Frontera Fund News

Robots, Christmas Tamales and the Challenge of Being an Immigrant Entrepreneur

Written by Carmen Cornejo

Lorenzo Santillan is a famous immigrant. He is known, along with three other classmates and two high school teachers, for beating an Ivy League university team – MIT – in an underwater robotics competition more than ten years ago.

It was David versus Goliath with a twist. David was also an undocumented immigrant.

In spite of the inspiring win, friends and advocates tried for months to get the story out, at the height of the anti-immigrant climate in Arizona.

The improbable story of the Carl Hayden 4 finally got the attention of San Francisco-based writer Joshua Davis, who wrote the story with a movie in mind. For years the film rights bounced from producer to producer until comedian George Lopez bought the rights to the fictionalized story, while director Mary Mazzio got a shot at the documentary.

Both the documentary, Underwater Dreams, and the fictional movie, Spare Parts, were well received by the critics. They were especially enthusiastically received by immigrant rights groups and organizations that support STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) education.

But Lorenzo had another strong interest: food. Good Mexican food.

DACA recipients are starting businesses at twice the rate of the general American population.

His love for gastronomy led him to go for a culinary arts program college degree and to start his catering business along with his Carl Hayden 4 team member and inseparable friend, Luis Aranda.

Fast forward to 2016. Lorenzo and Luis continue to lead as part of a growing number of immigrant entrepreneurs in the United States. And Lorenzo continues to struggle due to his immigration status.

According to a recent survey conducted by Tom Wong, assistant professor of political science at the University of California, San Diego, DACA recipients are starting businesses at twice the rate of the general American population.

Even tough Lorenzo is a DREAMer-DACA recipient who has a college degree and is a responsible husband and parent, his undocumented status prevents him from accessing small business loans to buy a food truck for his business, “Ni de Aqui Ni de Alla.”

“I have been dreaming about being a cook ever since I was 13 years old. Now that I’m 29 with Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) it’s never been more important to be self-sustainable without having to work for anyone.  Being an entrepreneur to me means paving my success with my own creations. My passions are food and my Mexican culture because many restaurants do not do Mexican cuisine justice. I feel it’s my duty to show the true diverse flavors of my culture. Through my business I want to preserve recipes and create a culinary legacy,” says Lorenzo.

Even though many undocumented immigrants own businesses, pay taxes and have employees, they cannot access many forms of business loans needed to invest. Through hard work, Lorenzo and Luis raised half the funds they need to get a food truck built to their specifications. They plan to run and operate the food truck next year and offer authentic Mexican cuisine, as well as Mexican fusion dishes.

They are currently working on fundraising the remaining $25,000 to complete the construction of the food truck using a Go Fund Me account. You can help Luis and Lorenzo advance their dream by donating here. They have put together attractive supporters’ packages with art giveaways to encourage donors and investors.

For Christmas, Lorenzo and Luis suggest this tamale recipe for your family.

“Green Chile Tamales are my favorite during the holidays. I love the bright, bold and spicy flavor of the green tomatillos and chiles. This tamales recipe is especially good the next day, what Mexicans call “recalentado”.

To bring a smoky deliciousness, I pan-fry the tamales, the day after,  to get them warm with golden brown edges.
Green Chile Pork Tamales


5 lb Masa

3lb Pork lard

Beef/chicken/pork stock 

1 Tbsp baking powder

Salt to taste

Procedure: In a mixing bowl mix all ingredients vigorously until masa is aerated and ingredients are mixed in thoroughly.

Green Chili Pork Filling

3lb Pork cooked and shredded

2 lb Green tomatillos

6-8 Serrano peppers

2 Garlic cloves

Chicken bouillon to taste

Prepared masa

Corn husks

To make the filling. Remove the tomatillos from husks, de-stem serrano chiles. Rinse tomatillos thoroughly to remove stickiness in warm water.  On a pot add water and place over medium-high heat the tomatillos and the serrano peppers.  Once they are simmering, allow cooking for 5 more minutes. Once cooled enough, puree the tomatillos and peppers in a blender with garlic and some amount of stock. Add this puree to shredded pork and season with chicken bouillon. Simmer the stew again.

For wrapping tamales:  Wash the corn husks in warm water to soften. Place a single corn husk leaf on the one hand, and spoon about 2 ½ oz of masa onto the corn husk and spread evenly close to the straight edge. Add about an ounce and a half of pork mix and wrap. Repeat many many times!  Place the tamales upright in tamalera or steamer with water at the bottom to steam. Cook on high heat until steam begins to show on top,  then turn down to medium heat for about 45 minutes to an 1 ½ hr until masa is set and the husk can be removed easily.

Feliz Navidad!