At 11 a.m. on a hot Tuesday in October, cars began to line up at a pair of tents pitched in a deserted stretch of downtown Los Angeles. At the first tent, Damian Diaz greeted every arrival with cold Topo Chicos and bright greetings in Spanish. He handed out sandwiches donated by a local shop, bagged-up snacks, and juice boxes; some families received books carefully sorted by reading level. Next, the cars pulled up to a second tent, where volunteers loaded boxes of food into open trunks, back seats, and any other space they could find. Each family received two boxes totaling 100 pounds of food, and many cars were picking up for multiple households. Diaz teased one arrival about the full-sized bottle of Tapatio in his cup holder; he greeted dogs; volunteer Mykle Casarin handed a Star Wars book to a little boy and made him promise to tell her what he thinks next week.
That day, the nonprofit No Us Without You would distribute food to 300 families of undocumented restaurant workers. Founded by Diaz and Othón Nolasco, veteran bartenders behind some of Los Angeles’s hippest cocktail bars and co-owners of consulting group Va’La Hospitality, the group is dedicated to helping the most vulnerable workers in an industry in slow-motion collapse. No Us Without You serves 1,300 (and counting) families and distributes almost 120,000 pounds of food a week, fueled by official relief programs and massive amounts of donations. The USDA program, provided through Vesta Foods, ends on October 31, but even after that program ends, using their fluency with wholesalers and suppliers, No Us Without You can feed a family of four for $33 a week.
Nolasco says the project was born out of a moment of anger. When Los Angeles locked down in March, Nolasco and Diaz watched restaurant GoFundMes sprout across social media for front-of-house employees, who tend to be better paid and have citizenship status, making them eligible for government relief. “Who was taking care of back of house?” Nolasco wondered.
According to a 2014 Pew report, roughly 9 percent of the hospitality workforce is undocumented; in Los Angeles, that number is undoubtedly higher (advocacy group One Fair Wage puts it at 40 percent). Many of these workers have taxes withheld from their paychecks, but when the COVID crisis arrived, the vast majority could not access the unemployment system they contributed to. As restaurants shut their doors en masse, Nolasco and Diaz reached out to 10 undocumented restaurant workers they knew personally; all of them needed help feeding their families.
As they expanded to 30 families, then 100, then 500 through Instagram and word of mouth, Diaz and Nolasco strove to build a system that respects the people they’re helping as skilled restaurant workers who know good-quality food, and who are often the first to help their colleagues. “When you come in hungover, who is putting away your liquor order? Who’s making posole for family meal, even at a Japanese restaurant?” Diaz says. He is personally in touch with all 1,300 families weekly, checking in on what they need, vetting and ushering in newcomers (the group turns down anyone who is not a restaurant worker), providing a listening ear, and generally building the trust essential to working with people who are both vulnerable and tend to resist help. Sometimes, when a member of a family finds work, they ask to leave the program, but Diaz urges people to keep accepting food so they can pay off deferred rent or any debt they’ve incurred.
To run a bar is to be a master of cold logistics and warm hospitality; it requires the ability to haul kegs and pour a drink for a regular who’s had a bad day; it requires individual ingenuity and a love of working as part of a team. It’s difficult to imagine a set of skills better suited to running a nonprofit. No Us Without You works because it embraces the pandemic’s ethos of mutual aid, not only in its explicit mission of helping former colleagues who once helped you, but in the structure the organization provides for people who have no idea when their industry might come back.
The volunteers — bartenders, bar managers, chefs, liquor reps, and barbacks — are all former colleagues of Diaz and Nolasco’s, and the trust built in the bar trenches makes the operation hum. Before the families arrived that Tuesday, the team loaded USDA food relief boxes, filled with staple vegetables, dairy products, and hard-boiled eggs, with rice, beans, chorizo, pasta, and marinara sauce. Ally DeVellis, a bartender, said building out the boxes is not unlike being behind the bar on a busy night, though the stakes are higher. “If you mess up, it’s different than garnishing incorrectly — a family doesn’t get rice for a week.” DeVellis is currently on unemployment, which covers only her basic necessities, and she bemoaned the government “fighting with itself.” But she said volunteering with No Us Without You was good for her own morale; she takes solace in the hard, sweaty work, and its mission.
In the nonprofit’s scrappy early days back in the spring, Diaz and Nolasco had distributed the food boxes from Va’La Hospitality’s office in the working class Latino neighborhood of Boyle Heights, across the river from downtown. But they worried inviting undocumented people to the same location week after week risked attracting the interest of ICE, so now the team goes through the extra steps of packing and unpacking a refrigerated truck and setting up in a rotating series of locations known only to the families they serve. (Diaz scouts for new locations on his bike.)
No Us Without You is nimble, and that nimbleness, combined with an abundance of out-of-work and furloughed workers eager to help, has allowed them to grow rapidly, and offer much more than boxes of food. At first, they distributed out of Nolasco’s pickup; then they were able to snag a truck. Va’La hospitality’s office, with its exposed brick walls and stylish bar, now looks less like a clubhouse than a relief center, stacked with crates of rice and beans, the bar scattered with children’s books. Contacts from the beverage world offer everything from corporate sponsorship to makeup kits.
For every need that arises, Diaz, Nolasco, and their core volunteers try to meet it. Their organization now feeds the families of mariachis and street vendors, two other groups hit hard by COVID-19. They run a community fridge, maintained to restaurant sanitation standards, to help those struggling in the nonprofit’s immediate neighborhood. If a member doesn’t have a car? Delivery. If their phone doesn’t work? They text over WhatsApp, when the person can get free Wi-Fi at McDonald’s. They’re piloting a tutoring program; growing out their library; surveying their membership about pet food needs (there are several iguanas).
That Tuesday, Nolasco made a surprise trip down to South Los Angeles, after a man who usually picked up for a large group of families fell ill. As the day grew hot and the line of cars grew longer, Diaz grabbed a wheeled cooler of Topo Chico and ran cold water down to the people waiting, running up and down in the heat over and over, a smile on his face. No Us Without You gives out water first explicitly to recall the hospitality of a restaurant. “They keep trusting us because they see us wanting to bust our butts for them,” Diaz said.
Diaz and Nolasco aren’t sure they will go back to the bar industry. Undocumented workers were exploited, underpaid, and discriminated against before COVID-19, and the hospitality industry has done too little for the people who power it for too long. Daniel Zarate, a bar manager who has been part of No Us Without You since the beginning, said, “I don’t see us going back to the industry. I see us after COVID, we will keep helping families.” He cracked a smile and added, “This is the first job my parents are proud of.”