The Two Gilbertos: Creating Community Through Yucatan Cuisine

By Cara Rifkin

imageThe Mercado La Paloma is a charming and vibrant space filled with restaurants and non-profit organizations. Chichen Itza is a Yucatan restaurant at the center of the Mercado, not only for where it is situated in the market, but for its eleven successful years in business. Chef Gilberto Cetina and his son, Gilberto Cetina Jr., have been at the Mercado since day one. Their story warms the heart, and their food satisfies the belly.

Both men previously had careers outside of the culinary arts (Cetina a civil engineer, Cetina Jr. a computer technician) before making their living at Chichen Itza. Nevertheless, food was always a part of the family. Cetina’s mother had a restaurant in Yucatan, Mexico, and special occasions were always celebrated by cooking large meals. It wasn’t until spaces became available to vendors at Mercado La Paloma that Cetina decided to pursue his dream of owning a restaurant, just like his mother. Just after the grand opening eleven years ago, Cetina Jr. gave up his job to join the staff. Cetina and Cetina Jr. share a passion for cooking and working in the restaurant industry.

Through authentic Yucatan cuisine and incredibly engaging personalities, the father and son team have created a community for Yucatecan people living in Los Angeles. Family and friends gather every seven days for Sunday supper, and Cetina and his son are at the heart of this weekly occasion. They have incorporated family values into their business, and the community that they have created proves it.

Turkey for all in South LA

imageE.J. Jackson knew how desperately people would need him this year.

Before dawn he was up, lighting bonfires for the people already in line for his turkey giveaway.

He’s been doing this for 23 years, but this year the need was the worst he’s ever seen.

His volunteers have been working nonstop for the last few days.

“…We had to make up 20,000 boxes, 20,000 turkeys…And it gets bigger and bigger and bigger.”

Jodie Fallon’s a volunteer with the Jackson Limousine Dinner Giveaway.

She said last year it pulled in ten thousand people, tops.

Last week, Jackson was worried the donations would fall far short of the need.

But corporate and private donors stepped up to help.

Now he’s emptying two mac-trucks full of frozen turkey.

Since four in the morning, Fallon’s been…

“…Packing and packing and we’re still packing right now…I just had to get a break. I snuck out….but it’s a really good event and it helps a lot of people. See how many people out here?”

One of these people is Dee Brown. I met her when she was getting her friend to help her cut in front of people who’d been waiting in line since last night.

“Are people going to be okay with that? I hope so, I’m just going to slide in and pretend like I was part of the picture”

If you can’t tell by the lack of line etiquette, she’s new here.

She used to work in a hospital but got laid off. Her income’s all dried up.

And finding herself in line for food? It’s…

“Humbling, very humbling.”

She says her unemployment check hardly covers the rent. And everywhere, prices are rising.

“Well times are hard. You know, inflation goes up… Everything went up. You know, just a bag of potato chips is five dollars…But I didn’t notice that until I got laid off. And so when they offer things out here for the community, you know at the time I didn’t need it, but now since I’m laid off, I’m out here just like everybody else.”

Which is exactly why Jackson feels he has to return every year, Turkeys and groceries in hand, the Santa of Thanksgiving.

South Central Farmers oppose a controversial land vote

South Central Farmers haven’t grown their food in South LA for years. But they’re still fighting to come back.

WIC fears budget cuts will take a bite out of food programs

Listen to an audio story by Annenberg Radio News

WIC’s initials stand for “Women, Infants and Children,” and in Los Angeles, it serves 300,000 of them with healthy foods each month. Unlike food stamps, the program is limited to pregnant women and children under five, and provides vouchers for specific items.

One recipient is Alejandra Delfin, a mother of three, who says WIC provides a majority of her children’s food.

“They like the cereals, they like the fruits, they like nectarines,” she said. “They like peanut butter, the bread they give too, milk, eggs…they like everything WIC gives.”

Beyond the groceries, Delfin says, WIC is part of her community. She has been coming to the office on the corner of Washington Boulevard and Vermont Avenue for ten years, since she was pregnant with her oldest son. Her workplace is only doors away.

Inside the bland strip mall storefront, she sees familiar faces – Celia, Sandra, Alba – who have walked her through everything from how to breastfeed to the best afternoon snacks. Her son does well in school, she says, because she learned how to feed him a healthy diet.

Kiran Saluja, the deputy director of WIC in Los Angeles, says that is the kind of support the program aims to give.

“We are the extended family,” she says. “People don’t have those any more. We are the tios, and the tias, and the aunts.”

But, Saluja says, federal spending cuts could put tens of thousands of the people using WIC on a waiting list for aid. Pregnant women, the main focus of the program, would be given priority.

“If these cuts go through that would be the cruelest cut of them all, because we’d be telling a mother who’s pregnant, and maybe has a three-year-old, ‘We can serve you, but we can’t serve your three-year-old,'” Saluja says. “And no mother can do that.”

The cuts could also have a broader economic impact on the community, affecting stores like Mother’s Nutritional Center, a chain that sells only WIC foods.

“You can send a child into our store with five dollars, and they won’t be able to buy anything except nutritious products,” boasts manager Nancy Knauer. “They won’t be able to buy candy, liquor, cigarettes, snacks, everything is healthy.”

But Knauer worries that cuts to the program would lead the store to lay off some of its employees, 80 percent of whom are also WIC recipients.

“If we have to lay off people, then it really affects the community also,” she says. “The spending power – last year, more than 4.6 billion dollars nationwide was spent on WIC. So if that money is taken away, it affects every local community that we operate out of.”

That community includes people like Francy Anino, the mother of three-year-old twin boys. As she watches them playing with a puzzle in the WIC office, she admits that she doesn’t know what she would do without the aid.

“Spend a lot of money that I don’t have?” she says with a laugh. “Borrow money from people? I don’t know. I only have a part time job. It’s insane how much it’s helped.”

The proposed cuts to WIC are part of a bill that would reduce federal spending by $40 billion. Lawmakers who support it say that it is necessary to address the country’s growing budget deficit. Congress is expected to vote on the measure later this fall.

Ramona Gardens offers non-traditional restaurant experience

Ramona Gardens is not a place many Angelenos would happen upon. Encased by freeways, railroad tracks and the University of Southern California’s hospital, it is difficult to get to. The streets are wide and many of the buildings are empty, with paint chipping off their brick walls. A large apartment complex sprawls across one block, clothesline strung in front of every door. Power lines frame the buildings.

There are no grocery stores, no farmers markets and no community gardens. Ramona Gardens is a food desert, an urban area where people don’t have ready access to healthy foods.

The nearest restaurants are south of the 10 freeway, about a mile away. Many residents don’t have cars and, even if they were to make the trek, they can’t afford restaurant prices.

Ramona Gardens is one of the poorest neighborhoods in Los Angeles. The median family income is less than half that of the national average, and 37 percent of the residents live below the poverty line.

But once a week, restaurants come to town.

In a little grassy area just south of the apartment complex, a bevy of food vendors gather every Saturday morning. They set up collapsible tables and chairs, pitch tents and fire up grills. They sell pupusas, meat, veggies, fruit, funnel cake, sopas and quesadillas. People all over Ramona Gardens come.

“They’re like restaurants without walls,” said Jeanette Castro, who grew up in Ramona Gardens. For many, said Castro, this market is the one time a week where the neighborhood can eat food they didn’t prepare themselves.

Like most of the residents, the food vendors are Mexican immigrants. Teotu Reyes moved from Puebla, Mexico, seven years ago. She started selling food at the markets a couple of months ago to help pay the rent when her family couldn’t find work.

“There aren’t any jobs right now,” Reyes said. None of her family is legal, and work is hard to come by. “We don’t know how to read. We don’t know how to do another job. We’re country people, and that’s what we know how to do.”

So Reyes came to work at the market. She sells traditional Mexican food, just like she did when she lived in Puebla. She still wears the blue-plaid apron she brought with her from Mexico.

Now Reyes has regular customers. Many of the regulars are quenching a little homesickness; they love that they can order their favorite from back home, said Reyes.

“There are restaurants down there,” said Reyes, waving to the south, “but who can afford them?”

At her booth, as with many of the vendors, you can get a full meal for around $2 to $4.

“You can tell they’re all really grateful,” said Reyes. “You can tell they like coming here, ordering food, and sitting down to eat.”

Reyes comes at 5 a.m. with everything to build her booth: two plywood tables, a tent, coolers and cooking things. It takes her over an hour to set it up. By 7 a.m., the market is already swarming with customers.

The vendors aren’t there legally. They used to rent spaces in a parking lot for $5 a piece. They changed the venue to avoid paying the fee, and suddenly all types of businesses moved in – make-up, plants, new and used clothes, toys, shoes and produce. Now the scene resembles a hybrid between a garage sale, Mexican mercado and a Saturday market.

Some bring things from their own homes to sell. Others are business owners with merchandise. Few may have stolen merchandise, such as a card table with dozens of used watches in neat rows.

While Ramona Gardens is not in South Los Angeles, residents must go there to get to restaurants or grocery stores. And once there, they will find significantly fewer options than more affluent communities in Los Angeles.

In South L.A., there is one restaurant for every 1,910 people, verse West L.A. that has one restaurant for every 542, according to the Community Health Council, a think tank in South Los Angeles. What’s more, 1 in 4 South L.A. restaurants are fast food, compared to one in ten in the West.

Not having restaurants is hard on a community. Restaurants create a space for civic society to grow.

Gloria Lopez, a fictitious name to protect her identity as an undocumented person, comes to the market and sells barbecue chicken. But she can’t make it every Saturday. Though she depends on the market for income, sometimes she doesn’t have enough money the following week to buy the chicken.

Those weeks, she said, are devastating. She can barely feed her family.

But in a small way, this market is stimulating the Ramona Garden’s economy. It provides a place for commerce to happen.

“I don’t know what we’d do if we couldn’t come here,” said Lopez.

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Experts discuss the ‘politics of food’ in South L.A.

Experts discuss the ‘politics of food’ in South L.A.

imageThis week, the United States Department of Agriculture and Department of Health released new dietary guidelines. Updated every five years, the food pyramid taught in classrooms around the nation is a beacon of healthy food choices.

This year, the pyramid says Americans have been eating too much salt, so much so, in fact, that it urges them to cut their salt intake in half.

Despite the revamping of the food pyramid, despite the flashy graphics and colorful design that becomes more aesthetically pleasing twice a decade, Americans are getting fatter. Almost one third of adults in the United States are overweight or obese, compared to about 15 percent 30 years ago. Diabetes rates are skyrocketing.

The food pyramid is based on the assumption that good nutrition stems from individual behavior; individual behavior drives our consumption. People make choices, and making a healthy choice is a good decision. The question becomes, can everyone make that same healthy choice?

David Sloane, professor of Policy, Planning and Development at the University of Southern California, says we can’t. Sloane spoke Thursday in the Tudor Campus Center to a room full of University of Southern California students and faculty. He was one of four speakers during a lunch panel discussion on the “Politics of Food.”

Sloane, who has been studying food distribution for 11 years, says residents of South Los Angeles have far fewer choices than those in more affluent communities.

It is a crisis of equity.

Sloane’s research team did a series of comparisons between restaurants and grocery stores in West and South Los Angeles in 2001 and 2006, and is gearing up for another round this year.


Sloane’s team found that there was a discrepancy both in choice of restaurants and on the menus within the restaurants in South and West Los Angeles.

“West Los Angeles is one of those places where people have the ability to make those choices,” said Sloane. “It’s one of the richest food environments one could imagine in the United States. There are tons of fast food restaurants, but there are tons of fast food restaurants everywhere in the United States. The difference is, do you have a choice?”

Three quarters of the restaurants in South Los Angeles are fast food restaurants, compared to less than half of the restaurants in West Los Angeles.

“But restaurant distribution are just points on a map,” said Sloane. He also wanted to know about the options once inside the restaurant.

In 2001 and 2002, Sloane sent people into restaurants to answer a simple question of the menus. Not of people, just the menus. The surveyors noted the transparency of healthy alternatives.

The difference was statistically significant. In West Los Angeles, it was common; in South Los Angeles, it was practically nonexistent.

These choices, or lack thereof, make up the profile of the separate food systems. To create a comprehensive food profile of the two areas, the team factored in grocery stores, community gardens and alternative sources of food.

Sloane discovered that places with high minority or low-income populations have a very different profile than places with lots of money. Namely, they have far fewer choices.

“The simple statement that policy makers often make to those kinds of people, ‘Oh, just eat better, and you’ll be healthier,’ isn’t actually that easy to do,” said Sloane.

The impact is evident. South Los Angeles has both the poorest and most overweight people in the Southland. Over 30 percent of the population lives under the poverty line. Thirty-five percent of adults are overweight or obese.

Grocery Stores

imageGrocery stores between the two communities had a gap just as wide as restaurants.

“I’m an aficionado of Trader Joe’s,” said Sloane. “I can go to Washington and I can go to Trader Joes, I can go to Atlanta and go to Trader Joe’s, but I can’t go to Trader Joe’s in South Los Angeles.”

When looking at a map of grocery store locations in Los Angeles, the sparse distribution of stores in South Los Angeles might make one think that the community can’t support more. Sloane says that isn’t true.

Through tracking spending patters, Sloane found that tens of millions of dollars are exported annually to the ring of grocers around South Los Angeles, such as Culver City, Westchester and Downtown Los Angeles.

Not only does this mean money is leaving the already impoverished community, but it also indicates the grocers within South Los Angeles are not meeting the needs of the residents.

The team created a neighborhood food watch. Made up of community residents, the food watch group went to grocery stores with a checklist. They found a significant amount of grocery stores in South Los Angeles have expired food on the shelves. Sloane was surprised to learn that that there is no governmental body that regulates expired food in the US, with the exception of baby formula. Everything else is managed by private sector manufactures.

Steps Taken

The group came up with strategies to address problems at restaurants and stores.

Working with the community redevelopment agency and grocers, they began a campaign to get better food into South Los Angeles grocery stores about 10 years ago.

The group also developed incentives for grocers to move into South Los Angeles, including subsidies for opening stores in underserved neighborhoods.

Sloane says the initiatives have made a difference. “Is the food profile different today? Yes, it’s better than it was back then. It’s not better enough, there’s not enough choices, and there’s still big food deserts, places where it’s hard to make those choices.”

It was more difficult to think of solutions for restaurants. Because a large part of the problem were lack of choices within restaurants and a saturation of fast food, advocates pushed for a moratorium on fast food restaurants while the residents of South Los Angeles figured out how to improve the food system.

In the fall of 2008, the Los Angeles City Council passed the Interim Control Ordinance. The ordinance made a two-year ban on permits for stand-alone fast food restaurants.

When the ban ended last fall, residents came to the city council with a new solution: they wanted to manage the number of curb cuts.

All drive-thrus need to cut into the curb so cars can go in one side and come out the other. That means two new curb cuts per a fast food restaurant. By controlling the number of curb cuts, the community can control the number of new fast food restaurants.

The Planning Commission, the body that currently regulates the number of curb cuts, passed a piece of legislation giving the control of curb cuts to the communities in South Los Angeles.

Though it is small, it is enough to ensure South Angelenos can prevent fast food restaurants from clustering in one area.

What Next?

Sloane’s group hopes to create an economic food development food trust. Modeled after a program in Pennsylvania, the trust would have resources for people to start grocery stores in underserved communities that they would then pay back into the trust.

To address the lack of healthy options in restaurants, Sloane wants to create healthy food zones to complement the idea of curb cuts. The program would provide subsidize to healthy restaurants.

“We don’t just try to keep bad food out; we try to get good food into South Los Angeles,” said Sloane.

Photos courtesy of Creative Commons

Chichen Itza brings Yucatecan delicacies to South L.A.

Chichen Itza Yucatan Restaurant will celebrate it’s 10th anniversary in February.

Located in Mercado La Paloma, a food court that abuts the 110 freeway near the University of Southern California, the establishment is a family affair. Owned and operated by Chef Gilberto Cetina, his son Gilberto, Jr. and his wife, Blanca, the restaurant serves up Yucatecan delicacies such as Cochinita Pibil and Panuchos.

Yucatan food is a blend of Mayan, Spanish, Lebanese, and Dutch influences, says Cetina.

The chef, whose mother taught him to cook as a child, said he takes pride in bringing his Yucatecan recipes to patrons in the United States.

Watch Cetina describe his food.

Photos courtesy of Creative Commons

Sushi Virgins

By Crystal Gutierrez and Guadalupe Ortega, Fremont High School

As we walked into our journalism class Mr. Hwang was taking out sushi and some other weird-looking food from grocery bags and neatly setting them up on a desk. When he finished he stood in front of class and asked for everyone to please sit down. To our surprise Arturo, a classmate, was handing out chopsticks to the class.
We immediately knew we were going to have a sushi feast but most of us had no clue what so ever how to use chop sticks or what we were about to taste.

“Don’t worry I’m about to teach you guys how to properly use them,” Mr. Hwang said. Everyone felt relived and started unwrapping their sticks. I however broke my sticks–known to be bad luck– and my friend Chelsea, stabbed her food with her chopsticks—a gesture believed to invite ghosts.

The correct way to use your chopsticks is to wedge one in between your thumb and index finger and then place the other about an inch parallel to the other chopstick.

What I expected was nothing to what I tasted. I expected this weird raw tasting fish with gooey substances, but as I bit into the sushi I was surprised by its wonderful taste. I was eating dry seaweed with sticky white rice and other healthy veggies. Chelsea didn’t like it she said it tasted like, “salty, yet sugary fish”, but what I tasted was yummy non-fish tasting spongy sweet rice. Our sushi, unlike most, had no raw fish in it.

To top off our meal we had Mochi, a spongy rice cake filled with sweet red beans in the center. It was very sweet but I didn’t really like it. The Mochi tasted very different to other desserts that I’m used to such as chocolate cake or ice cream but everybody in the class seemed to like it.

Trying something new to eat helped me discover a new culture. Eating sushi was like going to Japan for my first time.

Photos by Guadalupe Ortega

Cool down with a smoothie from Dyna’s

imageThis unassuming little cafe, tucked behind the Steak and Fries in Baldwin Hills Shopping Center, offers a broad range of delights: including breakfast specials, pastries rotisserie chicken, Mexican food and Asian entrees. On one side, a coffee shop with giant muffins tantalizingly on display; on the other, a few tables allow room for a quick bite and a sampling of the free WiFi.

The menu is a little eccentric, ranging from breakfasts ($3.95 to $6.95) to burritos ($4.25 to $5.45) to teriyaki bowls ($5.95).

But on a hot afternoon in Los Angeles, the range of smoothies and milkshakes seem the most appealing. For $3.95 plus tax, these freshly made delights are cool and flavorful. For ice cream lovers, the “Banana Nut” offers a delicious mix of bananas, vanilla ice cream, peanut butter and apple juice. For a thirst-quenching, dairy-free option, try the “Mango Strawberry,” with mango, strawberries and a mix of apple and orange juice. The smoothies come out thick and cold: perfect for an L.A. heat wave.

A big plus to Dyna’s is that the cafe/restaurant seems to be pretty quiet in the afternoons, leaving plenty of room for weary wanderers to take refuge and refuel.

3745 S. La Brea Ave., Unit D, Los Angeles CA 90016.
Hours: Monday to Friday from 8am to 8pm; Saturday from 8am to 6pm; Closed Sunday
Phone: (323) 292-9262
Free WiFi for customers.
Open lot parking.

Menu Sampler:
Good morning! Dyna’s Morning Special: two eggs, two bacon or sausages, potatoes with bell peppers and onions, toast and a small coffee or tea = $6.95
Good afternoon! 1/4 Chicken Combo with two sides = $5.45
Good evening! Steak burrito = $5.45
Specials: Whole Rotisserie Chicken = $6.95