header icons

Good Food Isn’t a Luxury at Casa Juan Diego in Houston

New York Catholic Worker Farm
by L. V. Díaz

In Javier Zamora’s memoir Solito about his “trip” in 1999 as a lone, nine year-old from El Salvador to the United States to join his parents, he recalls the few tasty meals he ate during his harrowing six-week journey that took three attempts to get across the U.S.-Mexico border.

There was the fried, fresh fish in Acapulco that the coyote brought up to the seedy motel room where Zamora and his fellow migrants were holed up; the carne asada on warm tortillas, sprinkled with diced onion and cilantro and adorned with radishes, sliced limes, pickled jalapenos and carrots in Nayarit; the chilaquiles with salsa and cheese in a safe house near the border; and the refried beans and yellow rice with queso fresco and flour tortillas that the nuns served at the shelter just inside the Mexican border, where Zamora took refuge having been caught crossing the border for the first time.

Zamora wrote as he waited for the carne asada and tortillas in Nayarit, “We’ve been eating tasteless meals. I want GOOD food.”

Providing a good meal is what I strive to do at Casa Juan Diego, where I volunteer and cook lunch once a week.

 On a recent Wednesday morning in May, I pull up in front of the women’s and children’s house around 9:30 a.m. and am greeted at the door by the ayudantes who hand out bags of food to the scores of people who show up for the food distribution. I’ll be cooking for around 45 people, who include almost 40 women and children guests and a half dozen or so volunteers. The numbers vary, but on this particular Wednesday the house is full to overflowing – a result no doubt of the end of Title 42 on May 11. The policy allowed authorities to quickly expel migrants at the border in an effort to stop the spread of COVID-19.

No matter, lunch will be ready to serve at noon. I am joined by my friend and co-chef Lisa. On the menu are baked Mediterranean fish, black beans, cilantro and lime rice, pico de gallo, roasted beets, lightly fried zucchini and yellow squash, warm garlic bread and a salad, followed by blueberry Bundt cake and freshly sliced papaya with lime.

 It’s menu that provides good, healthy and tasty dishes with options for the fussiest of children — hence the rice and beans, the few Muslims amongst the guests and vegetarians. It’s a menu primarily centered round the food Casa receives from Houston Food Bank, along with the seasonal vegetables from Casa’s expansive vegetable garden and our own contribution of what I refer to as “luxury items,” capers, cilantro, olive oil, butter, bread rolls and the homemade cake. And to be perfectly honest, it’s a menu meant to impress.

The fish is pollock, baked with Lisa’s special concoction of cilantro, garlic, lime juice, orange juice, olive oil, capers and seasonings and freshly picked cherry tomatoes from the garden. The lettuce, arugula and yellow banana peppers from the garden will go into the salad, while the beets from the garden will be roasted.

As we go about preparing our meal, guests and volunteers wander in every now and again wanting to know what’s on the menu, whether they can help or just to catch up. There’s always a lot going on at CJD – whether it’s new arrivals to welcome, guests coming and going on appointments, volunteers rushing in and out or children running around. Despite the trauma and dismal circumstances many of the guests have experienced, there’s laughter and hope and goodwill.

I started volunteering at Casa Juan Diego in the fall of 2018, after learning about it through a good friend who’d been volunteering there. The work sounded interesting and varied, and I was looking for something meaningful to do as a diversion between trips to the U.K. to help look after my mother as she battled terminal cancer. At the time, I wasn’t able to commit to anything regular as at any moment I might have to drop everything and leave. No matter, I was welcomed and put to work immediately, as volunteers always are when they show up at Casa. There were donations of clothes and household wares to sort out, packages of food to assemble, school supplies to package, storage rooms to organize, bedrooms to clean as guests left and new ones arrived.

Just a few months into volunteering I was back in the U.K. to be with my mom one last time. She died on Feb. 1 2019. On my return to Houston, I started up at Casa again, relieved I had somewhere to go a couple of times a week and gratified that I’d been missed, despite the brief time that I’d been volunteering. It says a lot about the unique community of volunteers and Catholic workers who welcome all, whatever their motives!

 When an opening came up on the week-day lunch schedule, knowing I liked to cook the same friend who told me about Casa recommended that I fill in on Wednesdays. I quickly enlisted another friend to help, and together we plan the menu and show up each week to cook lunch.

 It’s been more than four years since I started volunteering at Casa. It’s given me friends, a beautiful diversion as I grieved for my mother, a sense of purpose and a window into the lives of the men, women and children who make the often treacherous and heart-breaking journey to the U.S. from places like Venezuela, Cuba, Honduras, El Salvador, Republic of Congo and Haiti. Casa Juan Diego is a stopping place for all who come, and most Wednesdays they can count on “GOOD food.”

Annette is one of a number of volunteer cooks we rely on at Casa Juan Diego. Others include Lenore Walker, the Smith family, St. Anne’s, the Hispanic women’s group from St. Martha’s, St. Theresa, and St. Leo. St. Ignatius sends sandwiches several times a week. Fratelli’s restaurant helps.


Houston Catholic Worker, July-September 2023, Vol. Vol. XLIII, No. 3