Mis Ángeles: How A $100 Gift Card Helped A Lynwood Family Start A Menudo Delivery Service
This is a story about four women from Lynwood but it's a story about all of us. It's about menudo, too.
There's one woman working out of a closet, a makeshift radio studio where she broadcasts from home as part of On Air With Ryan Seacrest.
There's another woman, a Lynwood school district employee, standing in a church parking lot wearing a mask and handing out grocery gift cards to needy families.
Another woman, an abuela, is in her kitchen having a panic attack because the son who she lives with and who supports her just lost his job.
Then there is Miriam Rojo, the abuela's 20-year-old granddaughter, who gets one of those gift cards and does something basic but brilliant, which is the magic tying this story together.
"My husband and father had both lost their jobs and my grandma was having a breakdown," Miriam told me on the phone.
"So I had this $100 gift card they gave me, and I was thinking about how I can turn it into more. So I told my grandma, 'Can you make your menudo? We can sell it.' And so she did, and everyone got involved. My husband does supply runs and I handle the orders. My dad does the deliveries."
The family's Sinaloa-style menudo has been selling out every weekend since they started making it.
DON'T MISS ANY L.A. CORONAVIRUS NEWS
Get our daily newsletters for the latest on COVID-19 and other top local headlines.
The business doesn't have an Instagram account or even a name. Right now, they're just taking phone orders coming on a government-provided cell phone (get your order in now: 424-366-2016). But business is blowing up from word-of-mouth alone. They've even started selling handmade flour tortillas, a specialty of Sinaloa ranchos.
A Sinaloa rancho is where this story starts for the Rojo family.
All of them are immigrants. Miriam, grandma Rojo and much of the family are undocumented, so they don't qualify for unemployment or government aid, like a stimulus check.
'PEOPLE WHO KNOW PEOPLE WHO KNOW PEOPLE'
For me, the story started with my good friend and frequent collaborator Patty Rodriguez, an on-air radio personality with KIIS FM and book publisher who raised nearly $10,000 on Instagram to buy groceries for families in her hometown of Lynwood.
There, you'll find families like the Rojos who have been decimated economically by the pandemic, and whom the government, which benefits greatly from their cheap labor and billions in tax revenue, has largely forgotten.
"I feel, as a Latina still navigating my way through life and career in this country, I have a responsibility to help," Patty told me, speaking from the closet she has turned into an office and radio studio. "That's why I do what I do. That's why I help. Because I am them and they are me."
When I spoke to her, Patty had been up since 5 a.m. working on the Ryan Seacrest radio show thinking about how she hadn't eaten anything all day. But she was also thinking about her "responsibility to help others."
"I have had incredible opportunities that do not happen to people that look like me," Patty said. "I want to live a life that I hope inspires others."
A few weeks ago, that sense of responsibility had moved Patty to call the city of Lynwood to see if she could help children and their families. She was worried her hometown school district would be forgotten. "Big donors help LAUSD. Smaller districts in L.A. County don't get the support. They are always forgotten," she recalled. "I just wanted to help the students and their families in Lynwood."
It just so happens Audrey Casas, a 20-year veteran of the Lynwood Unified School District, was already trying to independently raise money to do just that.
Through a mutual friend, Patty and Audrey, who is a school office manager, got connected. Patty sent Audrey $1,000, which bought 10 families groceries. Patty said she had wanted to help for a while but was unsure how. She had a suspicion many of her 100,000 Instagram followers would feel the same way.
"I have a platform and am grateful that I have been able to create a community with such a big heart," Patty said. "When I get behind a cause, this community steps up."
In the past her Instagram followers have stepped up to help raise money for migrant families and other causes close to Patty's heart. They came through again, contributing a total of $10,000.
That donation went to Audrey, who by this time -- in just a few weeks -- had created an organization that was raising thousands of dollars and feeding hundreds of families on a regular basis.
I called Audrey to see how she did this and from the moment she began speaking, I felt electrified by her energy. She spoke eloquently and passionately and pretty much non-stop for 20 minutes.
"A lot of our students were telling me their mom or dad lost their job," Audrey said. "Like, 'I don't even know what we're going to eat tomorrow.' I was losing sleep. I was like, 'I can't keep hearing these stories and not do anything.'"
Audrey posted a call for donations on her Instagram page. Like a spiderweb of generosity, she started connecting with people, such as Patty, who wanted to help and organizations that had money but no idea how to reach the people who needed it the most. Now, she has a small but effective network of charities and donors that are feeding thousands of people in Southeast L.A. County.
Audrey's group usually hands out gift cards at coordinated "social distance fairs," usually held in a Lynwood church parking lot or at one of the schools. They are having a huge event on May 6 at Cesar Chavez Middle School.
"It's amazing to see what we can do. It's like we are all connected. It's just people who know people who know people who know people -- coming together to help each other," Audrey said. "But it's not just about people being in need, it's also about how the community hustles."
HOW MENUDO SAVED THE DAY
At the same time those wheels were turning, the Rojos were looking at a bleak situation.
Miriam Rojo's family was broke. The family's providers were unemployed, her baby and toddler were hungry, and the landlord was asking for at least part of the rent.
Then, about four weeks ago, she saw a post on Instagram from Audrey at the school district, saying some local families could get food assistance, thanks to Patty's initial donation.
"I was embarrassed at first but I finally sent Audrey a message asking for help," Miriam recalled. "And she brought over a $100 gift card. Instead of spending it one time and not having money again later, I flipped it."
Flipped it into menudo ingredients, that is. That menudo -- and all the menudo that has followed -- is providing a small but steady income stream.
"And now, each week, we are saving a little more from sales," Miriam said.
I asked Miriam what it felt like to be able to support her family right now. I asked her if her grandma was proud that her menudo had saved her family from what felt like the end of the world.
She said they were both proud to be part of L.A.'s long tradition of hustle and survival.
"It feels good, honestly, to work really hard," she said. "We were low here. And it's been hard for a long while, honestly -- so hard. But it feels good that I was able to think of something. And I'm not saying we're doing great, but we're doing alright."
That's the truth for a lot of Los Angelenos right now, I think. It has been hard for a long time. But when I hear stories like these, I think maybe we are going to be alright someday soon. Cuz L.A.'s a town for hustlers like these four women. And menudo, too.
About the Mis Ángeles column: Erick Galindo is chronicling life in Los Angeles for LAist. He took on this role after serving as our immigrant communities reporter. Erick came to us last year from LA Taco, where he was the managing editor.
MORE FROM ERICK GALINDO:
- Meet The Woman Who Answers Questions For Undocumented Angelenos
- How A Downey Food Bank Is Helping Feed Families Who Have No Safety Net
- This Is What It's Like To Get Tested for Coronavirus In Los Ángeles
- It Hurts To See Los Angeles This Way
- Living On LA's Margins, There's Not Much Time To Obsess About Coronavirus
- How Carnicerias, Liquor Stores, Tienditas And Latino Supermarkets Are Feeding Their Neighborhoods
- 'I Am Straight Up In Tears Right Now.' Why Kobe Bryant's Death Hurts So Much