The tortilla that captured a moment of hope - Albuquerque Journal

The tortilla that captured a moment of hope

Maria Rubio holds the famous tortilla with an image of Jesus on it on Dec. 5, 1977, in Lake Arthur. (Jim Nachtwey/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal

A thumb-sized image of Jesus Christ’s face that appeared on Maria Rubio’s tortilla in Chaves County captivated the world’s attention in October 1977.

Some saw the apparition in Lake Charles, a small town in Chaves County, as a sign from God. Others treated it like a sideshow.

Angelica Rubio wasn’t even born when her mother made the discovery, but she has nevertheless spent her life in the shadow of that tortilla. Rubio, now a Democratic state representative from Las Cruces, admits that, as she was growing up, she was embarrassed by the mockery the story generated.

These days, she sees the incident as a sign of hope – one that profoundly changed her family for the better.

Rubio’s story is being featured on the Apple podcast “Little America: The Official Podcast,” a nonfiction exploration of the immigrant experience in America hosted by Kumail Nanjiani. It is available to listen to beginning on Thanksgiving.

Rubio was already familiar with the podcast and welcomed the opportunity to highlight her family’s immigrant experience.

“Many of these stories aren’t given the space and the focus,” she says. “All of the horrible things in the world puts immigrants into this ugly place. Our country is about the immigrant experience. By telling this story, I’m able to give justice to my parents because they came here for a better life for their children. My story and my mom’s story are uplifting.”

She calls it a New Mexican story, noting that “so many folks around our state remember it. I feel like it’s a very universal story. As long as you have faith in something, change can happen. That’s why this story is important.”

Rubio’s mother, Maria, had put a tortilla in a skillet to make a burrito for her husband. While wrapping the tortilla with beans inside, she noticed a face on it. The image was that of Jesus Christ.

Rubio was born two years later.

Angelica Rubio is a Democratic state representative from Las Cruces. She will appear in the Apple podcast, Little America: The Official Podcast on Thanksgiving. (Courtesy of Angelica Rubio)

She says the story got lots of attention, but most of the articles written didn’t focus on how the event changed the family’s life.

Growing up in the small southern New Mexico town, Rubio recalls being interrupted during dinner time as a 10-year-old.

As her mother and father were working into the evening, she’d hear the doorbell ring.

Getting up from her space while watching “Three’s Company,” she would often play hostess to the guests who traveled to see the famous tortilla with the image of Jesus on it.

“I look back at it and I should have never opened the door while I was alone at home,” Rubio says with a laugh. “It was a different time.”

The tortilla came at a pivotal point for Rubio’s family.

The original framing of the tortilla in the Rubios’ dining room in Lake Arthur. (Courtesy of Angelica Rubio)

“At the time that Jesus appeared to my mom, she was struggling with deep depression; my father, who worked grueling hours, was battling alcoholism,” she explains in her essay for the blog Eater.

“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,” Rubio said. “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.”

In 1979, Rubio was born – taking her spot as the baby in the family.

“For me, the reason that I keep writing about this story for over a decade was I was hit with this realization that there were other forces that exploited my mom’s story,” she says. “I felt like it was a responsibility that I had. This story needed to be shared and I do feel like it resonates with a lot of folks in our communities.”

Rubio says that, as the legend of the tortilla grew, so did her embarrassment.

Maria Rubio, left, and Angelica Rubio in their Lake Arthur home. (Courtesy of Angelica Rubio)

By the early 1990s, Maria Rubio appeared on “The Phil Donahue Show” and sister Rosy went on the “Oprah Winfrey Show” about miracles.

Then, in 2006, Angelica Rubio was living in Los Angeles and heard that George Lopez was making a film called “Tortilla Heaven,” which was based on her mother’s story.

“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,” Rubio continues. “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.”

Spending time away from New Mexico gave her some perspective on the matter.

When Rubio returned to New Mexico, the shame and embarrassment had evaporated. In its place: a shield of armor and pride.

Maria Rubio, years before being thrust into the media spotlight. (Courtesy of Angelica Rubio)

It’s also what made her run for office, becoming a representative in Las Cruces – a role she was elected to in 2017.

In her downtime, Rubio writes and keeps her family’s story of hope alive.

She’s currently writing a pilot for a proposed TV show about her family and the tortilla.

“I was thinking about a novel and then a short story,” she says. “Then, my friend and I were out on a bike ride and he said to write it as a series. Since May, I’ve been working on some stuff.” She says writing a screenplay for TV is brand new for her.

“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,” Rubio says.

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