A mile away from where I lived in Tucson was a stubby building with a sign in front that said it was a bakery. I noticed it many times while riding buses to Latino supermarkets, places where the pastries were so sweet I ended up throwing them away. 

“You need to find a good panaderia,” an L.A. friend told me, reminding me of the one she had taken me to in Long Beach where the pastry made me want go back for more the second I’d polished off the one I’d chosen. That memory sent me to the bakery I’d passed by, although I wasn’t sure if it was even in business. The windows were dark and the glimpses that I’d caught of the interior looked empty. I never saw anyone going through its doors, but the sidewalk sign said it was open. When I pushed at the door, it was unlocked.

The room was large with a couple of dusty-looking cafe tables and a sprinkling of chairs. A shelf ran along the wall near the door, filled with plastic bags of bread, and a long glass case led to the counter that held an untended cash register. As I stood and stared, a man entered and another emerged from the back, carrying a Three Kings cake, which he boxed with great care. The two of them carried on a quick conversation in Spanish and when the other customer left, the baker turned to me. 

“I don’t know what I want,” I told him and he laughed. “Maybe a Three  Kings cake?” “Not this year,” I said, “Something smaller than that.” 

I looked at the pastries filled with fruit, the ones that resembled Hong Kong’s pineapple buns, a row of croissants, and noticed a tray of puffy little pigs that looked as though they were made of gingerbread. 

“Two of those, please.” “One minute,” he said, “We have some that just came out of the oven.”

The next day I came back for more. The pigs were flavorful with spices and held just the right amount of sweetness. “Cochitos,” I was told when I asked.

A friend brought some home from another bakery but they were much sweeter so I saw no reason to deviate from Mendes Bakery. I called it Fernando’s because it was his presence that made this unassuming space irresistible–at least for me. Our conversations were brief but warm and I always left with the happiness that comes from being in a place where I’ve been welcomed.

Fernando’s is on the edge of South Tucson, a tiny municipality with its own City Hall that’s encircled by Tucson’s sprawl. His bakery is across from one of the area’s oldest churches, opposite a small covered space that sold tortas, sopa de birria, and its own fabulous version of hotdogs–Sonora dogs without the bacon. Car washes and auto repair shops were prevalent and a food truck that said they sold seafood dishes set up canopies and chairs every day on the corner. 

This is a neighborhood that doesn’t give a damn about how it looks. It exists to fill needs, satisfy hungers, and nourish spirits–and somehow Fernando’s does all three.

This is my gateway to South Tucson which I began to slowly explore on foot. It’s a place where pocket-sized trailer parks coexist with walls of brightly colored tiled artwork, where hole-in-the wall butcher shops grill purchases for their customers to take home. When I walked through it, people often greeted me as though we were in a small town and I began to wonder how it would be to live there.

When covid made me understand that my long-denied roots in Seattle were very real, I returned to my family and friends. Occasionally I found a place that sold cochitos, but they were a pale memory of what I bought from Fernando. A year later when I was able to come back to Tucson for a quick visit, on my first morning I walked down to buy what I longed for, hoping they were still waiting for me.

They were. I bought a dozen to share with the house I was staying in and ate one on the way home. Fernando was still there. He’d had a new sign painted on his window, an image of a flaming heart flanked by roses, against a background of the brilliant shade of blue that belongs to Tucson. In its center was the name Mendes and beneath it was a painted scroll saying I Love Donuts.

Me? I love cochitos and I love Fernando’s unflagging spirit and I love the intangible things that I always find in his bakery–friendliness, community, hospitality. Because of these and because of him, I believe a small portion of South Tucson is mine, and, every chance I get, I return there to feed that belief with cochitos.