Now Playing:

Arts & Life

Food | local

Meet Three Latina Entrepreneurs Inspired By Food, Culture & Tradition

Kayo Lackey/OPB

As you stroll through your neighborhood farmers market and browse through the stands stocked with baked goods and freshly made tortillas and tamales — and chat with the people selling their culinary specialties — do you ever wonder how these entrepreneurs got their start?

There are a variety of different paths to owning your own business, and many local organizations offer support to aspiring entrepreneurs. One of these organizations is Hacienda CDC. The Latino-focused nonprofit, which is based in Portland, supports families with affordable housing, educational opportunities and economic advancement. One of Hacienda CDC’s economic development initiatives is Micro Mercantes, whose goal is to grow viable businesses with multicultural services.

“We offer business trainings, one-on-one business consulting, access to selling platforms such as our catering referral services, considerations for capital and affordable kitchen rental,” says Jamie Melton, community economic development marketing coordinator of Hacienda CDC.

According to Melton, staff from 33 businesses have received business advising through the Micro Mercantes program this year, including Doña Paula Asunción of Mixteca Catering, Lucy De Leon of Tortilleria Y Tienda De Leon’s and Amalia Vázquez of Tierra del Sol.

“Generally speaking, we work with entrepreneurs who are committed to working hard, who attend and complete our trainings and who follow through on benchmarks, such as writing a business plan, setting and achieving sales goals, or applying for a Kiva loan,” says Melton.

“[Asunción, De Leon and Vázquez] are all very hardworking individuals who have family networks to support their dream of owning their own business. They are all willing to take risks, adapt to a modern business model, learn technology, ask questions and most importantly, they never give up,” Melton adds.

Hacienda CDC is also planning to open Portland Mercado, the first Latino public market in Portland, in early spring 2015. The market will offer fresh produce, groceries, specialty products, prepared food vendors and more. The Mercado will also host office spaces and a variety of cultural activities and events. Both Asunción and Vázquez are planning to sell their products at the Mercado.

OPB caught up Doña Paula AsunciónLucy De Leon and Amalia Vázquez to learn more about how they got their culinary businesses up and running.

Doña Paula Asunción, Mixteca Catering

Doña Paula Asunción of Mixteca Catering in Portland, Oregon, prepares traditional Oaxacan foods, such as tamales and mole sauce, to sell at local farmers markets.

“I love to cook!” says Doña Paula Asunción with a big grin on her face. Asunción spoke to OPB through an interpreter.

Asunción, who is from Oaxaca, Mexico and now lives in Portland, is a chef for Mixteca Catering. Mixteca sells Asunción’s Mexican food at several farmers markets in Portland, as well as through its catering services.  

Asunción’s journey to a culinary career wasn’t without its challenges.

She moved to the U.S. in 1989 and worked with her husband in the fields picking strawberries, pruning blueberries and chopping down Christmas trees.

“In ’92, my husband and I went to Oaxaca … I had a bad luck … because my husband passed away in 1993 … He got cancer,” says Asunción. She returned to Oregon with her six children and started working in the fields again.

One year, she broke her leg. “I didn’t know how to help my children out with money,” says Asunción. “So I wouldn’t get sad. I would begin to fry the chile to make mole. I would sit on the chair. I would begin to grill and I would make tamales at the table. For my children, I would sell. Just like that …”

Asunción began by selling her tamales to her friends, but after working with Micro Mercantes, she and her children started selling her tamales at St. Johns Farmers Market three years ago.

One of her tamales, “Oaxaqueño,” comes wrapped in a banana leaf with mole.

“The tradition is this mole,” she explains. “That’s the tradition of Oaxaca … When there is a wedding, anniversary or birthday or somebody passes away … It’s just pure mole.”

Asunción enjoys it when customers tell her they appreciate her food. “So now I go out to the farmers market where I am getting to know a lot of Americans that go to Oaxaca. And they say, ‘Oh … this is the true food we ate at Oaxaca.’”

Asunción hopes her children and grandchildren will carry on the family tradition. “What I want to accomplish is that my children would learn what it is I do. That’s my mission,” she says. “My grandchildren … I want them to continue the tradition when they have children. Or they would talk to their children, ‘Oh my Grandma cooked this way.’”

Asunción’s 4-year-old granddaughter, Mia, seems ready.

“I ask her, ‘Mia, taste the mole and see if it is good,’” says Asunción. “And Mia looks like she is a very prepared chef and begins to taste … ‘Grandma … the mole is very good!’”  

Asunción is planning to sell her tamales at Portland Mercado when it opens next spring.

Get the MixtecaPDX recipe for tomatilla salsa.

Lucy De Leon, Tortilleria Y Tienda De Leon’s

Lucy De Leon manages Tortilleria Y Tienda De Leon’s, a family-owned Mexican grocery store located in Portland, Oregon. De Leon enjoys cooking food from family recipes for tamales, chile rellenos and more.

In the kitchen located in the back of a family-owned Mexican grocery store, Tortilleria Y Tienda De Leon’s, Lucy De Leon makes tamales, tacos, chile rellenos, burritos and more from family recipes. De Leon sells her cuisine at their deli counter and through their catering service.

Lucy is the daughter of Anselmo and Francisca De Leon, the owners of the family business. Anselmo and Francisca immigrated to the United States in 1973 and Lucy was born in Texas. They have six children and Lucy is the youngest. “As a child, it was awesome to have all my siblings. We were always together wherever we went. We were the Brady Bunch, Mexican Brady Bunch,” says Lucy. 

The De Leons, 1981

The De Leons, 1981

photo courtesy of Lucy De Leon

When she was growing up, the family worked in the fields, traveling all across the U.S. to pick crops. “We’ve touched every state except for Florida,” says Lucy. “They would hire us to go to New York … to pick cabbage, cucumbers, to Minnesota to do asparagus … We’ve been all over.”

Ultimately, the family was hired to work at Townsend Farms in Fairview. After the season ended, Anselmo and Francisca decided to sell their house in Texas and stay in Oregon. They opened Tortilleria Y Tienda De Leon’s in 1999.

“Dad had his own vision of having his own tortilla factory. My mother at that time was already making tamales. As kids, even as when we were working in the fields, she would always be preparing food to sell. My father and mother always had a vision of having their own location,” says Lucy.

Lucy was attending college in 1999 and decided to leave school to help her parents start their business, along with her brother. Today Lucy manages the store and 16 employees. When we caught up with her, she was making colorful vegan tamales with black beans, bell peppers, onions and corn.  

“Our tamales are from [the] northern part of Mexico. They are much smaller than [the] southern part of Mexico like Oaxacan tamales,” she says. They offer several kinds of tamales and some of their masa has broth in it.

“It’s her [Francisca’s] way on how they do the masa. She says they are grandma’s and we’ve been just using that one,” Lucy explains.

Lucy received a bachelor’s degree in healthcare administration about a year ago while working full time and raising three children. “I wanted to prove to me that I can do it as a woman even though you are a mom, working full time,” she says. “Just to show my kids … it doesn’t matter what age you are … school … it’s important.”

While they were working in the fields, Anselmo had always encouraged his children to get an education.

Lucy is not planning to work in the healthcare field. “What I love doing is being here, being in the kitchen,” she says. “That’s my heart.”

Amalia Vázquez, Tierra del Sol

Amalia Vázquez, chef and owner of Tierra del Sol in Portland, Oregon, offers Oaxacan cuisine at a local farmers market.

“If you make good masa, your tamales is good. I think my tamale is very soft,” says Amalia Vázquez, chef and owner of Tierra del Sol. She sells her food at King Farmers Market in Portland and has a catering business.

Vázquez is from the small town of Tacache de Mina in Oaxaca, Mexico. She moved to the U.S. in 1994. “I came here looking for better job opportunities,” she says.

Vázquez was not a professional chef nor had she spent much time cooking before she arrived in Oregon.

“When I first came, I did not speak any English. It was too hard for me when I moved here because I had to do any kind of job because of the barrier of the language,” Vázquez recalls. She worked in the fields picking flowers and at various fast food restaurants.

Vázquez returned to Mexico in 2009 for a visit after losing her job in Portland. While she was in Oaxaca City, she began to think about starting a food business in Portland. With help from Micro Mercantes, Vázquez began offering her tacos, enchiladas and tlayuda at King Farmers Market a little over a year ago. Vázquez, her husband Juan and her children greet customers and make fresh tortillas at the booth.

“I feel very, very happy when people go to our booth and they see us making the tortillas and they think our food is fresh. I feel [like] they appreciate [it],” says Vázquez.

Vázquez is planning to move into Portland Mercado next spring and offer tlayudas, quesadillas, tacos and more. However, Vázquez feels she is offering her customers more than just delicious cuisine.

“The food I am selling is from my region,” she says. “I can share my culture by the food.”

Recipe: Tomatillo Salsa for Tamales By MixtecaPDX

Ingredients (Makes 2 Quarts of Tomatillo Salsa)

  • 2 quarts of tomatillos
  • 3 jalapeños
  • 1 serrano pepper
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 2 whole cloves
  • 2 whole black peppers
  • 1 cup water
  • ¼ cup ground cumin 
  • ½ cup canola oil
  • 2 tablespoons Knorr Chicken Bouillon (consommé)


  1. Pull the husks from the tomatillos and wash them under cool water until they no longer feel sticky.
  2. Boil 2 quarts of water. Once the water is boiling, add the jalapeños. Boil for 5 minutes, then add the 2 quarts of tomatillos.
  3. Let the tomatillos & jalapeños boil for 10 minutes. Don’t overcook the tomatillos. 

  4. Combine the tomatillos with all other spices and 1 cup of water in a blender and purée until well blended.
  5. Heat the oil in a sauté pan over medium heat. When the oil is hot, start by adding ¼ cup of the tomatillo mixture. Bring the heat to low, then add the remaining mixture and let it boil for 10 minutes, stirring
    occasionally, until most of the liquid is boiled off or until the sauce thickens. The salsa will be ready when it is completely boiled.
  6. To cool down, put it in an ice bath before storing it or before making tamales.
Hacienda CDC Latina entrepreneurs tamales