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This week our Neighborhood Kitchens team will take you to another historic mill town: Lawrence, MA. That is where we discovered Café Azteca. Lawrence has always been known as the “Immigrant City." During the Industrial Revolution, an influx of people from all over the world came to work in its state-of-the-art mills. Today, Lawrence has one of the highest proportions of immigrants in Massachusetts. It also has the largest Latino population of any New England city.
Nearly 40 percent of the businesses in Lawrence are Latino-owned — including Café Azteca, where Antonio and Mary Guerrero have been serving authentic Mexican cuisine for almost 20 years.

When I first met Café Azteca's chef and owner, Antonio Guerrero, he had just returned from teaching a community cooking class. Chef Antonio regularly volunteers his time to teach Mexican cooking classes to the youth of the Lawrence community. Antonio wants them to learn how to cook for themselves and encourages them to use ingredients from Latin American cuisine. I later met his wife Mary, whom Antonio met while she was studying in Mexico City. She and Antonio decided to start their life together in Mary's hometown of Lawrence. Mary is a kindergarten teacher in the Lawrence public school district and helps Antonio run Café Azteca. The Guerreros definitely have an equal passion for education and food.

Inside the café, every dining room has an educational narrative to share and a homey, intimate quality. Each room is filled with artwork from Mexico and local community artists. The most stunning dining area at Café Azteca is the poetry room. Here you will find several murals painted by local artists, each with a passage from a poem inscribed next to it on the wall.  Antonio and Mary invited local artists to select the poetry from Latin American poets to use as inspiration in their mural. I love that this room reflects Latin American poetry through the eyes of local Lawrence artists.

In the kitchen, Antonio is serving up even more culture by preparing authentic Mexican dishes. The first dish Chef Antonio demonstrated for Neighborhood Kitchens was sopes, small corn tortillas topped with salsa, guacamole and cheese. I remember surviving on sopes when I first graduated from college. I had moved into my first apartment in the middle of winter and my roommate and I did not have heat or cooking gas for several days. Unable to cook, we went with other new kids in the neighborhood to visit a new Mexican restaurant two blocks away. There we enjoyed sopes with fried eggs on top and rice and beans. Thank you, sopes, for keeping us going through unpacking with mittens on and looking for work while waiting for the gas company to turn on our heat. Thank you, Antonio, for teaching me how simple it is to make sopes at home.

We went on to make Chef Antonio's favorite dish, puerco poblano, and a classic Latin American flan. I love how Antonio says things like, “This is how I do it here at the restaurant, but this is how my mother used to do it.” These dishes have so much history and love in them.

Antonio and Mary are so joyful and passionate about life. When he gets really excited he starts to dance and sing. Mary's face lights up whenever she talks about Lawrence, Mexico, her family, and Café Azteca. Their commitment to sharing Mexican culture while maintaining their roots in historic Lawrence is clear in everything they do.