An immigrant's story of iguana tamales, Indigenous farmers and coming to the U.S.

Mackensy Lunsford
Southern Kitchen

In a recent interview with my friend Luis Martinez, a North Carolina chef who grew up in the Mexican town of Santa Catarina Loxicha, he revealed his family's methods for making Christmas and New Years' tamales.

In preparation for the tamales, they would go into the forest to catch iguanas, which would then be roasted over a fire.

Luis and his family often used an open-flame method to cook iguanas because electricity was only available in his town three days per week. 

Around the holidays, they wrapped freshly picked banana leaves around stewed iguana and fresh-ground masa to make tamales, which they would eat and pass out to neighbors.

This Christmas, Luis made hundreds of tamales again — though not with iguana. He's selling them to support Tequio Foods, a company he founded to support the work of Mexican farmers. 

Luis, 35, was born to a farming family, though he left them when he fled to the U.S. in 2005. The Mexican government thought his community-building efforts in Indigenous towns were politically dangerous, he said.

"I'm coming from a place where the government makes people disappear and where people have to get together to make the community better," he said. 

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Even as resources were scarce for Mexicans, the government allowed mining companies from other countries to extract oil and gas through fracking. 

Luis would help rural, Indigenous Mexican villages organize against fracking and fight for clean water and soil.  For that work, he says he was apprehended by Mexican paramilitary forces. 

"I got kidnapped one time and tortured for almost a week because I worked with the nonprofits focused on Indigenous life," he explained. "A lot of bad stuff, a lot of social injustices happened, and there was almost a revolution in 2006."

Shortly after Luis was released, he decided to immigrate to the U.S. He did not make it lightly.  

On the way to the U.S., the trafficker paid to smuggle Luis across the border was spooked by border patrol, abandoning Luis in the desert. He eventually joined another group and walked for two more days to the border.

But that escort wasn't free, and he spent the next year working on a California farm to pay off the debt. Luis, who had studied fine arts at the Universidad Autonoma Benito Juarez de Oaxaca, toiled in the fields daily and slept in packed boarding houses at night.

"I was basically like a slave in a way," he said. "After a year, I had the option to keep working there, or work in trafficking people, and I decided instead to go to Los Angeles."

There, he lived in Compton where the violence was almost as bad as it had been at home. But it was here where Luis began honing chef skills he first learned at restaurants in Oaxaca.

Meanwhile, he worked in immigrant-supporting nonprofits, continuing that work as he moved to San Francisco, Portland and then Seattle, where he met his wife, a North Carolina native.

He took English classes at a community college, adding a fourth language to his repertoire. The couple married and moved to Asheville in 2012.

Luis Martinez at the party celebrating his citizenship.

"I never really walked away from helping people," Luis said. "I've been doing the same thing over and over."

Luis was my neighbor when I lived in Asheville, and our first children were born months apart. His wife, Marianne, worked in education when we met, just like my husband. We instantly hit it off. I used to work professionally in kitchens too, so Luis and I enjoyed cooking big meals for our families.

During that time, Luis told me stories. Some were interesting, like the iguana tamales. Some were heart-breaking.

With an accent and his brown skin, Luis sometimes gets harassed, even in a progressive town like Asheville. People sneer at him, tell him to go home. Once, an older woman told Luis she wished he was dead.

Through it all, he's continued his work to support immigrants, leaving the professional kitchen behind to focus both on his family and growing Tequio Foods, an import business that's also a community-supporting endeavor at heart.

The word “Tequio” is the Zapotec peoples’ concept of a community joining together to accomplish a common goal for the betterment of all, Luis wrote on his website

Luis Martinez cooking meat skewers over charcoal in a chef competition.

"It is often seen, for example, in the local school systems, when buildings need repair or the water system needs upgrading," he wrote. "Everyone completes part of the work, regardless of skill level or age, because the future of the community depends on them."

Luis pays farmers directly and fairly for the landrace corn and heirloom beans they grow. He sells them to U.S. chefs across the South. He also redirects some money and effort to farmers in Indigenous communities, helping them build infrastructure and other community needs. 

"I guess some people could say I'm continuing the long history of my people in trying to change something," he said. 

When I asked Luis what he would say to people who look down on immigrants, he said this: "We're dads and brothers and hard workers and nice people too, and we have tons of stories. If people learn to listen, we'll share them."

More at tequiofoods.com.

Mackensy Lunsford is the food and culture storyteller for USA TODAY Network's South region and the editor of Southern Kitchen.

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Reach me: mlunsford@southernkitchen.com