The smell of sofrito, that delicious sabor of onions, tomatoes, and green peppers, brings back memories of home cooking for a lot of Latinos. But for Dr. Elisa Meléndez-Eisman, sofrito and burritos represent all of the sacrifices her family made to let her live the American Dream.
Meléndez-Eisman’s parents sold burritos on her medical school campus to help put their daughter, one of 11 children, through medical school. Now the good doctor is using her talents to help those in need back in the community she grew up in.
Dr. Elisa Meléndez-Eisman has always dreamed big, despite her modest upbringing. Born in Mexico, her parents moved her and her 10 siblings to Wyoming, finally settling in Denver, Colo., in 1979 in search of a better life. Meléndez-Eisman’s mother, Celia, was a stay-at-home mom. An injury forced her father, Benito, to medically retire in 1985. As a way of supplementing their income, her parents sold burritos.
As the second youngest of the 11, Meléndez-Eisman remembers telling her parents she wanted to be a doctor. Even with medical school prices ranging from $25,000 to $60,000 a year, her parents didn’t hesitate.
“They said: ‘Well do it!’” Meléndez-Eisman recalls.
And she did. After being the only one of her siblings to graduate college, Meléndez-Eisman went to medical school at the University of Colorado in Denver. She says the burrito business on campus began after a conversation with her mother.
“How about we put a sign up and get people interested,” her mother told her.
So their on-campus burrito business took off.
“We only sold burritos once a week on Fridays,” said Meléndez-Eisman. Their menu included breakfast burritos made with eggs, sausage and potatoes, lunch and vegetarian burritos, too. At $2 a burrito, the family sold an average of 40 to 60 on any given week. It was far from the amount needed to pay medical school bills, but Meléndez-Eisman says, “that was my parent’s way to contribute to this very big endeavor.”
One day Elisa’s class president liked the burritos so much, he asked if she would be willing to make burritos for a fundraiser. Her family didn’t hesitate, donating the supplies, and asking the students to help with the labor.
At Christmas time, the Meléndez family would take orders for tamales too, half-a-dozen tamales for $6 and $12 a dozen.
“They’ve always been there. All the family members and friends. I owe my success to them,” Meléndez-Eisman adds. The burrito and tamale sales went on for two-and-a-half years.
In 2004, Meléndez-Eisman graduated from medical school, with close to $225,000 in medical and undergrad school bills. The burrito and tamale sales weren’t enough to cover it. After a residency in family practice in Odessa, Texas, and some time in Cheyenne, Wyoming, Elisa returned to her hometown of Denver.
Would she go into practice at a medical institution or work for a large healthcare organization? Meléndez-Eisman took a different path. She applied to The Colorado Health Services Corps. The state program places physicians, nurses and physician assistants in clinics serving the underinsured and uninsured, like the non-profit organization, Salud Family Health Centers.
The idea is to pay off her school loan in exchange for working at a low-income clinic or in a rural area. Meléndez-Eisman has already fulfilled her obligation to Salud’s clinic in the Denver suburb of Commerce City where she grew up. About $150,000 dollars of her debt has been paid back. But she has no plans to leave the work and the patients she loves.
“I told my parents I would come back, work in the community I grew up in,” says Meléndez-Eisman.
“Thanks to God and Elisa’s effort and hard work, she overcame and came out ahead,” said her father Benito Meléndez.
As a wife and mother of two girls, Meléndez-Eisman concludes, “When I see my two little girls it makes me realize how important family is and how much my parents sacrificed.”
It is this Latino sense of family, her parents’ dedication, and her family’s support that Meléndez-Eisman says made her future possible.
That, and of course, the burritos.
Ivonne Amor is based in Miami, Florida. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org