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Yesenia Neri-Diaz is the woman behind the popular handmade tortillas at Espita Mezcaleria. Crafting the flavorful discs made of corn dough known as masa is in her DNA. “My mom taught me to make masa when I was seven or eight years old in Ahuacuotzingo—a small city in Guerrero, Mexico. We started learning little by little as you can easily get burned,” she says.
Neri-Diaz’s journey of becoming the head tortillera at Espita was serendipitous. Even though she spent her childhood cooking, she did not necessarily dream about becoming a chef or working in a kitchen. She said the opportunity came by surprise. “I walked past Espita before it opened in 2016, and I saw the ‘Help Wanted’ sign,” she says. I walked in and told the owners that I’ve been making tortillas since I was a little girl. They asked me if I knew how to work a corn grinder, which I did. I’ve been working with them ever since.”
She’s won the hearts of those who work with her. “Yesi is an absolutely indispensable member of our team and a true joy to work with,” says Espita managing partner Josh Phillips. “The pride she takes in her work is beyond that of anyone I’ve ever met. She’s constantly pushing the entire team, chef and myself included, to make the restaurant even better.”
He’s not the only one paying attention to Neri-Diaz’s culinary prowess. She’s currently a finalist for a RAMMY award in the category of “Employee of the Year.” Every year, the D.C.-area restaurant industry looks forward to the awards from the Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington. Neri-Diaz’s category focuses on a non-managerial front-of-house or back-of-house worker who serves as a model employee by displaying outstanding service, an excellent work ethic, and a positive image.
Neri-Diaz lives in the District with her husband and three daughters. The rest of her family, including her parents, are in Mexico. Like many Latinx, family is a big motivator to work hard and take on more challenges. “To provide for my family was the main motivation to move to this country,” Neri-Diaz says.
Like many immigrants, she finds the language barrier one of her biggest obstacles. One of her biggest current goals is to become proficient in English. “I know that speaking English will open more doors for me,” Neri-Diaz says. She is currently taking English lessons at her daughter’s school, Lincoln Middle School, and practices with her colleagues at the restaurant.
When asked about how Latin American food is perceived in the U.S., Neri-Diaz says she hopes that people recognize the hard work behind many of these dishes. She wants people to appreciate the art of making the tortillas: “People think this is easy work, but it is not. To work with masa, you need to have knowledge of the corn and technique. There are different textures of corn we work with, and it takes time to learn to master them. It can be very complicated.”
Neri-Diaz has picked up on an increase in people wanting to learn more about working with masa in America. She loves sharing what she knows about Mexican cuisine: “As a Mexican, it fills me with pride to do something that I learned from my parents back in Mexico, and now I can share with others.” Her parents are thrilled that their recipes have made it from Guerrero, Mexico, to D.C. “They are very proud of me and excited about my nomination.”