Every day, at around 5:30 in the evening, a white van loaded with kitchen utensils, cooking ingredients, chairs, tables, and a tent departs on an hour-and-a-half ride across Mexico City towards Bosques de la Reforma, a wealthy enclave on the outskirts of the megalopolis. As soon as it parks on Prolongación, a busy commercial street with heavy traffic, eight people get off the van and work with military efficiency to set up the tent, laying the tables and organizing the chairs in the sidewalk. They do this every weekday, except on Fridays, when it makes no financial sense: 90 percent of La Muertita’s customers are Jewish. And, like their clientele, the non-Jewish staff of the “kosher” quesadilla stand keep Shabbat.
Throughout its 58 years of existence, La Muertita has followed Mexico City’s 40,000-member Jewish community across the city: From Polanco, a pedestrian-friendly neighborhood in the valley and the nexus of Jewish life 40 years ago, to Tecamachalco and then, Interlomas/Bosques, both suburban areas in the mountains where most members of the Jewish community in the capital now reside. Although it’s not certified kosher, La Muertita has earned the trust of the community by taking meat off of the menu (so as not to mix milk and meat) and cooking with kosher cheeses only. According to Doña Celia Garcia, the owner, they have served every kind of event you can think of, whether Jewish or not, including bachelor and birthday parties, and bar mitzvahs.
Born into poverty, Celia, 70, started selling quesadillas in the streets using a plastic box as a table in 1958 when she was 13 years old. Initially, she had pork on her menu, but a Jewish customer in the 1960s told her that she would be better off if she excluded the item and instead focused on kosher ingredients. Since then, Celia has seen four generations of Jewish families walk through her stand. “A client once said I was like a grandmother to his grandchildren,” she told me last Thursday night as her family was setting up shop.
Over the last six decades, business has grown, but slowly as it’s a small community, and there’s not too much room for growth. In those nearly 60 years La Meurtita has tripled its locations. There are now two La Muertitas apart from the one in Prolongación—in Palmas and Interlomas—both of which are run by her granddaughter and daughter-in-law. Four of Celia’s six children work in the business. She has bought each of them a house.
The origins of the name La Muertita, translated roughly into “The Little Dead Woman,” are, like many things that stand the test of time, shrouded in myth. According to some a shooting had taken place across the street from the stand in the ’60s, and the next day Doña Celia didn’t show up, so everyone assumed she had been shot. Celia doesn’t deny this version of the story but suggests that the name has more to do with her bad sleeping habits. “I fall asleep at the counter, all the time,” she said.
Although there are certified Mexican-kosher food spots in the city—tacos at Ilarios, for example—all of them somehow pay respects to Doña Celia. The main competition, specially for the more observant, is a quesadilla stand that is closely certified. Its name? La Vivita, or The Little Living Woman.
As I was interviewing Celia, a family arrived and placed an order. “I’ve been coming here for 20 years,” said Aaron, the father, as his son munched on a deep-fried champignon (mushroom) quesadilla. “Me? About 15,” said Frida, the mother.
Alan Grabinsky is a freelance writer and journalist based in Mexico City, covering Jewish life and urban issues for international media.