08/15/2005 at 01:00 AM EDT
Rocio Ramirez came to the U.S. to make a better life for her children—but at first she struggled simply to survive. After arriving in L.A. in '91, the 46-year-old Mexican immigrant struggled to feed her two sons selling handicrafts on the sidewalks. "I had to go to food banks," she recalls. Until the tamale, a Latin American staple made from steamed corn meal, changed her life. "Now I own a home," says Ramirez, who now runs a catering company. "And my own business."
Ramirez is one of more than 100 immigrants who've gotten help from Sandi Romero, 50, a former housing activist who runs a job-training program in her restaurant, Mama's Hot Tamales Café. "After losing my husband, I wanted to help other women," says Romero. Drawn to the café by social service referrals, about 30 participants at a time spend a year working in the café and taking free business classes. Graduates go on to open their own restaurants and Romero often loans her own money to help get them started. That, she says, is only the beginning. "I help make immigrants' dreams come true," she says. "And help them have a voice."