photo of Erika Sutherland '86

Through the stomach

At least one night a month, Spanish professor Erika M. Sutherland ’86 wields a wooden spoon.

Her "catering business/business incubator," Fiestas del Corazón, Inc. (Fiestas from the Heart), allows members of Allentown’s Hispanic Lutheran congregation, Iglesia Evangélica Luterana San Martín de Porres, to share their cooking with the community, run their own business and earn decent wages. As the "frontline person," Sutherland goes to every catering event, pinch-hitting as necessary, whether she is helping cook or "just making sure everything looks fabulous."

Fiestas offers full-service lunch and dinner menus with different themes: Caribbean, Andean, Mexican, Banquetazo, South of the Border. Fiestas began four years ago when Sutherland approached the pastor of the church, looking for service opportunities for her students at Muhlenberg College. Without intending to, she started attending services and became a Lutheran—and an involved parishioner.

Sutherland describes the congregation as extraordinarily diverse. Most families live near poverty, with two-thirds making less than $10,000 a year. "But despite incredible socioeconomic, educational and linguistic handicaps," says Sutherland, "the women are able to keep their families going. Their kids and houses are immaculate, and they can pull things together in a way that many people just can’t."

And, they are fantastic cooks. "Whenever there is a celebration, they just whip out these incredible meals on a total shoestring budget. I realized, wow, they really have something here. We could exploit this, get these women into some sort of regular, dignified employment. This can be a channel for them to move up and out of poverty."

Fiestas has 15 employees who work on a job-to-job basis. The women—most of the people involved with Fiestas are women and older girls—cook, serve, clean tables and supervise events, which average one a month, though the fall of 2000 marked an upswing with three to five events a month. The wages are between eight and nine dollars an hour after taxes, considerably more than wages at fast food restaurants. Since most of the employees have had little exposure to regular, paid employment, workers learn basic job skills and habits. The older women gain valuable opportunities to develop and use their English, the first language of the younger generation.

The workers are not the only beneficiaries of Fiestas’ mission, says Sutherland. Allentown as a whole benefits from a trained, empowered and well-employed population and from seeing the Latino communities in an active, positive light. "Our customers are progressive groups who want that social commitment, who want to know that they’re not just paying for food but helping with something a little bigger."

Though she eventually would like to phase out her leadership role with Fiestas del Corazón, she finds it difficult to train a successor because of the rampant low self-esteem in the economically depressed community. "I try to let them recognize their talents and show them that they are really natural leaders. But forces beyond their control keep telling them that they’re idiots, they’re stupid, they’re no good. I’m here to try to counteract that." Sutherland has hopes for one woman in particular, Magali. At a recent luncheon, Magali served food to outreach workers who had met her years ago when she was homeless and immersed in a drug habit. "They were delighted to see her working," says Sutherland, "looking healthy and straight. Magali said, ‘I’m so proud that they were able to see me like this. These people knew me when I was in really bad shape, and look at me now, I’m working. ...’ It really seemed to seal for her that this was a stairway up, that things were looking good."

Fiestas del Corazón is incorporated and in the process of getting nonprofit, 501 C3 status. Right now employment is job-by-job, says Sutherland, but "everyone is looking forward to the day when it can become a self-sustaining, fully employing business. My hope is that it will develop into significant part-time jobs and perhaps full-time jobs for some people." Fiestas is looking for a full-time administrator and a corporate board with committed members who have expertise in accounting or the law.

Sutherland’s academic career has little to do with food service. Her primary field is contemporary Spanish literature. She trains students to be ESL teachers through a community agency in Allentown, with 40 to 50 students participating each semester. "It is so exciting to see students blossom once Spanish stops being a game to them, and they actually realize that there is a reason you learn a language, that it is a communicative device. Knowing the people, culture and language—these are gifts, useful gifts.

"That is really how I live, with one foot in one culture and one foot in the other."

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