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April 14, 2022

Tortilla artisan bets big on restaurant reality show |  See Hear Do: Art, theater, dance, and more for your cultural calendar | Volunteer parents will patrol school halls hoping to curb violence

BITING INTO a Masazul tortilla will change your perspective about this round, flat piece of dough — you know, the one wrapped around your burrito or cradling the gooey cheese in your quesadilla. A Masazul tortilla feels, smells, tastes different from any tortilla you’ll find in your average market. To Las Vegas chef Mariana Alvarado Garcia, her artisanal tortillas represent a more than decade-long journey that started when she was an international student at UNLV. “When I came to the United States, there was this emptiness, a lack of ingredients, a lack of flavor when it comes to Mexican food,” she says. “There was this hole in my heart. It was sad.”

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But at the moment, she feels excited, energized, and blessed. On April 4, Mariana gave birth to Ana Maria Rotolo, her daughter with Good Pie owner Vincent Rotolo. It’s the culmination of a whirlwind couple of years that spanned the pandemic. In that time, Mariana launched Masazul, her artisanal tortilla company. She met, dated, and married Rotolo. And on April 5, she made her national television debut on Food Network’s Big Restaurant Bet. “It’s something I never thought would happen to me. And now that it’s happening, it’s still kind of unbelievable,” she says.

The show stars eight chef contestants competing for a chance to win a $250,000 restaurant investment with celebrity chef Jeffrey Zakarian’s restaurant group. Mariana participated while pregnant during the entire shoot in Florida, but at her request, she wasn’t given any special treatment. “All of us women, we are capable,” she says, laughing. “We are built to be out there working and doing so many things. We are multitasking all the time.”

Her husband admits he was a little concerned, but he also respects Mariana’s mission to preserve her family’s food heritage. “Mariana is one of the individuals that has the ability, the talent, the desire to carry that responsibility forward,” Rotolo says. “That’s what she's doing — pregnant or not, kids or not, in a pop-up in our backyard or in a fancy restaurant. Wherever she goes, she’s carrying that torch, and I’m proud of her.”

Mariana’s small business specializes in heirloom corn tortillas and masa. They’re offered in red, pink, orange, blue, purple, and white. She sources this rainbow of heirloom seeds from the valleys of Oaxaca and practices the ancient cooking process of nixtamalization. That process involves cooking corn in an alkaline solution, usually water and calcium hydroxide (food-grade lime). Nixtamalized corn tortillas have a better texture and flavor; they’re softer, more pliable, and have a richer corn flavor. Better yet, the technique also increases nutritional value, creating tortillas that are higher in fiber, calcium, antioxidants, and potassium.

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“We’re going to change the industry when it comes to Mexican food. We are trying to bring something with roots — artisanal, handmade, and new. The food is going to be fun,” she says of her dreams to develop a restaurant out of Masazul. “There is a world we are not exploring. We need to bring that up, and awareness is one of the most important things.”

Her own awareness is as close as childhood memory. Alvarado Garcia’s father was born in the tiny town of Tecozautla in Hidalgo, about three hours north of Mexico City. Her fondest food recollections go back to her childhood in Mexico when she would watch eagerly as a hot tortilla puffed up on a clay comal. That feeling and flavor is what inspired her to create Masazul — and to appear as a contestant on Big Restaurant Bet. Winning the competition would mean she’d have a hefty down payment on creating a Las Vegas restaurant that honors her ancestors.

“There are a lot of women who have kept this tradition alive in small towns in Mexico. And if they die, then that’s it. This food connected everyone. It was really well made. It had all the right components and all the right techniques,” she says.

For proof of that powerful connection forged by food, look no further than her own blended family: Rotolo has a son and grandson from a prior relationship, and Mariana has two young children, 7-year-old Nico and 4-year-old Natalia, from a previous marriage.

“Being in a food family with everybody — that can add to the overall culture of our family,” Rotolo says. “It's so fun to play around with ideas and get the kids involved. On any given night, I'll come home, and she'll be there grinding corn. It just fills the house with these wonderful aromas that I've never had in my life. I get to experience that in my household on a regular basis. I'm really lucky to have that in my life,” says Rotolo.

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Rotolo owns a share in Masazul. The pizzaiolo gives advice to his wife on real estate and development, negotiating, and making major purchases. But when it comes to her food?

“It’s her business,” he says, “and it's a great opportunity for me, because I'm learning how to be a minority partner. I'm learning how to be a cheerleading proud husband. And that's new for me. It's wonderful for me. She is the woman of my dreams.”

It seems many of Mariana’s dreams are becoming a reality simultaneously. New baby. New show debut. Will there a be a new restaurant? Whether she wins Big Restaurant Bet or not, she’s determined to share her passion for colorful corn with everyone.

Says Mariana, “It’s so much more than just a tortilla. However, it all starts with that — a humble work of art.”

Big Restaurant Bet airs Tuesday nights on Food Network.

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The Mojave Project
Through July 23
Art exhibition

Kim Stringfellow may seem like a photographer, but her latest exhibit, The Mojave Project, literalizes what she really does. Behind each photo is a journey, including not only physical movement through time and place, but also research done at a desk, audio interviews conducted in the field, objects cataloged in each scene, and the artist’s own observations. The Mojave Project brings all these elements and others together to immerse participants in Mojave Desert sites beloved by Stringfellow, who lives in Joshua Tree. It’s a moving attempt to convey the depth and complexity of a unique ecosystem. And it’s open-ended, as the artist continues curating and adding to the collection; the journey continues. (Headline photo: Monty Brannigan of Darwin, Nevada) Heidi Kyser

Tues.-Sat. 10a-5p, free, The Marjorie Barrick Museum of Art, UNLV,

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Green Our Planet’s Student Farmers Market
April 22
Farmers Market

Considering I grew up believing Go-Gurt was a root vegetable, I am deeply grateful for any organization that teaches kids how and where our food actually grows. Better yet, Green Our Planet teaches kids how to grow that food, instilling deep lessons about science, conservation, and planetary stewardship along the way. For Earth Day, Vegas-based Green Our Planet is putting on a massive student farmers market — largest one in the U.S., they say! — in which 600 students from 60 Southern Nevada schools will hawk their proudly garden-grown fruits, vegetables, and herbs. Better yet, all proceeds go right back into their school garden programs. It’s getting hella circle of life up in here! Adrew Kiraly

9:30a-1p, free, Downtown Summerlin, 1980 Festival Plaza Drive,

PowWow for the Planet
April 23
Native American social dance and youth workshop

Supported by the urban Las Vegas Indigenous community, a group of young Indigenous people have organized a workshop and pow wow to coincide with Earth Day. The workshop, meant for Native American youth, will focus on advocacy related to climate change, global sustainability, and protection of sacred sites. The pow wow, which the public is encouraged to attend, will include traditional dances, presentations, and a vendor fair. Running through the event will be the theme of national monument designation for Avi Kwa Ame, the Mojave name for Spirit Mountain in Southern Nevada. U.S. Congresswoman Dina Titus recently introduced a bill to protect several hundred thousand acres around the mountain, a proposal supported by a coalition of tribal nations that have called the area home and been stewards of the land since before contact with white settlers. HK

Workshop 11a, pow wow 12-6p, free, UNLV campus, 4505 S. Maryland Pkwy.,

Looking Forward, Looking Back
April 29-30
Dance performance

CSN’s spring dance concert is extra special this year for a couple reasons. It’s the college dance program’s first formal presentation in three years. And more significantly, it’s an homage to Kelly Roth, the revered founder and former director of said program, who died unexpectedly a little more than a year ago. Current Director Denise Darnell has teamed up with the Concert Dance Company to produce the show, aptly titled Looking Forward, Looking Back. And CSN dance students are learning from and performing alongside two artists in residence: Carrie Miles, a former member of Roth’s dance company and part-time CSN instructor who’s now with the Wildly Brave Dance Company in Oklahoma; and Frit and Frat (above), a film, TV, and theatrical production duo who founded the L.A.-based Kin Dance Company. HK

7p Fri. and 2p Sat., $5-8, Nicholas Horn Theater, CSN North Las Vegas campus, 3200 E. Cheyenne Ave.,

Las Vegas Men’s Chorus: Out of This World
May 1
Choral music

Calling all psychonauts, graybeard rockers, and grown-ass kandi kids! The staid and venerable Artemus Ham Hall at UNLV is getting a trippy makeover for this night of cosmic tunes sung by the Las Vegas Men’s Chorus: Video projections, black lights, and fog machines complement the LVMC’s performance of space-themed tunes from Elton John, David Bowie, Frank Sinatra, and others. See your dilated pupils in orbit! AK

4p, $25, UNLV’s Artemus Ham Hall,

Wave In: A BMI Festival
May 5-7
Literature and ideas

If all this huddling and isolating and high-rpm fretting during the worst of

the pandemic sapped your spirit, the Black Mountain Institute’s Wave In festival just might be the thing to recharge you. Why is it called Wave In? Because it’s all about ripple effects — whether we’re talking about climate change, Indigenous activism, global conflicts, or the lingering presence of COVID. Luminaries ranging from Roxane Gay to Alex Marzano-Lesnevich to Ahmed Naji will explore those ripples and more in this multidisciplinary, multi-venue event that encompasses art, ideas, literature, and performance. AK

Various times and locations,

Las Vegas Philharmonic season finale
May 7

The Las Vegas Philharmonic kisses its 23rd season goodbye with the Edge Effect — a rousing new orchestral performance directed by Latin Grammy-

nominated composer Juan Pablo Contreras (right). The concert takes inspiration from an ecological concept of the same name, which means a place where a merging of two ecosystems has added up to a greater diversity of life. Contreras aims to amplify Hispanic voices and highlight their talent and diversity in classical music. The concert is a voyage into Contreras’ mind — an exploration of race, identity, and assimilation punctuated by vocal interpretations of Beethoven's “Ah! Perfido” and “9th Symphony.” Ganny Belloni

7:30p., $29-121, The Smith Center,

The Bremen Town Musicians
May 12- 29

In John Davies’ lively operatic adaptation of this lesser-known Brothers Grimm tale, four animals — traditionally a donkey, a dog, a cat, and a rooster — retire from the toil of farm life and decide to become musicians in the placid town of Bremen. But when they come across a gang of robbers burglarizing a home, they join forces to get their slapstick vigilante on! Talk about active retirement. AK

Various dates and times, free, various Clark County Library locations,

Carmina Burana
May 20-22

The Nevada Ballet Theater closes its 50th season with Carmina Burana, choreographed by Nicolo Fonte and brought to life by Maestro Donato Cabrera, with members of the Las Vegas Philharmonic, as well as the Las Vegas Master Singers. George Balanchine’s tribute to George Gershwin, Who Cares? provides a prelude to the classical ballet set to Carl Orff’s score. The show is the highlight of the company’s Anniversary Gala, celebrating its founding in 1972. GB

7:30p Fri. and Sat., 1p Sun., $30.95-140.95, The Smith Center, .

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CLARK COUNTY SCHOOL DISTRICT Police say they’ve confiscated dozens of firearms and reported about 3,000 assaults, batteries, and fights this school year alone. It’s a problem that has many families asking whether the state’s largest school district is safe. A new effort, led by a Las Vegas pastor, plans to put dads physically in schools to stop the violence.

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The problem has gotten so concerning to parents and teachers that CCSD Superintendent Dr. Jesus Jara vowed to take a tougher stance against students who resort to violence. At a press conference last week, Jara said he would reinstate the expulsion review board, close traditionally open campuses, and institute a single point of entry. Expelled students would not be allowed back in regular compulsory schools, but would be offered other options, such as the Nevada Learning Academy, Acceleration Academy, and online learning. Jara also emphasized the continued need for family involvement. Parents of kids having trouble should take them to their school for counseling or seek outside therapy before the situation comes to a head, he said.

But Troy Martinez, pastor of the East Vegas Christian Center, wants to intervene before violence occurs in schools.

“Post-COVID, we saw a significant increase of violence in the community, and it’s going from the community into the schools,” Martinez says. “We saw some huge fights happening in the school district. My wife and I have 11 grandchildren … We were concerned as grandparents.”

To help combat the problem, he recently started a local version of the Dads in Schools program, which started in Shreveport, Louisiana, last fall and has since gone nationwide. “It’s prevention by presence,” Martinez says.

In Southern Nevada, 74 Clark County schools have signed up and around 300 volunteer dads. Dads in Schools’ goal is to more than double that number and implement 10 dads per school. Each one will have to go through an FBI background check and violence reduction training.

“We were inspired by the Dads on Duty in Louisiana,” Martinez says. “But we understand that our school district is much larger, and Vegas is still Vegas. We're just unique. We tailored a proposal for the school district that would actually address the immediate issues of violence on their campuses.”

The CCSD Board of Trustees approved the program in March. Soon after, Martinez says, the group met with officials from the district attorney’s office who told him that, at the time, there were 14 minors booked into the Clark County Detention Center facing murder charges.

Nevada Attorney General Aaron Ford became involved in the program both professionally and as a concerned father of a CCSD student. “I’ve always been an active parent myself, and I think this is one of the ways we can help to ensure we have an environment that’s appropriate for learning,” he says.

The Attorney General’s office also supports Dads in Schools in an official capacity. Ford shot a 30-second commercial in which he dons the program’s black-and-white referee-like jersey and encourages parents to sign up.

“I know there have been some team meetings where students themselves have spoken up and said, it's not the school, it's the parents who are not holding their own children accountable,” Ford said. “And one of the ways that we can engage and to hold people accountable is to ensure that the parents are engaged in programs just like this.”

Given the program’s name, women may wonder if they’re welcome. Martinez says they’re accepting female volunteers for administrative assistance.

Martinez emphasizes that the idea is not for dads to provide a law enforcement-like presence. Simple gestures like holding the door open after lunch or hanging around in the halls after the bell rings can keep small run-ins from escalating to full-blown fights.

“Organically, Dads in Schools is going to build relationships directly with the men in their own community with that principal and that school. The students will begin to recognize those men and those women that are involved,” he says. “Parents want purposeful involvement.”

HEAR MORE:  For KNPR's conversation about Dads in Schools, listen to  the State of Nevada segment .


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Photos and art: Maria Alvarado Garcia courtesy Food Network; Monty Brannigan courtesy Barrick Museum; Green Our Planet: courtesy; Juan Pablo Contreras: courtesy; Wave In: courtesy BMI; Frit and Frat courtesy CSN; Aaron Ford: YouTube screen capture;

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