics. The kids clamor for the veggies and pre-Hispanic foods they’ve been learning about, prompting their parents to try “new” foods.

The underlying idea is to simply reconnect the Mexican-American community to its heritage.

“The longer people are here, the worse their health outcomes are," Orozco says. "There's a forgetting of these things.”

Orozco and the Mercado Mayapan are creating a space for remembering.

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