The tortilla that captured a moment of hope

Maria Rubio holds the famous tortilla with a picture of Jesus on it on December 5, 1977 in Lake Arthur. (Jim Nachtwey/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal

A thumb-sized image of Jesus Christ’s face appearing on Maria Rubio’s tortilla in Chaves County caught the world’s attention in October 1977.

Some saw the apparition in Lake Charles, a small town in Chaves County, as a sign from God. Others treated it like a sideshow.

Angelica Rubio wasn’t even born when her mother made the discovery, but she still lived her life in the shadow of this tortilla. Rubio, now a Democratic state representative from Las Cruces, admits growing up she was embarrassed by the ridicule the story drew.

Today, she sees the incident as a beacon of hope — one that has profoundly changed her family for the better.

Rubio’s story is featured on Apple’s podcast, Little America: The Official Podcast, a non-fiction book hosted by Kumail Nanjiani about the immigrant experience in America. It can be heard starting Thanksgiving.

Already familiar with the podcast, Rubio welcomed the opportunity to highlight her family’s immigration experience.

“A lot of these stories lack space and focus,” she says. “All the horrible things in the world bring immigrants to this ugly place. Our country is about the immigration experience. By telling this story, I can do justice to my parents because they came here to give their children a better life. My story and my mother’s are uplifting.”

She calls it a New Mexico story, noting that “so many people in our state remember it. I feel like it’s a very universal story. As long as you believe in something, change can happen. That’s why this story is important.”

Rubio’s mother, Maria, had put a tortilla in a pan to make a burrito for her husband. As she wrapped the tortilla with beans in it, she noticed a face on it. The image was that of Jesus Christ.

Rubio was born two years later.

Angelica Rubio is a Democratic state representative from Las Cruces. She will appear on Apple’s Little America: The Official Podcast on Thanksgiving podcast. (Courtesy of Angelica Rubio)

She says the story drew a lot of attention, but most of the articles written didn’t focus on how the event transformed the family’s lives.

Growing up in the small town in southern New Mexico, Rubio recalls being interrupted at dinner when he was 10 years old.

Since her mother and father worked late into the evening, she heard the doorbell ring.

While watching “Three’s Company,” she would rise from her seat and often play host to guests who came to see the famous tortilla with the image of Jesus on it.

“Looking back, I should never have opened the door while I was home alone,” Rubio says, laughing. “That was a different time.”

The tortilla came at a turning point for Rubio’s family.

The original design of the tortilla in the Rubios’ dining room at Lake Arthur. (Courtesy of Angelica Rubio)

“When Jesus appeared to my mother, she was struggling with a deep depression; my father, who worked long hours, battled alcoholism,” she explains in her essay for the blog Eater.

“After leaving Ojinaga, Chihuahua and settling in Lake Arthur in the 1950s and searching for stability for decades, he had finally found a steady job as a farm hand – one that offered just enough to support five growing children trying to survive as a first-generation American in a heavily Mexican-influenced home. In the midst of all this, the family was on the verge of giving up all hope.

“For my mom, the tortilla was a sign from God that He would make things better,” Rubio said. “And they got better: Her depression went away, my father got sober, and our family, like many new generations of Americans, had become just another typical American family.”

In 1979 Rubio was born – and took her place as a baby in the family.

“For me, the reason I’ve been writing about this story for over a decade was to realize that there were other forces exploiting my mother’s story,” she says. “I felt like it was a responsibility I had. This story needed to be shared and I feel like it resonates with a lot of people in our communities.”

Rubio says that as the legend of the tortilla grew, so did her embarrassment.

Maria Rubio, left, and Angelica Rubio at their home in Lake Arthur. (Courtesy of Angelica Rubio)

In the early 1990’s, Maria Rubio appeared on The Phil Donahue Show and Sister Rosy Walked Through Miracles on The Oprah Winfrey Show.

Then, in 2006, Angelica Rubio was living in Los Angeles and heard that George Lopez was directing a movie based on her mother’s story called Tortilla Heaven.

“I was furious that George didn’t at least reach out to the woman whose story he was turning into a comedy that poked fun at Mexican culture,” Rubio continues. “When I explained to her what was going on and how upset I was, she replied, ‘Pa’que te ‘nojas? Si siempre te a dado vergüenza la tortilla.” “Why get mad?” My mother said. “You were always embarrassed about the tortilla anyway.”

Spending time outside of New Mexico gave her some perspective on the matter.

By the time Rubio returned to New Mexico, the shame and embarrassment had evaporated. In its place: a shield of armor and pride.

Maria Rubio, years before she was thrust into the media spotlight. (Courtesy of Angelica Rubio)

It also prompted her to run for office and become an MP in Las Cruces — a role she was elected to in 2017.

In her free time, Rubio writes and keeps her family’s hope story alive.

She is currently writing a pilot for a planned TV show about her family and the tortilla.

“I thought of a novel and then a short story,” she says. “Then my boyfriend and I were on a bike ride and he said we should write it as a series. I’ve been working on some stuff since May.” She says writing a screenplay for television is brand new to her.

“Whenever I’m tempted to lose hope, I find it again by thinking about how my mother regained hers through a miraculous pan fire on a freshly made tortilla,” says Rubio.