- October 1, 2021
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REYNOSA, Mexico — It is a laborious job that requires teamwork.
Claudia Mena is the chief cook leading her daughters and other volunteers at Comedor Comunitario Meralki (Spanish for Meraki Community Kitchen). They have been cooking three times a week to help put food in the mouths of the thousands of migrants that have arrived to their hometown of Reynosa over the course of the last six months. Mena goes back and forth among the teenagers helping, organizing and overseeing them.
The community kitchen is comprised of members of the local community in one of the poorest parts of this Mexican border town. Many of the members struggle financially themselves and often live in fear of drug cartel violence.
The founder of the kitchen is Rodrigo Gomez, also known as “Chopper.” As the team focuses on cooking, he comes and goes in the only truck they have, buying items and ingredients they need.
The kitchen, he said, was founded to help low-income families in Reynosa and to serve as a social reunion point for children and teenagers, offering educative programs to help them leave a life of poverty and keep them away from falling into a life of crime.
But since the migrant arrivals, they now have thousands more to worry about.
“People here live in extreme poverty and it is very difficult for them. Many make a living even gathering trash and selling it for a small profit. But what costs us really to give them a little food and water? We do it often for people who really don’t deserve it. Why not for those who do?” Gomez said, referring to teenagers who, despite their efforts, often don’t come back to join gangs or the cartels.
Right now, in order to cook, they have to improvise with whatever they can. Claudia cooks rice in an aluminum basin for washing clothes and they have to heat the food with wood. Thieves broke in recently and took away several TVs and a few electronics they used for their programs, and almost all of their kitchen equipment implements.
“This is a place where we help people. To be robbed really wasn’t fair, but God may reward us back. We go on no matter what, giving to those in need,” Mena said.
Gomez himself is no stranger to the problems and evils afflicting the youth. After a dark period of his life, he overcame alcoholism and drug abuse. Today, he has made it his life’s mission to prevent others from going down that path.
“I changed because I want my children to have a better life than me. They were my inspiration. I wasn’t always able to give them a good life. Alcoholism and drugs destroys a person so much! Today my children come to me when I come home on my bike or from work. My oldest son hugs me and asks me ‘How are you daddy?’ ‘I’m OK, champ, here giving my best.’ I found God, I changed. I want to fight for the dream that is Meraki” said Gomez.
But the reality is they are struggling. Gomez said all of that they do comes out of their own pockets. The migrant arrivals have depleted their resources even more and the team does the best they can with what they have.
When the food is ready, they begin loading it into the back of their only vehicle, a 2002 Ford F-150 that has seen better days. They are asking the public for help acquiring at least a van for volunteers and field trips. Although they are ready to save and buy one, donations would be very appreciated.
If interested in donation, here’s a link to their PayPal account. For more information, click here.
“We don’t fit in this thing. What we really need is a van, a bigger van to transport the whole team. You’ll see how they go up there," said Gomez.
When it was time to go, we saw what he meant. Everybody climbed on the back of the truck, full with food and chairs and tables, holding on to whatever they can as they made their way to Plaza de la Republica Square, a 25-minutes drive away from the kitchen.
But they were not complaining at all. In fact, it felt like a field trip, laughing and playing along the way.
In order for everyone to fit, Gomez had to stop by his barbershop and get his baby: his bike. Besides being a barber, he is also a biker in his free time. But it really breaks his heart, he said, that he has to sell it to be able to continue operating the community kitchen. Nevertheless, for him, that’s the right thing to do.
“I only care about being OK with God and with my family. And most of all to give a good example to my children," said Gomez.
And when they finally get to the square, the migrants cheer when they see them come.
Children immediately form a line and the team begins to set up as the line gets larger and larger.
Despite of all the sacrifices they have to make, both Gomez and Mena are emphatic about one thing: they will continue with their mission till the last penny is spent, because it’s all worth it when they see a child smile.