Laughter, conversation and the dull thud of masa hitting the countertop echoes through the commercial kitchen where the women of Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church meet weekly to make tortillas. Some of the hands have changed and generations have passed, but the tradition—ongoing for the women of Our Lady of Guadalupe since 1957—continues.
The women now are in their third kitchen, this one with red tile and stainless steel counters filling the commercial cooking area inside the San Juan Diego Activity Center next door to the church. Strong hands knead, pull, and push, rolling out pound after pound of masa.
“You know what I call this group of ladies?” asks Vina Shattuck of Flint. “The pillars of the church.”
Small, round, beige balls of masa sit, gently covered in decorative cloth and waiting on trays lined with wax paper. The ingredients have come together with the help of at least three pairs of hands: one to mix the ingredients, another to knead the dough, and the last to shape them.
Soon the balls will be flattened. With a sprinkle of flour and the push of a rolling pin, they will take on a familiar round shape before heading to the cooktop to bubble and brown. After being scooped and flipped off of the cooktop, they will be left to cool. Then, finally, the tortillas will be stacked, packaged, and ready to eat.
For every five pounds of flour used, they make about six dozen tortillas. Each week, the ladies use between 60 and 80 pounds. Averaging seven women each week, the group will work from 8 a.m. to noon, turning out tortilla after tortilla. They call it the “Tortilla Factory.” It is a labor of love.
“We help each other here,” says Shattuck, the self-proclaimed joker who slides from station to station to help where needed, never pausing to adjust her white hairnet as it droops down over her eyebrows.
At 70, Shattuck is one of the youngest tortilla makers on-hand today. She is also the newest member of the group, joining in just about a year ago. A few feet away is Connie Aguilar, 79, who is one of the longest-standing members of the Tortilla Factory. Kneading the dough and placing it in a large bowl to leaven for a short period, Aguilar has been making tortillas for Our Lady of Guadalupe since 1958, when she moved to Flint from Texas as a newlywed.
Julia Perez-Stutso notes that the weekly group of women, mothers, sisters, and daughters used to be larger.
“It’s not the way it used to be,” says Perez-Stutso, who is also president of Our Lady of Guadalupe’s Altar Society. “A lot of ladies were stay at home moms, you know. And they could always come in here every Tuesday, no matter what. But now that this is a working environment, you know, you have to work, we get less people.”
It’s not a judgment. Just a fact. Time presses on. Some things change. However, week after week, year after year, generation after generation, the tortillas stay the same.
Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church is home for the local Hispanic community. Technically located just north of the city limits, the Coldwater Road church actively works to promote and maintain Hispanic culture and customs. This is where quinceaneras are held, the Hispanic Senior Club meets, and free English as a second language classes are offered. Mass here is in Spanish every Sunday at 9 a.m. (English at 11:30 a.m.), and the parish hosted its 60th Fiesta Mexicana this summer for the entire community.
Every week some of the tortillas are set aside, sold to help raise a few extra dollars for the church. Mostly though the women make tortillas for their church, for their families, their friends and neighbors. Handmade tortillas are served at Our Lady of Guadalupe’s community meal, hosted every Sunday after Mass.
Together, they sit down and break bread. It’s tradition.