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“We Have No Voice, We Have No Authority, We Can’t Change Anything.”

America’s most famous undocumented immigrant chef is ready to fight

In Cristina Martinez's home state of Toluca, Mexico, barbacoa is the men's domain. "It's a grueling profession," says Ben Miller, Martinez's husband, sous chef, business partner, and, right now, translator. "The heaviness of that work, the competition, big trucks and lamb and strong guys. Women make the sauces and chop the cilantro. Cristina has totally flipped the script."


Together, Martinez and Miller run South Philly Barbacoa, a cheerful, cash-only, weekends-only spot that is, so far, the only restaurant in America to earn a Bon Appetit Hot 10 award while catering primarily to a clientele of Mexican construction workers between the hours of 5 a.m. and 7 a.m. It's also the only restaurant in America to gain that kind of national attention with a chef at the helm who's not just a Mexican immigrant, but an undocumented one.

Martinez first came to this country in 2006, stayed for a year, then went back to Toluca, returning again to the U.S. in 2009. Though she's married to Miller, an American, because Martinez has illegally crossed the border twice, she's not eligible for citizenship. According to the current law, she'd have to go back to Mexico and stay there for 10 years before she could even apply for a green card.

South Philly Barbacoa started with Martinez selling succulent slow-cooked lamb tacos out of her home, then graduated to a food truck stationed outside a local Mexican bakery. In 2015, she and Miller went brick-and-mortar in East Passyunk, a tight-knit, historically Italian-American Philadelphia neighborhood that in the past decade has seen the opening of restaurants offering nasi ulam, tlayudas, shakshuka, adobo, pasties, and smorrebrod to its century-old diet of veal parm and mussels white.

It's still a majority white neighborhood, but there's relative diversity across race, religion, income, and education spectrums. You can rent a one-bedroom apartment for $600 a month or buy a rehabbed brownstone for half a million. Adorably gossipy nonnas live next door to Brooklyn refugees live next door to Syrian refugees and so on and so forth. For every Trump/Pence poster in a rowhome window, there are two Stronger Togethers. People haven't taken them down yet, reminders of work ahead, sober and hopeful.

In Tuesday's election, East Passyunk's voting wards pulled a blue majority, but that's of little comfort to Martinez. The across-the-board Republican victory — not just in the Presidency but in both chambers of Congress — promises to make our country less safe for countless people, including the millions of undocumented workers who form the backbone of the American restaurant industry. According to the Trump campaign's 100-day plan released in October — the document outlining the now-president-elect's priorities upon taking office — on his very first day with executive power, he will "begin removing more than two million criminal illegal immigrants from the country."

That's the fourth item on the president-elect's five-point plan. Right before it on the list is cutting all federal funding to Sanctuary Cities, which officially refuse to cooperate with immigration authorities in deporting non-violent undocumented immigrants. Many large cities with large immigrant populations are Sanctuary Cities, including Philadelphia. (Mayor Jim Kenney, who reestablished Philly's sanctuary status after his election last year, promises he's ready to fight the threat of defunding. "We respect and live up to the Fourth Amendment, which means you can't be held against your will without a warrant from the court signed by a judge," Kenney told the Philadelphia Inquirer earlier today.)

Martinez is very open about her status as an undocumented immigrant, and the success of South Philly Barbacoa has been held up as a model of the value that immigrants contribute to American culture. In the wake of Trump's victory, however, everything seems likely to change. Two days after the election, Eater sat down with Martinez and Miller to talk about it.


How are you feeling?
Martinez: Very sad. I was watching the news [on election night] and went to bed early. I had a feeling Hillary would win. I woke up sad and my body felt anxious. Trump is very clear with his racist message. We're really in a white country, and the reality of that became clear and came out from hiding.

Did you not realize there were this many Trump supporters out there?
Martinez: No.

Miller: We have a neighbor that's a Trump supporter, which I didn't know until he put the [Trump sign] up a week ago, and he's always been friendly enough. We have a neighbor who has Trump sticker on his car, and he comes into the restaurant. But mostly Philly is a bubble of progressive Democrats.

Martinez: The Baby Boomer generation really made their presence felt — Obama rallied young people, people of color, and immigrants in the same way. We had forgotten about this huge demographic of people that came to support Trump. But we have to stay united and maintain calm, because all the races of the world converge in the United States.

As an undocumented immigrant, how are you staying calm right now?
Martinez: It's difficult, because you can have raids at any time. Immigration can come and snatch me up and there's really nothing I can do or say about it. If they came in here for any of the employees, I would be at the door stopping them, and they could take me along with them.

South Philly Barbacoa/Facebook

What are you hearing from people in the Mexican community, particularly undocumented immigrants, right now?
Martinez: People are scared, especially people who have children. Children are asking their parents, "Do you have papers?" The children are more traumatized by the potential separation, because they're listening to the adults. There are children who are thinking, "If my parents have to go to Mexico, do I stay here?"

When Mayor Jim Kenney took office last year, he reestablished Philly as a Sanctuary City. One of the things that Trump says is he's going to cut federal funding to Sanctuary Cities. 
Miller: My question is, can we survive without federal funding? Focus on our local economy and live in that kind of world?

Martinez: It's going to be very confusing for people who want to support the Latino population. All the small people are in the hands of the citizens. We don't have a lot of hope.

What do you think will happen?
Martinez: I have an idea Trump is going to tax undocumented immigrants extra, or we'll have to pay a penalty fee. People like me — Latin people who are responsible and hardworking — we're not going to have difficulty completing our obligations. But there are people in our community who don't have the same financial resources. There are people who've immigrated as hard workers but maybe have befallen an illness, broken a leg, had an inability to work, or family issues.

Your illegal status is a big part of the story of South Philly Barbacoa; you're very vocal about it and have had a lot of press. You're out there. Does that make you more scared?
Martinez: No, because the attention gives us a network, a community, a safety net. After we started coming out with our political views, lawyers and college professors started coming to the restaurant, so we have resources.

Miller: Worst-case scenario: Cristina gets deported, the restaurant would close here and reopen in Mexico with a huge cultural story on all the news channels: That this was the culture pushed out of the country by racism and bigotry, and this is what we're losing. We'll cook barbacoa in Mexico with fresher ingredients and we'll be okay. But we'll continue the mission as we're on our way out to try and raise up the voice.

What about workers who won't be okay in this situation?
Martinez: Everybody has their passport and can hop on a plane and go back to Mexico. If something starts to break out in this country and people start really fighting, people will leave. We're all ready. It would be painful to leave this country and leave behind all the work we've done and the things that we built, but it's more important to stay alive.

So that's a very real thought in your head, that exit strategy — that "We'll leave"?
Miller: From day one. Before we even came out with any of the story, it was always like, If we're targeted, if she's deported, this is part of the plan. We're willing to take it all the way and live in Mexico.

That possibility has to be really difficult to face, especially considering how dangerous it was getting to this country in the first place.
Martinez: That was the sacrifice I made. I came first in 2006, stayed and worked for a year, went back to my hometown [in Mexico] and opened a comida corrida place. That was fine, but my daughter wanted to further her education and I wasn't able to afford it, so I came back to the U.S. in 2009 and I've been here since. I haven't seen my daughter since then, but she's now in graduate school for nursing and hospital management.

Photo: Ben Miller

Crossing illegally both times?
Martinez: Yes. Crossing the Sonora Desert is not easy; you have to have a lot of strength and desire to make it across. There's danger in the desert, but there's another danger after you cross over the border. You're picked up by someone in a van and you don't know what's going on; for hours you're waiting here, going with this person, that person, and at any point people could do whatever.

You have no protection.
Miller: You're completely vulnerable.

Martinez: [When I came here the first time], when I was through the desert, I got into a rented van. There were two white people in the front of the car, and we were in the back. We drove for four hours. We were shaking and scared. We passed two police checkpoints, and the white people were talking with the police and we kept going. It was really hot. When we got to Phoenix, we opened the door and we were all gasping for air. They gave us hamburgers. Then, everybody was put into different cars — and we risked our lives again, because we didn't know who was the driver, we didn't know who we were with or where we were going. It's all white people [driving], so you play a role, like [pretending that] you're someone's worker. Later, we arrived in Colorado and all got on a bus together. Everyone was sitting separately on the bus and the guy was telling us, Don't talk to each other. The road in Colorado was very dangerous because there was a lot of snow. I was seeing the United States for the first time. It was beautiful, but so cold. I was thinking about my family very far away. We got to another bus station and all bought tickets to Philadelphia.

This network of white guys driving you around — is that all pre-arranged beforehand?
Martinez: Yes, it's all arranged. At the time it cost $3,000, and you had to pay in dollars, not in pesos.

That's a lot of money. 
Martinez: Now it's $7,000, risking everything. If you spend $15,000, you get to cross in a car and get the forged paperwork.

If all these undocumented workers are deported, as Trump promises they will be, what will be the effect on the restaurant industry?
Martinez: First, Mexico is going to get a ton of intelligent, great workers and Mexico doesn't even have the infrastructure to support all of them. Second, all these great acclaimed chefs [here in the U.S.] are going to have to start getting their hands dirty washing dishes.

Miller: Mexico's food scene is going to be off the chain. Italian restaurants, Greek restaurants, Malaysian — everything's gonna be down there.

It's a common complaint that illegal immigrants are taking American jobs, but do you see any non-immigrants interested in these restaurant positions?
Miller: They don't. They're not applying for them.

Martinez: [Immigrant workers are a big part of] the business, but we're not indispensable. People will go on and learn how to manage their businesses.

Miller: Prices at restaurants will go up, because immigrants are willing to work for lower wages. They have this hard desire to work, and what they're making here is significantly more than what they can make in their home country.

What can an undocumented worker washing dishes in a restaurant expect to make here?
Miller: Minimum $8 an hour, some guys will probably work for $6.

Martinez: In Chicago, they're paying $4 an hour. In Philly, it's between $9 and $10.

On the Barbacoa Twitter feed, which is run by Ben, you Tweeted that you voted for Jill Stein.
Miller: Even though I had a lot to lose, I felt the need to support my ideals and vote for the party that stood for rights and peace. With the Democrats, we're bombing seven countries right now. The war coming from the Republican side is something else. I think the party for the people needs to be built and we need to make some sacrifices to do that. If it means to distance ourselves from the Democratic establishment, we saw neoliberalism lost in this election. And it wasn't because of the Green voters; it was because of the Trump voters. No one should blame third-party voters.

How do you feel now, knowing how slim the margin was, and that votes that could have gone to Hillary went to third-party candidates instead? 
Miller: Forty-nine percent of the population did not vote. Putting the blame on Greens or third-party voters that are voting our conscience and looking to build a future that's sustainable... I feel like, I wanted Hillary to win the presidency and I wanted Jill Stein to get five percent of the vote. The way they were predicting a landslide —

Cristina, if you were able to vote, who would you have voted for?
Martinez: For the Green Party. We're voting in a new slave master, we're subjects under the same thing. It has a different face, but it's still the same; we're still just subjects exploited.

Under Trump?
Martinez: Of the two major parties, of how politics has been historically in this country — either way, you're voting for the head master.

How would you feel if Hillary had been elected?
Martinez: It would change some things, having a female in office. It would break certain stereotypes, similar to the way Obama broke stereotypes being the first black President. But still, we'd be living with the fear of what surprises [the administration] would bring.

Miller: And we'd still be living under the neoliberal ideology that's been destructive.

Is this a common school of thought in the Mexican community, that neither major party is really for them?
Miller: A lot of people I've talked to don't even know the Green Party exists. But there are a lot of Americans who don't know the Green party exists.

Martinez: We're just here, and the white people make all the rules. We're a complement to this country but we have no voice, we have no authority, we can't change anything.

What can non-immigrants do to help your community?
Martinez: Through food we can educate and change the heart. And [voters] can see how we're working hard and what role we're playing in society, and then go change the system. This is a long-term, slow change. Our primary education comes from the family, but sometimes as adults we don't teach children correctly, and that's how society begins to break down. We have to start again to make a change and protect immigrants.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Adam Erace is a freelance food and travel writer and host of Great American Food Finds on Food Network. He lives in his hometown of Philadelphia.
Editors: Helen Rosner and Erin DeJesus

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