BY CYNTHIA REBOLLEDO
Originally published on July 21, 2020
Saturday, 8 a.m. Boyle Heights.
Myra Vásquez stands, masked, on the porch of her 113-year-old Craftsman house. Following physical distancing guidelines to insure everyone’s safety, she prepares for the dozens of customers who will show up in the next few hours to pick up one of her elaborate, eye-popping gelatinas.
Ah, the gelatina. Loved by people on both sides of the Mexico-United States border, the wobbly, silky dessert is a staple at birthdays, weddings and graduations. But even its fans often see it the way many people see Jell-O salad: good in a pinch but never much better. The mass-produced gelatinas you’ll find in supermarkets such as Northgate González and Vallarta would support that theory. While other desserts — Mexican character cakes, pan dulce and bizcochitos (cinnamon and anise sugar cookies) — have undergone glow-ups in recent years, most young Latinx pastry chefs have ignored the gelatina. Vásquez wants to change that.
Through her cottage business GeLATINX, the 45-year-old, self-taught baker is reimagining this culinary art form, combining traditional Mexican ingredients with modern techniques and a multicultural palate.
Flavors include café de olla, Gansito (the Mexican equivalent of chocolate Twinkies) and guayaba with cheesecake. Vásquez often tops her custom-made creations with graphic art images (created by her husband, Nico Avina) of Latinx icons such as Selena and Juan Gabriel.
“Myra created a gelatina that captured the essence of Selena,” says Xochitl Palomera, who requested one for an office holiday party. “It didn’t just look pretty, the flavor was amazing. It was grape and lechera [condensed milk].”
The praise and comments flooding GeLATINX’s Instagram account suggest Vásquez is not only satisfying a sweet tooth, she’s tapping into a vein of deep nostalgia.
“I’ve had customers tell me, ‘Oh, my gosh. I remember when my grandma used to make these in the summer. We’d come in the house and abuelita would have gelatinas for us,'” Vásquez says.
A busy mother to two boys, Vásquez co-owns Espacio 1839, a Boyle Heights retail store that highlights local artists and gives people of color a platform in the gentrifying neighborhood. Vásquez previously owned a similar space, Teocintli, that hosted free spoken word, creative writing and theater workshops.
“Our priority is to keep any money that comes from Espacio going back into the space so we can keep our doors open to the community,” Vásquez says.
To provide these services, Vásquez has always had to find other ways of providing for her family. “I was an early childhood educator for 18 years and ran a licensed daycare out of my home,” she says. Two years ago, she decided to close the business and focus on her health.
Not one to stay put for long, Vásquez was inspired by her Tía Chela to start making — and eventually selling — gelatinas.
“Anybody that knows me, knows I like to cook. I’ve always created pastries, cupcakes, flans and things like that for my kids’ birthday parties and family gatherings but I’d never really thought to put it out there,” she says.
When coronavirus stopped day-to-day life in its tracks, GeLATINX became the only source of income for Vásquez and her family.
Despite the quarantine, people still need to eat and, Vásquez says, they still need to celebrate special moments — birthdays, anniversaries, the occasional wedding, downsized now because of coronavirus. Thankfully, she has been able to keep her head above water.
Pivoting to survive, Vásquez, with the help of her husband and mother-in-law, started making masks.
“We’re hanging in there. We haven’t opened [Espacio] for almost four months so that’s hard but we’re doing our best. We have the online store open and that’s helping us out,” Vásquez says.
She also has her community. Espacio has become a cultural hub and that was never more clear than when poet Yesika Salgado paid one month’s rent for the space in April.
“It’s our community that is holding us up. Without them we are nothing,” Vásquez says. “Yesika told us the donation was in the name of all the artists we’ve ever supported. I cried for a whole week.”
Most of Vásquez’s gelatina molds — she currently owns 52 — are vintage or come from mercados in Mexico, where she also sources many of her ingredients. Hunting for them is part of the fun, although she hasn’t done that in months.
“I just think about what is going to make your mouth water,” Vásquez says. “What’s going to make you think, ‘Oh, my god. I want a bite of that’?”
Vásquez incorporates fresh fruit, creamy textures and flavors such as red velvet and mango chamoy in her gelatinas. You might spot a layer of mazapan (an almond and honey confection) or a layer of choco-flan (chocolate flan) in one of her desserts.
But with the hoarding and panic buying that happened at the start of the pandemic, Vásquez, like many others, struggled to source essential ingredients.
“In the beginning, when COVID started, there was nothing at the markets. I was having to cancel orders,” she says. “I have a limited menu now, there are certain flavors that I can’t offer because I can’t be running to the market all the time. I try not to expose myself because I have my kids and a senior that lives with me.”
Completely self-taught, Vásquez has developed proprietary techniques for what she refers to as her “gelatinarte.” It’s a process that demands patience, precision, practice and a healthy tolerance for failure.
“Making gelatinas can be stressful because you don’t know how it’s going to turn out until you’ve flipped over the mold. They can take anywhere from six to eight hours because they have to sit, especially if I’m doing layers,” Vásquez says. Given that she sells them for $18 to $35 each, that’s a steal.
Since launching GeLATINX in September 2019, Vásquez has experienced steady growth, especially in the last few months. She now makes anywhere from 15 to 20 gelatinas a week.
“My customers don’t want to go out in public and they don’t want to stand in line. [COVID-19] has helped me out,” Vásquez says.
Her two most popular items are the mosaico de tres leches, creamy trio of red, green and white, and the classic fresa (strawberry). She currently uses powdered gelatin, made from collagen, for her desserts but she is exploring vegan options.
On a Saturday morning back in March, her first customers were a young couple who wanted something special for a birthday. Before placing the gelatina in the trunk of their car, Vásquez opened a pink pastry box to reveal a large red and yellow gelatina with sweet and spicy mango chamoy trickling down its ridges. Their faces lit up when they saw the cake. They were followed by a young girl picking up a café de olla gelatina for her mother’s birthday. Then, an older gentleman arrived to fetch a frutas con agua de coco.
Over the next two hours, Vásquez sold eight of her gelatinas, in most cases to customers who know her only from Instagram. The photos of her lovingly sculpted creations have been seductive enough to draw people out of their quarantine malaise.
“The reward is seeing my gelatinas tagged on social media, people enjoying them at their intimate parties, the reaction on children’s faces when they see their gelatina for the first time,” Vásquez says. “I feel like those moments are the biggest compensation in these hard times.”
This report is reprinted with permission from Southern California Public Radio. © 2020 Southern California Public Radio. All rights reserved.