'Tamales Para Pañales': Grassroots Asheville group brings practical help for families

Karen Chávez
Asheville Citizen Times

How many diapers do babies get dirty in a day? Six, eight, 10?

Some of the people hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic and job losses are those in lower-income Hispanic communities who can only afford to change a soiled diaper once every couple of days.

“We see people who have to make the decision, are they going to pay bills or are they going to buy diapers? Diapers are very expensive. We find in a lot of situations people use the same diapers for two or three days,” said Ponkho Bermejo, a co-director of the nonprofit BeLoved Asheville.

Ponkho Bermejo, co-director of BeLoved Asheville, organizes food and diaper distributions through Comida de Esperanza, to help people in Hispanic communities across Buncombe County who are struggling through the COVID-19 pandemic.

That indignity, as well as having to choose between rent and food for their families, led to swift action and the program Comida de Esperanza, or Food of Hope, a program of BeLoved Asheville.

In honor of Valentine’s Day, Bermejo said, the group is spreading love and hope by inviting everyone in to get a true taste of Mexican and Salvadoran cuisine with “Tamales Para Pañales.”

While it rhymes in Spanish, translated it means “Tamales for Diapers.”

The group draws on community spirit and power, allowing people in Hispanic communities across Buncombe County to help their own by making authentic dishes from their homelands to sell or exchange for much-needed items.

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Tamales Para Pañales will be 8 a.m.-2 p.m. Feb. 13 at 104 Sherwood Road in Swannanoa, near Art Space Charter School.

“We decided to collectively be doing something about the problems that we have. We prefer to be talking about the problem at the same time that we are doing something to solve the problem,” Bermejo said of how Comida de Esperanza was formed, by people who decided to be “the change we would like to see in our city.”

Comida de Esperanza, a project of the nonprofit BeLoved Asheville, holds food distribution centers in predominantly Hispanic communities across Buncombe County, like this one in Swannanoa.

Hispanics have been faring worse as an ethnic group in contracting coronavirus. While Hispanics make up less than 6% of Buncombe County’s population, they account for 16% of current COVID-19 cases, according to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services.

Since many Hispanics in the mountains work in essential, service sector and front-line jobs, getting sick often means not being able to work.

Related: COVID-19 cases soar among Hispanic population in NC, disproportionately high

Many people don’t have cars, or if they do, they don’t have gas money to get to food distribution sites, so Comida de Esperanza brings help to the heart of where people need it – in their neighborhoods, Bermejo said.

Typically people will make dishes such as tamales or pupusas, then exchange them for a box of diapers, school supplies or other needed items, or sell them, with the money going back to the group to buy items. The food distribution centers are pop-up in nature, Bermejo said.

Comida de Esperanza, or Food of Hope, is a program through BeLoved Asheville, that holds food and diaper distributions to help people in Hispanic communities across Buncombe County who are struggling through the COVID-19 pandemic.

As soon as they get donations of food – everything from meat and eggs to fruit, vegetables, cereal and baby food – they load it on their truck and take it to one of 11 community locations, including Arden, Black Mountain, Candler, Leicester, Swannanoa, Weaverville and West Asheville, where it is gone in hours. They alert people through a chain of community leaders and social media posts.

“We don’t have a storage site. Our storage is in the 600 refrigerators of people who need the food,” Bermejo said.

"To have access to food, diapers and masks right in my community has helped me so much. In the moment I lost my job when I didn't have money for food or gas in my car or diapers, BeLoved Asheville was right here in my community with the Community Distribution Centers," Maria Perez, of Swannanoa, said by email.

Perez said she was inspired by her neighbors to be a part of the change in mutual support and has become a leader with BeLoved.

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Tamales Para Pañales will allow everyone in Buncombe to share the love.

Bermejo said community members will make traditional Mexican tamales, made with corn leaves, and tamales from El Salvador made with banana leaves, and filled with a masa base mixed with pork or chicken, and vegetarian ones made with peppers and cheese.

Tamales are $2 each, or five for a box of diapers, he said.

Ponkho Bermejo, far left, co-director of BeLoved Asheville, organizes food and diaper distributions through Comida de Esperanza, to help people in Hispanic communities across Buncombe County who are struggling through the COVID-19 pandemic.

“All the money they make this day will be reimbursed in diapers for five different communities. It is very powerful because these people are gonna be making the tamales and donating the tamales and selling the tamales. Later when the time come that we buy the diapers, they're gonna be sharing the diapers in their own neighborhood where they live,” he said.

It is also a way for people with roots in Spanish-speaking countries to keep alive and share their culture, their history and their “gastronomy,” he said.

People in Hispanic communities across Buncombe County have been working together through Comida de Esperanza, or Food of Hope, to make tamales and papusas to sell or exchange for much-needed items like diapers.

Bermejo said there are four ways that everyone can help:

  1. Share or “like” the “Tamales Para Pañales” event on social media.
  2. Make and donate tamales to be sold at the event Feb. 13 in Swannanoa. Place orders ahead of time by calling 828-450-3929 or 848-221-7871.
  3. Donate diapers, wipes, baby food and other infant essentials to the BeLoved donation center, 11 a.m.-1 p.m. daily at 15 Overbrook Place off Tunnel Road in East Asheville throughout February.
  4. Exchange items, such as diapers you don’t use anymore, and get five tamales for every box of diapers.

Monetary donations are also accepted at BelovedAsheville.com.

“We really believe we have to do this and we don't have another option. We have to be the heroes of our own community so we invite and encourage anybody that is ready to do it, to do it,” Bermejo said. “And if we can work together, even better.”

Karen Chávez is an award-winning reporter for the Asheville Citizen Times and USA TODAY Network. Email her at KChavez@CitizenTimes.com or follow on Twitter @KarenChavezACT.