Melissa Guerra is a celebrity chef, cookbook author, and owner of an award-winning Latin American culinary store in San Antonio. If you’re looking for the best pan de polvo recipe or an authentic mortar and pestle hecho en Mexico, Guerra’s got you covered. And if you want to know the quickest route from the dusty border towns of South Texas to the city streets of San Antonio, she’s practically a one-woman GPS.
Guerra was born in the border town of McAllen, Texas. Her husband grew up not far from her, on the Mexican side. The couple of 22 years now raises their three teenage sons in the Rio Grand Valley on a working cattle ranch. “We are of the border culture,” Guerra says, “which is different than the rest of the U.S. The predominant language is Spanish and because we live in cattle country, we are a bit isolated.”
Yet, every Wednesday morning for the past several years, Guerra de-isolates herself—leaving her husband and sons behind—to become a city-savvy businesswoman, almost 240 miles away from home. In late 2008, Guerra moved her shop, Melissa Guerra Tienda de Cocina, to San Antonio, where she provides a complete source of authentic Mexican and Latin American ingredients, kitchenware, cookware, glassware and books (including both of Melissa’s cookbooks, Texas Provincial Kitchen and Dishes from the Wild Horse Desert).
The majority of the products featured in her store and on the accompanying website, melissaguerra.com, come from female cooperatives in Mexico. “Most of the cooperatives I deal with just want to do business. They don’t want charity. They want to work. And our customers understand that when they buy with us, their dollars are supporting others.” Guerra adds proudly: “What I love is that we have women in the first world supporting women on the other side of the border.” She points out one of her favorite store items, a collection of etched Mexican glassware. Guerra explains that the Mexican coop’s proprietor, Charlie Hall, is physically disabled. Everyone he hires in his factory has their own challenge. He also blogs, bringing attention to the disabled community. “We feature the glassware because it is beautiful. But when you know the background, it becomes even more so,” Guerra says.
As a true border town girl, Guerra has roots deeply entrenched in two cultures and expertly navigates the road between them. She stays in San Antonio until Saturday night, when she makes the 3.5-hour commute back home. Her work schedule may seem a bit crazy to some, but Guerra and family have managed to make it work. “My husband and I have been married for 22 years and my sons are all getting straight As, so I think we’re doing okay. Sure, my house is a little dustier and the laundry piles up a bit higher, but I think that’s a fair trade-off to be able to do something that I love and am passionate about.”
We caught up with Guerra in between one of her Texan treks to discuss the risks and rewards of her long, inspiring journey.
Mamiverse: How did the website and store begin?
Guerra: I had a cooking show on PBS from 1998 to 2003, and a lot of people would call and ask where they could find certain ingredients that I was using. I also self-published a cookbook in 1998, which I put online. Then I thought it would be helpful to put the ingredients online too. I guess I got a bit carried away.
The website began in 1999, and the original brick-and-mortar store opened in 2002. Even after the move to San Antonio in 2009, the business is still lurching toward profitability. The retail climate has changed. To capitalize a business is really a challenge in this economy. I often imagine myself climbing a mountain with my hands, one finger at a time. Sometimes, I think I’ve got it. But then you have these big online retailers that can clobber you.
Mamiverse: Why did you move your business to San Antonio?
Guerra: The newest campus of the Culinary Institute of America, which has a Latin American culinary component, opened in San Antonio. Since my store/site provides Latin American cooking supplies, I saw an opportunity. But there are things I can get on the border that I can’t get anywhere else, like stone mortars and pestles, which are very heavy and primitive. We sell tons of them and we wholesale them. We can also offer a better selection of chile, beans, and oftentimes, corn. I talked to my husband and sons and told them what I wanted to do. They fully supported me. In fact, they bought me a travel kit for my makeup, which I still use on every trip.
Mamiverse: Do you face any guilt issues from friends or family members about leaving your family behind for four days a week? Do you think you’d face the same issues if you were a man?
Guerra: Yes, everyday, I feel guilty. But I think that is the essence of being a mother is to constantly meditate about being a better support to your children. When I have a writing project, like a book or an article, I work at home. When I am not writing, I am gone 3-4 days a week, longer if I have a business trip. Not being there is an obstacle. But my kids are very clear that they are my priority, and that I would drop all of this in a second if they asked me to. When we are together, we truly enjoy our time together. When I am away, I call them every morning before they go to school, we text all day, then I call after school. I bring them with me as often as I can. I share with them what happens at work. They are interested in how my sales are going, just like I am totally into their activities. I plan all of their activities, doctor appointments, and take them most of the time. Really, my schedule revolves around theirs. If they have a school function, I schedule my time accordingly.
A man would be admired for this type of work schedule. It is mostly other women who make tacky comments about me abandoning my children. As long as my kids and my husband are okay with it, I don’t care what the chismosas have to say.