As children in Mexico, sisters Lorena Loa-Martinez and Miriam “Maria” Loa Velasquez took folkloric dance lessons. They loved the vibrant music, colorful costumes and traditional dance moves. Now chefs de cuisine in the Kay Kafe at St. Jude, the duo performs their culinary work with rhythm and grace.
The sisters emigrated from Escolásticas, Mexico, more than 15 years ago with help from members of their close-knit family: their mom and dad (now married for 54 years), five brothers and four additional sisters.
Loa-Martinez, was 18, and Loa Velasquez, 16. They left their small town for Nacogdoches, Texas. Eventually, they moved to Memphis. Loa-Martinez joined St. Jude in 2011; Loa Velasquez joined in 2012.
“We love St. Jude like crazy,” Loa-Martinez said. “St. Jude helps the people around the world, no matter where you’re from.”
The two women begin their days before sunrise, using the big ovens, fryers and other equipment needed to prepare food for the crowd of patients, family members and staff who visit the Kay Kafe for breakfast, lunch and dinner. “You don’t know who needs a little smile,” Loa Velasquez said, explaining her philosophy of service.
From bakers and baristas to cooks and cashiers, everyone in Food Services wants to do their part to please the palate of patients and families from other countries. Chefs often check farmers markets for ingredients, search online for recipes, and, according to Loa-Martinez, ask patients and families lots of questions: “OK, exactly tell me how you make this food.”
Remembering their mother’s counsel to always help somebody in need, Loa-Martinez and Loa Velasquez regularly assist St. Jude families from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and other Spanish-speaking countries.
The sisters ask if they need help: “¿Necesitas ayuda?”
A few of Loa-Martinez and Loa Velasquez’s favorite things:
- Los Sabinos: natural park with its springs, pools and tall trees in their home town of Escolásticas, Pedro Escobedo municipality, Querétaro, Mexico; perfect for summer picnics
- Family reunions: at their father’s house on his little farm in Mexico
- Photography classes: (Loa-Martinez) at church (“I really want to learn more because I love to take pictures.”)
- ESL classes: (Loa Velasquez) to more effectively help her children with homework (“I’m always looking for something to be better at every day.”)
Faces brighten with recognition of an opportunity to communicate in their native language, and then families repeat a common refrain: “Everything is sweet. We don’t like sweet.”
Loa-Martinez and Loa Velasquez find a way to grant requests for something a little spicy; for real tamales, tacos and Mexican rice; for a dish that tastes like home.
“That makes your day when you see how they enjoy the food,” Loa-Martinez said.
Like dance partners, the sisters move in time to the rhythm of the cafeteria. “We always help each other for everything,” Loa Velasquez explained.
This method also extends to patients and families.
“If I’m not here one day, I know she is here to help the family of the patients,” Loa-Martinez said.
The daughters of Loa-Martinez and Loa Velasquez are dancers too, performing traditional Mexican folk dance at churches, festivals and other gatherings. They belong to a group taught by another sister living here in Memphis.
“I hope one day they can come and dance for the kids at St. Jude,” Loa-Martinez said. “I know the patients are going to love that.”