As a line snaked down near Cinco de Mayo Place in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, on a freezing Saturday in mid-February, the back room of Tortilleria La Malinche was sweltering at 100 degrees. The exhaust hood above the imported Lenin machine, which was churning out and cooking corn flour tortillas on a conveyor belt, was broken. That left the co-owner, Jesús Israel Delgado Díaz, 39, and his crew of three sweating as they worked to knead, stack, and weigh their first batch—which they were giving away for free.
“I thought it would be easy—it was tortillas,” Ilsel Garcia, 25, his wife and the store’s co-owner, later joked. “How hard could it be?”
At the door, Garcia distributed a pound of tortillas each to the people who had gathered by the hundreds outside the Fifth Avenue corner store, which stands out on the gray New York streets, its exterior freshly painted in royal blue and golden yellow. Brightly colored papel picado, designs in paper, adorned the awning, visible from down the block.
Prospective customers had traveled from as far as Pennsylvania after seeing Garcia, a former hair and makeup stylist who was born and raised in the neighborhood, post about the new business across social media. The grand opening, live-streamed on Facebook, even had a clown and a DJ playing cumbia for those waiting.
For Mexican immigrants in New York, Tortilleria La Malinche offers a bit of nostalgia, for the tastes of home, but it also serves as a sign of a growing population, one with ascending influence in the city. Tortilleria La Malinche fills a void as the first business in Sunset Park dedicated to serving tortillas, a staple for families in the traditionally immigrant, working-class neighborhood. But more than that, Delgado Díaz and Garcia’s business represents the increasing visibility of Mexican Americans, who account for the third largest Latino group—and one of the fastest growing communities—in New York City.
“We’re trying to make it the most similar to Mexico—to a flavor that’s most like back home,” said Delgado Díaz, speaking in Spanish. His business logo shows the snow-capped Malinche volcano, for which the tortilleria takes its name, ascending from cornfields. The image is similar to the view from his home village, San Cosme Atlamaxac, in the central Mexican state of Tlaxcala. “That’s what we’re trying, so that people come back.”
For years, Delgado Díaz dreamed of opening a tortilleria in South Carolina, where he first settled in the U.S. nearly two decades ago. Since moving to New York about 10 years ago, he has seen relatives open their tortillerias back in the South. He began to think of starting his own while working in Manhattan restaurants, like the deli where he and Garcia first met, and where he worked as her prep cook. Married for three years, they saved to open their first business, with Garcia supporting her husband’s dream.
During the pandemic—after Garcia gave up freelance styling gigs and they went to South Carolina to be closer to family—they returned to Sunset Park on a July weekend to see family. Across from her uncle’s accessories store, which opened four years earlier, they found a shuttered Little Caesars pizzeria. A week later, the couple moved back and signed a lease to rent it.
Garcia documented the tortilleria’s progress on social media, garnering hundreds of likes and reposts on TikTok and Facebook. One photo showed a warm tortilla with fresh salsa made in a molcajete, or a mortar and pestle. In videos, Garcia showed tortilla production and explained how they started their machine each day, around 8 a.m. Then, they began inviting people, in February. The grand opening was a hit.
Every morning these days, Delgado Díaz mixes premade corn flour with water into a dough, massaging it before placing it in the Lenin machine’s press to make tortillas thin and circular, in pairs. He looks earnestly for tears on the tortillas coming out on the conveyor belt. Those that meet his standard then cook at upwards of 450 degrees, bubbling slightly to show they’re done. At the bottom of the conveyor belt, tortillas reappear for the staff to stack, usually 17, to make a pound. Before a final inspection, they get wrapped into a package.
In front of the store, tortillas can stay hot for two hours in the insulated bin behind the register. Before buying them, customers can peruse the growing number of small aisles of produce and imported goods, including Chamoy, a pickled fruit condiment, and dried peppers. Garcia takes recommendations for goods that Tortilleria La Malinche doesn’t have, like cocada, a coconut candy. They recently added chapulines, or cooked grasshoppers, a delicacy that tastes like barbecued sunflower seeds.
On a recent Sunday, Jimmy Castillo, 23, a criminal justice student at John Jay College, held a warm pound of tortillas as his wife ran to the butcher. He watched his daughter in a stroller as he sipped Sidral, an apple soda, the kind he used to have in Puebla, the Mexican state where he grew up after being brought there from New York. Having recently enjoyed La Malinche’s tortillas at a local restaurant, Castillo’s family went to the store for the first time. “It reminded me,” he said, “like I was in Mexico.”
While local restaurants and residents have made handmade tortillas, there hadn’t been a full tortilleria until now in Sunset Park, which has New York’s second highest number of Mexican immigrants by neighborhood, according to 2013 city estimates. Residents often resorted to lesser quality, big-brand tortillas.
One of New York’s first businesses to mass-produce fresh tortillas was Tortilleria Nixtamal in Corona, Queens, the neighborhood with the most immigrants from Mexico.
In 2009, Fernando Ruiz and Shauna Page opened that tortilleria after seeing a dearth of Mexican cuisine. Soon, with their machine visible from the storefront, people were clambering from across the metropolis to get tortillas. Whereas La Malinche makes tortillas using a corn flour mix that is more airy, nixtamal tortillas, as in the business name of the Queens tortilleria, denotes an ancient process of cooking corn in water and lime for a more hearty consistency. People have different preferences for tortillas—even of flour, a variety found in northern Mexico, which White Americans tend to know. But they’re always best fresh, according to Page, who identifies as a “bonafide gringa” originally from California but whose partner, Ruiz, is from Veracruz, Mexico.
“It was great to be on the leading edge of that trend,” Page said, “because we were also helping people establish a new way of looking at Mexican food.”
She added that while pre-pandemic production was up to 4,000 pounds per day, they now make about half that amid the pandemic. La Malinche currently sells around 1,000 pounds per day. Both businesses see greater sales on weekends. Still, Page said, New York sells far less than most other major cities with more established Mexican communities, like Los Angeles, Chicago, or Houston.
In oral histories told to the City University of New York’s Mexican Studies Institute, immigrants lamented the city’s lack of Mesoamerican ingredients, said José Higuera López, the institute’s director. Many would have family members bring cactus and red peppers from warmer homelands to the frigid streets in New York. Although more tamal carts and mole joints have appeared across the city, freshly made tortillas remain hard to find.
Most of New York’s Mexican population came in the 1980s and 1990s, tracing back to southern states like Puebla, Tlaxcala, Guerrero, and Oaxaca. Many started as cooks, housekeepers, delivery workers or construction. In 1990, the census counted just over 61,000 Mexican New Yorkers. Now there are over 330,000 New Yorkers who identify as Mexican, Higuera López said.
Brooklyn and Queens have been traditional settling points for Mexican families, many of whom are indigenous and have lived without legal status in the U.S. More recently, rising rents and gentrification in neighborhoods such as Sunset Park have pushed populations into the Bronx and Staten Island. Many of these same communities experienced immigration raids in the Obama and Trump eras that upended families.
Now, passersby regularly stop and peer into the tortilleria’s fogged windows as people wait in line to get goods. La Malinche’s opening, Higuera López, the researcher, said, gives hope to many. “Having a person of Mexican descent open a tortilleria in a brick-and-mortar store, I think, is a great image of how the community is becoming more stable,” he said.
The store stands down the block from a street corner renamed Cinco de Mayo Place in 2017, in honor of a 19th century Mexican victory against French occupiers in Puebla.
“There’s no doubt that the Mexican community has and continues to grow in political power,” said City Council Member Carlos Menchaca, the first Mexican American elected to office in New York State, who is now running for mayor. “That power comes through many different sectors, including the business community.”
Since opening, Delgado Díaz and Garcia have placed a bright saguaro piñata at the tortilleria’s entrance. A Virgen de Guadalupe painting—encircled with their first dollar bills—rested atop Poland Spring water packs, next to the window showcasing their tortilla machine. The couple wants people to peer through the window, like a “little museum,” Garcia said. They hope it harkens memories of what people left behind in Mexico, and something they can show their children.
“We’ve been pushed as immigrants,” she said. “It gives them more power to feel a little more like they belong here. A little more sense of belonging.”
Outside of the store’s fogged windows, Maribel Rodríguez and her other children stood under the awning, protected from a cold drizzle, waiting as her eldest son, Keven, 10, fetched four pounds of tortillas. The 40-year-old mother traveled from Coney Island to Tortilleria La Malinche twice before. She came again to restock.
It’s reassuring to have a tortilleria, she said in Spanish. “Since it’s the first, the whole world comes to buy here.”