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Sunday, Jan. 4, 2009 | On a cold morning before dawn, the streets of Old Town sleep, nearly deserted, calmed from their bustle hours earlier of restaurant-goers, shoppers and tourists. Streetlights shine against the fading navy sky, and a few strands of Christmas lights twinkle on shop roofs. A man sweeps the sidewalk in the shadows down the street.

One shop window on the street glows. Lights inside the front room of the Old Town Mexican Café illuminate a frenzy of activity, though the morning is just a few minutes older than 6 o’clock. Inside the window, two petite women clad in white dress uniforms toss and pat and roll and knead the corn and flour dough to make tortillas. They call themselves tortilleras. They are known as the Tortilla Ladies of Old Town.

One woman makes flour tortillas, massaging little orbs of flour dough — 50 of them, 51, 52, 53 — and flattening them with a rolling pin before laying them on the grill in the center of the room.

The other woman, Cristina Bahema, wears a red apron over her whites. She rubs blue paper on the grill, greasing the surface for her corn tortillas. She takes her watch off before pulling an armful of dough out of a bin underneath a corn-mashing machine and heaving it onto a black tilted counter. Her necklace and earrings sparkle as she kneads the dough.

Bahema makes 800 tortillas in every eight-hour shift, a quota she’s been meeting for years. The tortilla ladies, several shifts of them through the day and evening, are the hallmark of this restaurant, a symbol of Old Town itself. They work on display, their flurry of tortilla-making an exhibit for those walking past. Their tortillas are the foundation for many of the restaurant’s signature dishes, and the act of making them is a foundation for the restaurant’s tourist draw.

All most people ever see or know of Bahema is her work through the window, her hands shaping their meal, her work providing a distraction from their growling stomachs as they wait for a table.

But behind the glass is a woman whose determination carried her and her eight kids from a rural village in Mexico to a better life in the United States. These hands that squish corn dough every day are the same hands that sheltered her children as they hid in bushes from baton-wielding border agents. They are the same hands that learned the nuances of driving a car and holding a pencil as an adult, just because she set her mind to it. Those hands, small and remarkably young-looking despite years of tortilla-making, have held eight children, 27 grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren, and they make stew for the whole family every Sunday.

Today, she works. About half an hour into her shift, Bahema lines the bottom of a plastic bin with paper and cheesecloth, hanging a pair of tongs on the side. She sets up a work station, dipping her fingertips in lard before carving off small handfuls of the corn mash dough. She rolls a ball, then slaps the dough like a pancake between her palms several dozen times. Fingers smooth bumpy edges. She lays it on the grill. One tortilla down.

“Veintiocho años,” Bahema replies to a visitor asking for how many years she has done this day in, day out. “También,” adds the other woman, Esperanza Gualderama, from across the room. For 28 years, these hands have shaped tortillas here. Bahema says that she is so used to making tortillas all day that her hands don’t feel anything.

Conversation is sparse between the two, a few scattered bits here and there in Spanish as they work. The silence is punctuated by the clap-clap-clap-clap of tortillas being made. About 7 a.m., early morning patrons begin arriving for breakfast. The sky is light through the window now, and trucks and cars pass the restaurant in greater numbers.

Bahema seems to know innately when each tortilla needs to be flipped or pulled off the grill, even as she continues to knead and shape more. So much of this process — the amount of dough kneaded at one time, the dimensions of each tortilla — is completely dependent on the size of Bahema’s hands. As they cook, some of Bahema’s tortillas balloon up on the grill.

Bahema sees her bin of dough is empty, and so it is time to mash more corn. She learned to make tortillas in her hometown of Teloloapan, a small town in the state of Guerrero in southwestern Mexico. There, they didn’t have any machines — just their hands and the fire.

Here, a machine helps. Bahema pours pails of water in a large bucket of corn, until the water level rises to the top of the kernels. She pulls basketfuls of corn from the bucket and lets the water strain through. She pushes a couple of buttons, one red and one black, and the silver machine with a steering wheel begins to churn. With another pile of dough, Bahema repeats the process — knead, pull handfuls of dough out, roll, pat, cook, and flip. The bins are rapidly filling with tortillas, even as servers come to steal steaming baskets full for their customers.

She is among more than 25,000 food preparation workers and cooks in restaurants around the county, not counting fast food. And she is a face of San Diego’s tourism workforce, the mass of workers tasked with making this place a vacation destination, even — especially — in an economic downturn.

This was not always Bahema’s life.

She learned to make tortillas out of necessity. Her mother died when she was born, a memory she recounts through sudden tears even now. Her father took her three siblings and moved, leaving Bahema to her aunt. With her aunt disabled, she was forced to be the woman of the house. Her aunt taught her to make tortillas when she was 8.Teloloapan was rural, very isolated, without electricity, and so they mashed corn by hand and cooked tortillas on a wood fire.

She was abandoned, and uneducated. She didn’t know how to hold a pencil, had never attended school. These were the only skills she had, the ones that would allow her to cope with her situation.

She was married at 14, had her first child at 16, birthed another child every two years afterward. Eventually her brood totaled eight. Her husband went off to look for better work. His pursuit brought him to San Diego, to wash dishes and help in restaurant kitchens for months at a time before returning home.

But Bahema wanted to do more than cope.

She began to dream past the taxing circumstances, imagining what she could do to create a better life for her kids. She was sick of the separation from her husband. The couple decided to transition to the United States, to start life again there. Her youngest child was about 5 years old.

Not all of them moved at once. They brought just two of their eight kids at first, leaving the rest with family in Mexico. On another trip, they brought four more kids.

That time, just crossing the border was a harrowing challenge. Retelling the story, Bahema crunches her shoulders and wields a butter knife.

They approached the border at night, climbing a hill in the dark. The kids hid underneath a bush. They didn’t really know where they were going. The border patrol came with batons, hitting the bushes and yelling.

“Pollos! Pollos!” they shouted. “Come out, chickens!”

But the officers didn’t see them, and they passed by. Bahema and her family waited for the sun to come up and ran.

“We decided we’ve got to go — if they see us, they see us,” she says. “In the name of God, nothing happened.”

They reached the freeway on the American side. A taxi driver pulled over and yelled “Get in!” They crammed into the taxi and he drove them to the apartment Bahema and her husband had rented.

Bahema’s husband worked at a restaurant on the Embarcadero; she began work at the restaurant in Old Town. She set her mind to finding a way for all her kids to live in the United States. She wanted to learn and study, and drive a car.

It wasn’t enough to cross the border. Bahema wanted to live here with her head high. Though the task was overwhelming, Bahema refused to remain workers in the shadows, without papers. She and her husband hired a lawyer and became legal residents.

It was “muy difícil,” she says, and expensive. Though her husband expected it to be impossible, Bahema became an American citizen two years ago. She beams at that feat.

“I’m very decisive,” she says, smiling. “What I want to do, I do.”

Her husband is disabled now, unable to work because of a condition that affects his ability to swallow, though he is alert and can talk, she says. With his Social Security income, they pay someone to take care of him while Bahema’s working, and she cares for him on the weekends.

“My life has been poor, but it has been tranquil,” she says.

To see Bahema’s life now is to see the immigrant’s dream. Those kids that had barely attended any lessons enrolled in school. Now one’s a teacher, another a real estate agent, another a construction supervisor. Three of her daughters are married to great men, she says, men who don’t smoke or drink or hit them. Bahema cooks for the whole family on Sundays, a stew with pork and vegetables and corn. She even makes tortillas on her days off — when her family requests them.

It was to give them these possibilities that Bahema undertook the challenge of her own life. She is joyful at achieving it.

And she’s realized dreams for herself. She’s learned to write, and to pay bills. She’s a bit of an entrepreneur, selling cosmetics and organic vitamins on the side, including a joint supplement she says keeping her wrists and hands free of problems despite her days up to her elbows in mashed corn.

And though she’s 67, she can’t see the end of her working days. Maybe two or three years more, she says.

“I really like my job,” she says. “It’d be really hard for me to leave.”

Please contact Kelly Bennett directly at kelly.bennett@voiceofsandiego.org with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

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