Norma has served as Wellspring’s Bilingual Outreach Coordinator for nine and a half years.
She is half Italian and half Mexican. A native of Mexico City, Norma grew up dining upon homemade pasta in her father’s Italian restaurant, La Gondola which catered to area tourists.
She makes a sin-worthy flan, her mother’s signature recipe. It has the texture of cheesecake and is rippled with caramel.
Forty-four percent of Wellspring’s guests are Hispanic. Many speak only Spanish and come from Mexico City, El Salvador and Guatemala. Norma translates for them, connects them to social service resources, teaches a parenting class and orchestrates Wellspring’s Day of the Dead celebration and Las Poseda Christmas celebration which reenacts Mary and Joseph’s search for lodging before Jesus’ birth.
Many undocumented immigrants are vulnerable to abuse because they are fearful that the social services organizations that they work with will deport them. Consequently, too many experience abuse, trauma and emotional distress in isolation, without critical aid.
“The Sacramento Regional Food Bank offers English as a Second Language classes and I am always encouraging our guests to go,” she said. “I say to them, ‘If you go to work at a restaurant, you will still have to know some English so that you can get instructions from your boss.’ We have wonderful places in Sacramento that can help them with medical issues that won’t bother them with deportation – namely Sister Clara’s House, a health clinic for people who are low income.”
At Wellspring, women who speak only Spanish can find a community of other women who are experiencing the same struggles. They can learn about community resources through breakfast chit chat.
“People need nourishment,” Norma said. “At Wellspring, we want everybody to have at least one good meal and that’s why we have the breakfast for them in the morning. They can come in with their kids and we don’t ask them any questions, if they want to give their name, they can, but if not they can just come in here and eat.”
Before working at Wellspring, Norma was a bilingual outreach coordinator for the South Lake Tahoe School District. Here, she learned how to translate legal and medical language from Spanish to English, was licensed as a court translator and was trained as a domestic violence crisis line operator.
Norma often shares her cooking with the Wellspring staff – most recently, she concocted a creamy tortilla soup, paella and chile rellenos to share.
“I am very fond of food,” she said. “To me, it’s comfort because my dad was a chef and he liked to do the cooking every Sunday at home. He would call me from the kitchen, ‘Norma come and help me,’ and we would sing and I would learn how to cook. That was part of my relationship with my dad so a kitchen is a very comfortable place for me to be.”
“He was famous for his homemade raviolis,” Norma said. “He made the pasta from scratch and then cut his pasta into tiny little squares and then made his filling. Then you pinch them to give them shape. He also made homemade spaghetti, we used to have a little machine. I remember the spaghetti hanging up in the kitchen to dry.”
At La Gondola, he served a tomato sauce that simmered on the stove for 24 hours – the flavors bubbling together before being the sauce was poured over chewy and tender homemade pasta.
Her mother baked flan and fresh fruit pies – namely pineapple pie made with fresh pineapple and baked in the oven.
Her dad settled in Mexico City after fighting for the Axis forces under Mussolini. Norma spent her summers as a child in Milan with his family. She closely resembled her dad’s mother and was her favorite among her grandchildren.
“There is no ugly place in Italy,” she said. “I can tell you that – every little place has a little bit of charm.”
Norma met her first husband while she was studying child development at the University de Los Americas in Mexico City. She loved children and had set her sights on becoming a teacher. Her husband was from the United States. When she married him, she moved from Mexico City to San Diego.
“I cried for one year,” Norma said. “I got pregnant and was pregnant in a different country with different food and a different language. I cried until my baby, Norma was born.”
After that, Norma channeled her efforts towards becoming a dynamic part of her new community.
“My dad was great,” Norma said. “He said, ‘You are in Rome, do as the Romans do. You better get involved and make yourself part of the culture.”
Now, she is breathing in the sweetness of contentment.
“I’m just a happy camper,” she said. “I have my second husband, he is a wonderful man. We’ve been married for twenty-five years. I have great kids from my first husband – a daughter, a son and I have a grandson who is just adorable. We are all healthy so that is my main thing – I was really ill for a while so I know that it is such a gift to be healthy.”
At Wellspring, she finds fulfillment.
“Here, we have a saying: no day at Wellspring is ever the same,” she said. “The ladies are wonderful and if I go home today and I was able to help, not even in a big way, but could make somebody feel better for the day, I did my job.”
Below is Norma’s flan recipe — unlike traditional flan, it is made with cream cheese and Mexican vanilla.
1 can sweetened condensed milk (Norma prefers Eagle Brand)
2 % Carnation Evaporated Milk
1 package 1/3 less fat Philadelphia Cream Cheese
1 cup white sugar
1/3 cup Molina Mexican Vanilla Blend
Stir sugar in pan for 5-10 minutes over high heat until it melts into a caramel, pour into a 9 inch round pan.
Blend the evaporated milk, condensed milk, cream cheese (cut into cubes), eggs and Mexican vanilla and pour into round pan.
Bake in oven at 375 degrees for 45 minutes in a pan filled with 1 inch of water. The flan is ready when a knife can puncture it and come out clean. Place in the fridge to set for 48 hours.