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Empanada Lady: Paula Tejeda cultivates appreciation of Chilean food and cinema

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Paula Tejeda, owner of Chile Lindo on 16th Street in the Mission District, has become synonymous with empanadas in San Francisco. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

As a small business owner, Paula Tejeda has seen her share of changes at the bottom of the Redstone Building, situated on the perpetually unstable stretch of 16th Street between Capp and South Van Ness.

“If I didn’t have a bigger vision from Day 1 about being the connection to Chile, from San Francisco to Valparaiso, I would not be able to continue the day to day with this,” she said, grandly gesturing with a sweep of her hand from the gutter to the glass of Chile Lindo, the storefront from which she’s served strong coffee and Chilean sweet and savory specialties to locals and regulars since 1995.

“Here, you are dealing with people who are dislodged mentally, who throw themselves at the windows,” she said. “Two of my creamers are broken, they throw them, they steal the sugar, they get naked in front of your customers, and they do their personal business all over the street.”

Tejeda is a hands-on owner and producer of the daily event known as life in The City. She has survived her block’s incarnation as a drug and prostitution hub, its vagaries and its vacancies by welcoming both the neighborhood’s newcomers and old-timers with equal aplomb.

“There are always cultural differences,” she said. “What you have to do is respect others and not think of yourself as superior. Getting along is another story.” Yelling is not unheard of in Tejeda’s line of work, but forging connections is her stock-in-trade. She calls it her “two-tiered work: Making empanadas and promoting Chile.”

Having survived and thrived during the dot-com boom, bust and boom again, the dawn of the street food movement and the current moment as a high-end event caterer, between baking, serving coffee and offering aid to the human rights crisis in front of the shop, Tejeda is also planning the first-ever Cine Chileno, a Chilean film festival scheduled for later this year at the Castro Theater. Producing a retrospective of the films by esteemed director Silvio Caiozzi has been a long held dream of hers, though there remains her day to day: navigating her street’s transformation into a tech bus stop (with all of the confusing and changing meter regulations that go with it) and continuing to build her business as those around her close. When we met on a Monday, Tejeda had just come off a long weekend of special events, including a fundraiser for UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital in Oakland.

“The empanadas were a hit,” she said, looking relieved. “Every little and not-so-little restaurant right now is surviving by large catering orders, not the walk-ins. The walk-ins cost money to the owners. I need one of these events every two weeks.”

Chile Lindo owner Paula Tejeda has seen up close and personal the waves of gentrification in San Francisco, especially the Mission District. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Caring for the homeless and mentally disturbed population does not normally fall under the purview of small business ownership. But according to continual reports filed by experts like the Coalition on Homelessness, more recent studies by the United Nations Human Rights Council, and even S.F. Travel (which suggested The City is losing tourism and conferences), we are in a full-blown crisis. Tejeda takes seriously her commitment to remedying the situation.

“We have to provide coffee and water and napkins, not only because it is the human thing to do, but also because you’re in this neighborhood where people are hallucinating,” she said. “It’s a big, big burden on the small businesses and it is so counterproductive to the economy of The City.”

Tejeda knows something of the anguish that goes with the loss of home. “I know functioning people who owned their homes, who were hearing voices, because remember, we had two crises: the home mortgage crisis and the dot-com gentrification on steroids,” she said.

She, too, was recently evicted after 21 years, though she was able to secure housing in the Mission, against all odds.

“I had to fight an unscrupulous lawyer that was trying to get me out. I was getting fake, one-day notices on my door. They were trying to break me down or scare me,” she said. “People think you’re ignorant or because you live in a Latino neighborhood, they think you don’t know your rights. People assume so much, it’s ridiculous.”

First her aunt, then her mother and finally her father, left Chile in the 1950s for New York, where Tejeda was born. Her mother founded the Paulina Rieloff Gallery: Center for Global Expression. Her aunt, Juanita Rieloff, was associated with the Greenwich Village folk music scene (and was profiled by the Examiner in 1997).

“My father was a chemical engineer who worked on water-purifying systems with 13 patents. His idea was to build his own company, but that was a stretch for an engineer from Chile,” she said. At points, she returned to Chile, with and without her parents, to attend school and to live with her grandparents who were allendistas, followers of Salvador Allende.

“I lived in Chile in many different environments and co-existed with people from different worlds and different economic backgrounds,” she said.
She arrived here in 1979 to study media production at Laney College and San Francisco State, then continued with internships at KPIX Channel 5 and KTVU Channel 2.

“It was here that I learned more about what happened there from Chilean exiles and that was an eye-opener. Years later, when I went on my own between ’86 and ’88, I was horrified to see what it was like to live under a dictatorship, in a state of war,” she said of the era of Augusto Pinochet.

Her production career took her to New York, where she interviewed Latin-American artists like actor Raul Julia and singer Tania Libertad, among many others, before returning to the Mission to launch her food business. She started by selling sandwiches door-to-door at lunch hour when she heard the neighborhood buzz that Chile Lindo, established in 1973, was up for sale.

“I went to the owner and told her I had no money,” said Tejeda, who promised she would avail herself of resources for women-owned business. “She handed me the key that day and told me I would do well to sell tacos and pupusas for one dollar.” But Tejeda had other plans.

“When I started, no one knew what an empanada was,” she said. She continued to sell sandwiches, mostly in the halls of the Flood Building where the Latin-American consulates were located.

“They told me I couldn’t panhandle, but I explained I had customers. The laws were a lot more relaxed at that time,” said Tejeda.

Paula Tejeda is known as “The Girl from Empanada.” (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

“Known as ‘The Girl from Empanada’, Paula would make the rounds to the bars in the Mission offering up piping hot empanadas to ravenous bar patrons,” said Martin Rapalski, proprietor of The Make Out Room and The Latin American Club. “I was blown away by the savory beef empanadas with flaky crust and a hint of sweetness provided by golden raisins.”

“My friends said, ‘Paula, you’re going around with a basket? How could you go so low?” Tejeda said. But her will to survive a transitional period of her business turned her into one of the forerunners of the street food and artisanal food movements, launched in tandem with the tech boom.

“Twitter came around at the same time, and we’d let them know where we were and there would be lines for the street food at different parks and events,” she said. “The underground market was spectacular, some of the best quality products you could ever have. We were all getting press.”

But there was a downside. “People who were barely making it, who got in the business to try to save their homes, started to get audited. And we had the health department on us,” she remembered. Vendors were in essence discouraged from continuing to do business, yet the dot-com boom “was boosting the economy of the small businesses.”

“I do not understand how these departments function,” she said, shaking her head. “It is so counterproductive to the economy of The City.”

Despite, or perhaps because of, her grounding in media, arts and business, Tejeda chose not to join any action groups at the height of the displacement crisis and her own eviction. She is also not a believer in racial identity politics. “I don’t like the white talk, yellow talk and brown people talk. Even the movement is commercialized and that is why I do not sign up with anybody.

“Twenty five years ago, I knew Chile was right around the corner in every sense: tourism, wine, the fruit exports,” said Tejeda. “I knew Chilean artists were beginning to come to the Bay Area and there was an opportunity for someone to make connections.” Occasionally, she takes a night to listen to music and dance at the Revolution Cafe.

“My sister and I started out in the community dancing at Carnaval. And I always volunteer for the Latino Film Festival,” she said, which was where she first met Chilean filmmaker Caiozzi. “I have to give kudos to the Castro. Not only is it the most beautiful theater, but they host all the most important festivals — the Noir, the Berlin and Beyond, the Silent, the International …They got my idea of a Chilean festival and they got me.”

“Paula is a Mission original and it wouldn’t be the same without her vivacious smile and positive attitude. ‘The Girl from Empanada’ is now ‘The Queen of Empanada,’” said Rapalski.

Tejeda is confident she and Chile Lindo will weather the next inevitable changes to The City and 16th Street, though she is no longer the sole purveyor of empanadas on the scene.

“There’s enough room in the market for everybody,” she said, laughing. “People can compare, and see how good mine are.”

Denise Sullivan is an author, cultural worker and editor of “Your Golden Sun Still Shines: San Francisco Personal Histories & Small Fictions.” Follow her at www.denisesullivan.com and on Twitter @4DeniseSullivan.

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