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La Morada: Protecting And Serving New York’s Undocumented Immigrants In The Pandemic Era

A restaurant run by and for the undocumented works with the community to overcome new, daunting obstacles.

Yajaira Saavedra is the undocumented co-owner of family-run La Morada, a Michelin Bib Gourmand-awarded Mexican restaurant in the South Bronx known for their Oaxacan cuisine. La Morada is also a community and pro-immigration activist space. The restaurant’s front door reads “Refugees Welcome.” Currently, La Morada is operating as a soup kitchen with the assistance of Rethink Food.

Undocumented immigrants hold a position in every single part of a restaurant’s assembly line. We are the ones who harvest the land, and grow, cook, serve, and deliver the food. Yet, we don’t have the same rights or privileges as any other famous chef or white Anglo-Saxon citizen.

La Morada was awarded a Bib Gourmand by Michelin, and yet we are treated differently compared to other restaurants with less recognition, simply because we lack status. The United States was founded upon genocide and slavery. As such, undocumented folks are treated as second-class citizens.

I don’t know how undocumented workers are supporting themselves right now. Every pro-immigrant group and national alliance is thinly spread due to coronavirus, so there’s not a lot of resources for undocumented folks. The majority of it has been faith and prayer. It’s hard. During this time, undocumented workers are not eligible to receive the stimulus check or emergency unemployment benefits, nor can we apply for pandemic-related small business loans. Since there is less security for undocumented workers, we are still afraid to stand up to our landlords and benefit from the 90-day moratorium on evictions. Furthermore, under normal circumstances, we are not allowed to apply for a driver’s license in most states. This restricts us from getting food during emergencies like COVID-19. In order to make it to most food pantries in the Bronx, you need a car.

Funny enough, we’ve actually increased the number of our workers at the restaurant in order to meet demand during coronavirus. We run a soup kitchen Tuesday through Saturday, which began on April 15. The first day of the soup kitchen, we ran out of food within a couple hours. The number of meal requests kept doubling each day. But in the middle of May, we had a really hard drop—we found out a lot of the folks we had been serving were in the hospital or passed away.

We say that “activism is the main seasoning of La Morada.” The reason we have such a massive amount of meals to make each day is because there are a lot of buildings in the neighborhood without gas, or which have a faulty infrastructure that doesn’t allow tenants to cook. These are the folks we are serving daily meals to, as well as the disabled and those who have been released from ICE detention centers or Rikers Island. But we at La Morada are able-bodied and know where to source food to feed these people.

We’re not looking for profit. We are looking to serve our community first and foremost. Our survival depends on the well-being of the community. This community is the reason why we’ve been open for so long. If they aren’t doing okay, we’re not doing okay.

Photo: Courtesy La Morada.

We actually took a month off from the restaurant because everybody in my family got sick. During this time, I tried to apply for the Paycheck Protection Program, Economic Injury Disaster Loan, and other small business loans. We were rejected by all of them. I think the reason was a mix of being undocumented and not wealthy or corporate enough.

I’m trying to work out how Shake Shack got a small business loan. I’m trying to work out how businesses less than a year old in the South Bronx that are established or partnered with wealthy developers were chosen to receive aid prior to other small, mostly immigrant-owned small businesses.

Maybe it is the warrior or the Latinx or indigenous woman inside me that likes to earn and not receive any handouts. We tried to apply for loans and grants first. When that was denied, a really close friend of our family started a GoFundMe for us. Within a week of starting the GoFundMe, we reached our goal of $45,000. And since then, we have gone way over the fundraising goal. However, instead of using money as a safety net, we decided to open the restaurant back up and start a soup kitchen.

What we’re asking for is mutual aid. If you have a bag of rice and we have a lot of beans, let’s trade. We need ingredients and proteins. If you have a small backyard or windowsill and want to grow something for us, we will take it. Every little grain of rice counts.

But in order for restaurants to start functioning again and survive the coronavirus, we need to stop raids in workplaces by ICE and the New York Police Department. Put an end to racist laws like stop-and-frisk and only punishing certain groups of people for not wearing face masks. There’s a saying in Spanish that goes “la migra y policía son la misma tontería.” That’s translated roughly as “ICE and the police are the same thing.”

We started La Morada in a neighborhood that is majority Black and brown, and we are constantly being targeted by the NYPD with mass arrests or stop-and-frisk. At best we are arrested and ticketed. But frequently, we are killed. Last year, I was detained and arrested by the NYPD after they entered the restaurant in pursuit of someone else in the neighborhood. I was arrested because I was recording the incident. I was released without any charges within hours because the South Bronx community came to my aid and packed the precinct.

Photo: A. Apolinario.

I am so lucky that I have a community always backing us up. If it was another person who was undocumented and didn’t have the community support, that could have led to their deportation.

Undocumented people are constantly being targeted with new rules. During coronavirus, it’s the mask requirement and avoidance of gatherings or large groups.

For example, the NYPD came into the restaurant one week saying they received a call about a large gathering, and that we weren’t wearing masks. It’s unfair because I hear people on the Upper East Side throwing pretty much a rave outside in the streets without masks or sunbathing in Central Park without following any protocols. Instead of receiving summons or arrests, they get masks from the NYPD.

There are constant rules and corrupt regulations used against vulnerable folks rather than helping them out. There has been a spike in NYPD harassment in that sense against undocumented workers during coronavirus. I’ve also heard of people doing mutual aid work or food distributions who have gotten calls from the NYPD harassing them.

The United States depends heavily on exploiting people, especially undocumented immigrants and the working class. I actually fear that everything will “go back to normal” or worse for us because we are ready and willing to go back to work. I hope undocumented people don’t feel they have to settle for being less than human because businesses reopen. I want them to continue fighting for better health and quality of living.

Without undocumented workers, everything would just be so bland. Who wants bland food? But even if I had a green card tomorrow, I am still an indigenous POC woman. A green card won’t give me the same privileges as the white wealthy class. I’m still going to fight off discrimination and struggle to receive any sort of healthcare. All of my problems are not going to wash away because I have a green card.

I don’t think the pandemic is going to go away anytime soon, simply because we are in the South Bronx. This area has the highest deaths per capita in the city and is historically under-resourced. What I do see is us growing closer with our neighbors, community, friends, and allies to make sure we have a chance to survive this pandemic.

As a consumer, I ask you to build a conscience. We are always risking our lives for your basic needs.

If you are ordering from an online delivery platform, make sure you cash tip your delivery person who is risking their life to bring you a hot plate. Obviously you can afford to tip if you are ordering delivery. If you have the privilege to buy anything during the pandemic, make sure you limit your actions outside because that is affecting people who don’t have the privilege to stay home.

Please know the history of your food and acknowledge what you eat. Mezcal was a poor person’s drink that has been exploited in the market to the point where actually poor indigenous folks can’t afford mezcal, even though it belonged to them. For instance, our mole is indigenous, handed down from generation to generation. It bothers me that we have a lot of wealthy white Mexicans who are boasting and throwing mole around like it is another Ranch dressing rather than a traditional meal. Mole has history. It’s very meaningful. If we can at least give credit where credit is due, and acknowledge those foods are made by indigenous people and belong to indigenous people, that could help build a conscience.

Don’t be neutral. Agitate other folks to take action, especially if you are coming from a place of privilege. Use that privilege to support undocumented people. It’s not only about words—it’s also about actions, and more than ever it’s a time to take action to be pro-immigrant.