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The author and her mother with the tortilla

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Christ on the Comal

My mother was the first person to discover the face of Jesus in a tortilla — whether or not it was a sign from God, it changed our lives

On a spring evening in 1989, one of those sunny and windy days when I decided to stay home from school for the millionth time, I had just settled in for the night with a big, sodium-rich bowl of instant ramen and an episode of Three’s Company when I heard a knock at the door. As a 10-year-old latchkey kid whose parents worked long hours, you’d think the right idea would have been to just turn down the TV, the way I was taught to when Jehovah Witnesses came by early Saturday mornings. Instead, I dragged myself slowly off the avocado-green couch in the living room and cracked open the door.

A white couple stood in front of me, bearing cheesy grins and a giant camera. “Oh-lah! Is this the Rubio residence?” one of them asked. “We’re here to see the Jesus tortilla!” Them, and thousands of others who’d darkened our door over the last 12 years. They had come from somewhere across the country, and were “just passing through” Lake Arthur, our tiny town in New Mexico, probably en route to the Roswell UFO museum, some 35 miles north.

The original framing of the tortilla in the Rubios’ dining room

I showed the visitors to the small capilla where the Jesus tortilla resided. After spending its first few years in our humble dining room, the tortilla wedge had migrated out to a capilla that my mother and aunt built in the front yard, just to the left of my bedroom window, on top of a slab of concrete that my dad filled in late one night. I unhinged the glass doors that opened into the little shed, then stood by while they oohed and ahhed. Illuminated by candles that were lit every morning, the tortilla rested on a pedestal, gently framed and surrounded by a cloud of cotton. Behind it hung santos and milagros — including a large, vibrantly colored picture of my favorite, La Señora Virgen de Guadalupe — many left behind by visitors who had been healed, or at least hoped to be healed, by the tortilla. I couldn’t tell then if the couple had come because they believed that the tortilla contained some greater meaning or evidence of the divine or because, like many, they thought of it as yet another roadside attraction, a curious artifact of a kooky family with a bizarre story.

I used to be bothered by these seekers and everything they represented, but I look back now and realize that my family’s story is a unique one, that of a border people. That story, of course, was taken from us, like so many of the stories of our people, warped — and capitalized on — by outsiders who have no connections to our lives or our culture. As funny as it sounds saying it out loud to myself, even now, over the last decade I have surrendered to the impact made on my family by the face of Jesus appearing on my mom’s tortilla, and I have tried to reclaim that story, not just for me, but for my mom.

The morning that Jesus appeared to my mom, Maria Morales Rubio, started out an unremarkable one in October 1977, two years before I was born. She had woken up early, like always, and said a prayer — I like to say that my mom is the OG of prayer. She was always praying, and always in a slow, loud whisper:

“Dios te salve, María, llena eres de gracia, el Seńor es contigo.
Bendita tú eres entre todas las mujeres, y bendito es el fruto de tu vientre, Jesús.
Santa María, Madre de Dios,
ruega por nosotros, pecadores,
ahora y en la hora de nuestra muerte. Amen.”

She got up and made breakfast for my dad and older siblings, starting with the flour tortillas that her now-80-year-old hands can no longer make. She worked the masa while the comal sat on the old stove, absorbing as much heat as the tired burners could crank out. Once the comal was piping hot, she carefully laid out the tortillas, one by one. After cooking the tortillas, she laid each one on the counter, always right side up. (If you don’t know what that means, then you don’t know anything about tortillas.) She then started spooning on a filling of warm beans, eggs, and green chile. When she got to the third tortilla, she paused. There was a small mark, a burn from the comal.

The stain was tiny, a little larger than a quarter, but distinct. She knew what she was looking at, but she needed someone else to see it too, to acknowledge what she was seeing. She called out to my older sister Rosy, who is extremely Catholic — well, Catholic enough that the only thing that kept her from leaving New Mexico to join a convent is that she would’ve had to give up smoking — and asked what she saw on the tortilla. Rosy examined the scorch marks, and recognized the same thing that my mom did: the face of Jesus Christ.

The capilla built to house the tortilla outside of the Rubios’ home

To this day, my mom can’t describe exactly how she felt — chills, and some combination of “extraña, alegre, y con medio” (“strange, happy, and with fear”) — but most clearly she experienced a profound calling to keep the tortilla. Still, she wanted confirmation from a person of faith that it was a sign from God. The priest was dubious, at best, but blessed it anyway — and then, despite his skepticism, he told a few people, and then it just spread like wildfire. By the time my sister returned from school later that day, there were hundreds of people waiting in line to see the tortilla, seeking to believe in something.

At least that’s the story that’s been told and retold by my family for the last 40 years. I wasn’t there, and no doubt the story has evolved over time. That story, as ridiculous as it may sound, was a meaningful one for my family: At the time that Jesus appeared to my mom, she was struggling with deep depression; my father, who worked grueling hours, was battling alcoholism. After leaving Ojinaga, Chihuahua, and settling in Lake Arthur in the 1950s, and following decades of searching for stability, he had finally found a permanent position as a farmhand — one that provided just enough to get by with five growing children who were themselves attempting to survive as first-generation Americans in a home that was very much Mexican. In the midst of all of this, the family was on the brink of losing all hope. To my mother, the tortilla was a sign from God that He would make things better. And they did get better: Her depression faded, my father became sober, and our family, like many new generations of Americanos, had become just another typical American family.

After that first day, when hundreds arrived to visit the Jesus tortilla, people kept coming — and coming, and coming. In school, I became known as the daughter of the woman who made a tortilla with the face of Jesus on it. The first time I heard someone talking about a “tortilla kid,” I didn’t quite understand what it meant. I honestly thought it was just something that had to do with the school lunch that day, and someone might have been bragging about their home-cooked Mexican dinner from the night before. But as I eavesdropped, I realized it was coming from the boy that I was madly in love with (well, as madly in love as a 10-year-old can be), and that he was talking about me. I was devastated. Not only was this tortilla ruining my down time, but it was beginning to do a number on my young dating life. I was the Tortilla Kid.

For the next couple of decades, as the legend of the tortilla grew, so did my embarrassment. Tending to the tortilla and the crowds became a full-time occupation for my mom; I remember she started buying cheap 99 cent spiral notebooks so people could write down their information, because she was always so curious about where they came from. Over time, Jesus in a tortilla became a genuine cultural phenomenon. While people have seen the face of God appear in many guises throughout history, after my mom, other people began seeing Jesus appear to them in food; an early episode of The Simpsons, back when it was still funny, referenced it, albeit mockingly, setting the tone for how it’d be treated in pop culture.

Maria Morales Rubio, years before Jesus appeared in one of her tortillas

In the early ’90s, my mom went on the Phil Donahue Show, which I still cringe watching, and my sister Rosy appeared on an episode of the Oprah Winfrey Show about miracles. What had been a personal experience that helped my mom and family regain faith and hope in the world became a narrative about this funny thing that happened to a ridiculous Mexican woman — fodder for countless movies, stories, plays, and jokes, each new reference at our family’s expense more mortifying to me than the last.

On a spring morning in 2006, I was living in Los Angeles and frantically half-running down Boyle Avenue because I was late for work. But I had to call my mom. I had just heard the most terrible news: George Lopez, an actor to whom, once upon a time, I thought I could relate because of our common history, was doing a movie about the face of Jesus appearing on a tortilla, called Tortilla Heaven. I was angry that George didn’t at least reach out to the woman whose story he was contorting into a comedy that poked fun at Mexican culture. When I explained to her what was happening, and how upset I was, she responded, “Pa’que te ‘nojas? Si siempre te a dado vergüenza la tortilla.” “Why get mad?” My mom said. “The tortilla has always embarrassed you anyway.”

Hearing this, as I stood on the broken sidewalk on Boyle Avenue, hundreds of miles away from my madrecita, an intense heaviness bore down on my shoulders. Until that moment, I had taken my mom and her story for granted. I’d been humiliated by it, and I had spent much of my life perpetuating the same false narratives about my family. An instance that still sticks with me took place a few years prior, while working at an internship in Washington, D.C. I was living with some fellow New Mexicans, and one night, as we were sitting around drinking cheap beer and sharing stories about home, someone randomly brought up the quirky story of the Mexican lady who’d made a tortilla with the face of Jesus on it. For a second, I thought about changing the subject. Instead, I said something like, “Yeah, I know the family.” Then, “Yeah, it happened in Lake Arthur.” Finally, it all came out: “Yeah, it was actually my mother.” And I laughed with them — dying of shame inside while I sat there making jokes, mocking my mother and her story.

Shortly after that phone call, I resettled back in New Mexico; the shame and embarrassment that I had endured for more than half of my life had been transformed into pride. Not just in my ability to reclaim the story and tell it like it is, but to talk about the tortilla and the experience of my family as one of the frontera and the people who live there. Today I serve in the New Mexico state legislature, representing the border city of Las Cruces on the front lines of the challenges facing our communities along the U.S.-Mexico border — whenever I’m tempted to lose hope, I find it again by thinking back to how my mom regained hers through a miraculous skillet burn on a freshly handmade tortilla.

Angelica Rubio is a New Mexico state legislator serving the border city of Las Cruces, as well as the executive director of NM CAFé, the largest faith-based community organizing entity in southern New Mexico. She has blogged as the Tortilla Kid since 2014.