A fearless Mexican-American cook routinely travels 2,000 miles, driving through a drug war and slipping out of kidnappers’ fingers, all in the name of a decent mole poblano for her New York customers.
In December of 2013, Denisse Chavez and her husband were stopped by two unmarked white cars while driving north on the highway out of Reynosa in the Tamaulipas state of Mexico. The vehicles had been tailing her own car, a worn-out 2002 model that her mechanic’s tools permanently called home, for four or five miles. It was a scene she had witnessed many times before.
A small-time importer and business owner in the Mott Haven neighborhood of the Bronx, Chavez, forty-nine, had been traveling by car from New York to Puebla, driving over 5,000 miles each trip, for almost six years. Along the route she’d seen gunfights break out before her eyes, as well as robberies and kidnappings. But she always escaped unscathed. Typically, she made the trip to stock her Bronx bodega, El Atoradero. This time, she had gone to Monterrey to purchase equipment for her then-forthcoming restaurant.
The risk implicit in the journey was not lost on her. She knew the price of traveling through an unforgiving desert engulfed in a violent drug war. Her son routinely begged her not to go. But Chavez was willing to traverse a distance one-third the length of the North American continent, despite the violence in northern Mexico, because of her profound love for her culture. She did it for the minty taste of the dried avocado criollo leaves from her sister’s farm; because she was unwilling to suffer the muted flavor of chilies masquerading as Mexican.
“When I go to Mexico, I always leave a letter for my children, because on the highway you never know what’s going to happen. I’m not scared, because, as I tell my husband, ‘I already leave what I’m supposed to leave,’” Chavez says without hesitation, rubbing her palms together as if to say, I am finished here. “So I tell my children, ‘When something happens to me in Mexico, please, don’t send anything, don’t answer the phone, you don’t know me. Leave me. Just leave me.’”
* * *
Chavez was raised in the city of Atlixco, Puebla, where she spent mornings with her grandmother, drinking atole colorado, a masa porridge seasoned with dried chili. Her father came from a family of farmers and, like his father before him, grew coffee beans, limes and zapote negro, a species of persimmon with black skin and a pudding-like texture. Chavez hails from a lineage of proud cooks, grandmothers who never stopped doing things the old way, like grinding corn on the metate as the ancients did.
Though she remembers her youth fondly, her family was extremely poor. She attended a shabby school where students had to work to pay for their education. Decades later, her words still reveal the sting of not being able to afford new shoes. “It was so embarrassing to have to go to class with shoes that were falling apart, when all of my friends could afford new ones, because my parents could not,” she once confided in me. “We had very, very little.”
Yet, when she talks about how her grandfather pit-roasted zapote negros wrapped in banana leaves, her eyes light up as if by the embers.
In 1984, she left home for New York, where she got a job working as a dishwasher in an Italian restaurant. The plan was to come back home and attend college, but she never did. “I tried to keep working because my family didn’t have too much,” she says wistfully. “I decided to stay and I started dreaming about selling food.”
After working as a dishwasher, she found a job as a waitress at a Mexican restaurant and quickly became disenchanted. “This was a Mexican restaurant, but it wasn’t Mexican food. They used bell peppers for chile rellenos. I said, ‘What kind of chili rellenos is this?’” she recalls, exasperated. Severed from the foods that had permeated her everyday life as a child, she desperately longed for them. The herbs and greens that everyone grew back home, like oregano macho and alaches, were difficult or impossible to find, exacerbating her pangs of separation.
What if she could change that and bring the original, true Mexican flavors to New York? “I wanted to open the heart, to show to the people what the original food is,” Chavez says. “I wished to make food like my grandfather and grandmother ate.”
She took her first step by returning home five years after immigrating to New York and spending time in the kitchen, learning from her mother and grandmothers how to brown pumpkin seeds, just so, to release their oils. She returned again two years later, learning yet more. During those early years in New York, she would have her mother send tortillas and other essential ingredients.
As New York blossomed into the largest center of Pueblans outside of Mexico, chilies and pumpkins once only whispered about by homesick line cooks became increasingly easy to find. Yet Chavez continued to be unimpressed by the quality and variety of what was available. She wanted the fragrant cilantro of her youth, the mushrooms from the mountains, the soft, luscious tomatoes. After searching and searching, she decided to do it herself — which is how she ultimately fell into the hands of Mexico’s most vicious cartel.
After working for other people, Chavez opened her first business, a flower store, in 2001. But the business wasn’t working out, so she quickly transitioned back into food, opening her first bodega. One weekend, she decided to start selling tacos out of the store. From the beginning, there was only one rule: There would be no blasphemous cheese, chopped tomato or shredded lettuce. Just the holy trinity of radish, salsa, and a lime wedge.
“One day, I decide to buy three pounds of steak, one pound of enchilada, three pounds of chicken and started playing with the comal up front,” Chavez says. People were drawn by the aromas and her sales doubled in the second week. “People would ask for twenty, thirty, forty tacos and I said, ‘Okay, this is good.’”
Inspired by the success of her tacos, she eventually started cooking carnitas, a kind of pork confit. Many Mexican restaurants in New York, most owned by Pueblans, serve a carnitas that looks like a crispier pulled pork. Chavez’s carnitas are cubes of luscious, fatty meat, braised in a deep cauldron using a recipe she learned from her mother-in-law, who is from Michoacán, the state where the dish originated.
The carnitas garnered her fame in the neighborhood and further afield. Large orders started coming in from Manhattan. Spurred by what she saw as the impropriety of Mexican restaurants in New York, she decided to open up a restaurant, in the storefront next to one of her two bodegas. The plan was hatched in 2013, but she gave the previous tenant the time they needed to move on, pushing back her own opening month after month. The restaurant, Carnitas El Atoradero, finally opened in January, shortly after her fateful trip to Monterrey.
Chavez started making the journey to Puebla six years ago because she couldn’t find the herbs she wanted to cook her carnitas with. “I went to Mexico to see how I could bring these things back,” she says, explaining that she drove to save money. “I was thinking it was dangerous, but then I started asking people how they go there.”
Though she says she saw no violence during these first excursions, this quickly changed. During her approximately eighteen trips, she witnessed as many as seven gunfights on the highway, including one on the journey immediately prior to her abduction. “Every three months when we go, when I don’t see [violence] near the border, I see it in Monterrey or little towns. I always see it,” Chavez says. She refused to travel by night, anywhere, and wouldn’t step in certain cities, like Matamoros, a city known to be particularly dangerous for outsiders. Even when in Puebla, she would always ask locals how to travel safely.
Through these trips, Chavez created something remarkable in New York: a direct link to the cottage industries of Puebla. At her store in the South Bronx, you could find goods produced out of people’s homes in the small towns of that state. Dried herbs, nurtured in merchant’s backyards and purchased in the open-air markets of Atlixco. Avocado criollo leaves picked from the trees on her sister’s farm. Molcajetes from San Salvador en Seco, which she would drive three hours into the mountains to reach, and ceramic ware from San Marcos, “a little town where everyone does pottery.”
* * *
When the vehicles pulled up beside Chavez’s car, the message was clear even through their tinted windows: pull over. The men driving were from Los Zetas, the notoriously violent cartel whose members have carved out a reputation for being lunatics amongst savages. She knew there was no resisting, not when the police force is corrupt and overmatched and the thankless landscape offers nowhere to hide. “If you run one way or the other, they kill you,” Chavez said frankly.
It was 10:30 a.m. on a well-trafficked border road. Many people would see what was happening, but Chavez knew from experience that no one would stop it. She’d witnessed many shakedowns herself and, helpless to help, did like everyone else does. She kept driving.
“We just go. You can’t stop. If you do, something will happen to you. It’s better to go. That’s why the people say, ‘Whatever you see, don’t say anything. Just be quiet,” Chavez says. “That’s the corruption.”
Having safely made the trip along Highway 40 from Monterrey to Reynosa, where forty-nine headless bodies were dumped in 2012, Chavez and her husband waited as three armed men emerged and approached their car.
In those moments of deafening silence, they were left with the stories that had blanketed the region in a climate of fear. People, Chavez repeated solemnly, do not walk away from their encounters with Los Zetas. “They never let people go,” she says. Not the 152 migrants, traveling from as far as South America, who wouldn’t agree to work for the cartel. Not the dozens of engineers and technicians who have been kidnapped, forced to build, repair, or rebuild communication networks, and never seen again. Not even the ordinary, uninvolved traveler who would be just another body lost to the killing fields. “They always kill them.”
She watched car after car pass by. (“You think somebody called the police? No, nobody.”) The men who took them were, she says, just kids, boys, no older than fifteen; ones who had traded in their toy guns for automatic weapons.
“They told me right away, ‘We are from Los Zetas,’” she recalled recently in her store. With those words, her husband, who had been cheerfully chatting with a cook, went silent. He leaned against a shelf and listened intently. “They asked me, ‘Are you scared? You’re going to die.’ I’m here, but in that moment you just believe you’re going to die.”
Offered no explanation of where they were going, they were driven off the highway and into the desert. As their captors drove further and further away from the road, cars full of people gave way to an arid, nameless landscape of shrubs and cacti. Two miles in, they reached their destination: an unmarked, inconspicuous hideaway. A place that wouldn’t stick out. But their death sentence would not be exacted quickly. The teenage gangsters had to wait for their boss.
In the meantime, the young Zetas looted them like starving vultures. Taking not just the dried herbs, comales, ceramic mugs and other restaurant gear they had purchased on the trip, but their clothes, glasses, jewelry (“not even gold”) and credit cards – even her husband’s glasses.
With nothing else to do, Chavez began speaking to her captors. With a kind of calm and collected assuredness that doesn’t lie, she says that she was never, even as the minutes turned into hours, afraid. She has too much faith in what she was doing and what she had accomplished.
Besides, she told me, “I’m going to die one day. I already made what I’m supposed to make. So, for me, it doesn’t make a difference if they kill me now or I die later.”
Chavez approached her abductors with this same coolness, as if they had merely egged her house or scratched her car. She asked them how they got involved in this business. One boy told her he started when he was twelve. Another explained how the Zetas snatch them up when they’re at their most vulnerable.
“They told me, when they have problems at home, they go out into the street and operatives from Los Zetas approach them. They ask, ‘Do you want to make money?’” For two years, they told her, they were trained on how to shoot guns, kill people, use drugs, “everything.”
Time crawled. For hours, Chavez believed she was going to die. But she spoke to them politely. She asked them why they target regular people who have little money and no dog in this fight. They told her they make good money.
After looting the car and cutting it up to expose places where narcotics or other illicit goods could be hidden, her captors spoke with a superior over the radio. Chavez could hear his probing questions. “Did you get everything? Did you make sure they don’t have drugs? Do they work for [rival cartel] El Gulfo?”
Then, he inquired about the truck. That it was junk didn’t dissuade him. He wanted it despite the toll of eleven years and 197,000 miles. He wanted it even when Chavez told them, “Look, I have the bags for my husband’s tools for when it breaks down on the highway.” If nothing else, this served to reinforce the reality of their death sentence. Uninitiated with the desert, how could they escape with no phones, cars, or money? Only when the boys opened the hood, relaying how worn out the engine was, did he relent.
Finally, the boy’s superior, a man they referred to as Sargent, arrived. Chavez had expected a more seasoned solider, but the man who arrived was, she says, no older than twenty-five.
“Why did you come here?” he interrogated her. “When did you come here for the first time? Tell me what you do for a living.”
Chavez held nothing back. She told him that she’s an importer and a small businesswoman in New York. She asked them for mercy. “Don’t do this to us.”
His eyes remained fixed on her.
“No. We have to do what we are told,” he said coldly.
Their fate was not negotiable. Chavez had gone to Mexico to work. Yet, the Zetas had other plans in mind for her. As a U.S. citizen with established, legitimate businesses in New York and a clean record, Chavez could serve them well – by purchasing guns across the border, where most of the weapons used in the conflict come from, for example. She would be much better than the hapless migrants they routinely force into labor as drug mules or gunmen. Hours after her capture, the sergeant presented her with a choice: If she were willing to stay in Mexico and work for the Zetas, they would let her live.
“They asked me to work for them,” she says, “because they say I can come over here to the U.S. to get guns for them and I said, ‘Okay.’”
“To me, you’re cool. You talk nice. And you say you can stay with us?” the sergeant confirmed.
“Sure,” she said. “Just let my husband go.”
He shook his head. “No.”
Chavez was willing to sacrifice herself so that, even if she wouldn’t be able to, her husband could return to their children. But for her to live, her husband had to die.
Then: “You’re too old,” another Zeta chimed in. “You can’t work with us.”
* * *
For reasons left unexplained, the Zetas didn’t kill them. After five hours, something inexplicably changed.
“We’ve changed our minds. You can go,” the sergeant told her.
Still, they kept everything that they had taken from Chavez and her husband, some $2,200 worth of equipment, $1,800 in cash and, later, $800 off a credit card. “The last penny that I had in my wallet, they took it.” More frightening, their captors, in their quest to determine just who the Chavezes were and who, if anyone, they were working for, had unearthed their IDs, passports, and other identifying documents. They let them go, but they kept their credit and debit cards, stuffing them in their proverbial pockets, and now knew things you would never want the Zetas to know. This would not be the last she heard from them, they promised, and if they came knocking she would pay. But she was alive.
“I let out a sigh of relief. I said, ‘Thank you,’” she recalls. When speaking about this abrupt turn of events, her tone changed demonstrably, like her words were invigorated with a new life. “When I’m leaving, I am so scared, but at the same time I am happy. I say, ‘God bless you.’”
“Get the fuck out of here,” they responded, and flicked her off.
To this date, she still hasn’t heard from the organization. Sometime after the incident, her husband’s family in Reynosa was contacted by the Zetas, who were asking after her. “They cut the phones and everything. As of now, I don’t know what happened,” she said.
* * *
In their journey back to the border, they passed many cars. Everyone, through their windshield, looked suspect. But Chavez says she didn’t fear for her life because she trusted their word — until they found themselves tailed and caroled once again.
Was she wrong to trust the Zetas? No. They were in El Gulfo territory now.
Describing the incident, her tone does not relate the horror of facing a second abduction in a day during which she had already evaded death. She told them they had already been taken by the Zetas, but the men wanted nothing from her – just to ascertain her identity.
“Don’t worry, we just watch,” they said, waving off her concerns. Chavez and her husband breathed a sigh of relief.
They made it to the border shortly after, their car scratched up and empty and their passports misshapen. The border agent told her she’d have to report the incident, calling in a Mexican official. Over the course of an hour, he asked questions about their captor’s physical attributes, ages, vehicles, and weapons. She told him everything and never heard from him again.
“We returned with nothing, not even clothes. But I give thanks to God, because we have life, and you can’t use money to buy that,” Chavez says. “What happened in Monterrey it’s like — I’m born again, a new life. Because a lot of people they take everything and kill them. Believe me, I was really lucky. We’re living and I don’t know why.”
Chavez could have avoided the violence altogether, if she would only accept the muted flavors of poblano peppers grown in China and the tepid taste of stale oregano. She could decide there were more important things to worry about, and season her carnitas with sour bay leaf and bitter Italian oregano. But she couldn’t suffer such a violation of her integrity. These things were worth too much to her.
“Nobody’s going to stop me. Not even the Zetas. I’m going to find one way or another to bring my stuff over here,” she declared. “I don’t know how, but I will. I will.”