Chefs as Immigrant Allies

Journalists listen for clues. We learn to push through people’s nuanced words with an attentive curiosity that gets at the heart of the story. Liliana Paredes spoke of that yesterday on WUNC’s State of Things, though her work is as a linguist and advocate in the local Latina immigrant community. I like what she said about listening to stories of struggle:

“To be a healthier community, we have to listen beyond the words they use.”

Over the years, I’ve spoken to a lot of chefs and restauranteurs, farmers and shop owners, who employ immigrants in their kitchens and fields. Talking to them about immigration can be touchy. No one wants to come off like a jerk, but not many will actually go on the record by taking a stand on one of our country’s most controversial topics. But like journalists and linguists, many of these bosses listen. They listen beyond what they see on the cook line. And sometimes, they do even more than that: they speak up.

Allies should never be the loudest voice in a movement. But I’ve noticed that when more chefs speak out—as friends, not bosses—the more we eaters are given our own chance to listen.

I wanted to share a couple of examples that have recently sprung up in more “foodie” circles. Chef Andrea Reusing of Lantern isn’t timid. The James Beard Award-winning chef is constantly, unabashedly praising her predominantly Mexican immigrant kitchen staff led by sous chef Miguel Torres. In her bestselling cookbook Cooking in the Moment, Reusing devotes an entire section to “Family Meal,” where she names the delicacies her staff brings to group celebrations. She publishes Torres’s carnitas recipe with a simple, direct and touching introduction:

“He has not seen his family since moving to North Carolina in 1999, and the goal of his home cooking is to make his dishes taste as close to his mother’s and grandmother’s as possible with the ingredients he can get here.”

Reusing also stays privy to issues surrounding migrant farmworkers and, in 2012, spoke publicly about it at TEDxUNC. Watch her talk, "Resetting the Table," here.

    • andrea and miguel
    • Andrea Reusing and Miguel Torres. Photo from Lantern's website.

The venerated kitchen of Crook’s Corner has been named by the James Beard Foundation as “an American classic.” Chef Bill Smith, in his humble, understated way, has creatively turned that notion on its head by pushing the boundaries of what we define as “classic,” “American,” or even “Southern” by highlighting a Nuevo-Latino undertone as the driving force for his menu. Smith credits his staff front and center: Hector Gonzales, from Puebla, Mexico, and Israel Cruz Martinez, from “a small town seven hours outside of the city of Oaxaca.”

Smith makes frequent visits to the families of his staff in Mexico, and has said:

“They really are my best friends. This is hard work. Having them has extended my life.”

Last year at the Southern Foodways Alliance symposium, UNC professor and novelist Randall Kenan spoke of the history of Crook’s Corner. Kenan reiterated that Smith has sponsored two families to receive their papers over the years. “He plays this off as it’s a minor thing,” says Kenan. “But I wonder if any of us has sponsored one immigrant family, let alone two.” Watch Kenan’s entire symposium talk below, or skip to minute 19 to begin where he details Gonzales and Martnez’s contributions to maintaining the restaurant’s legendary reputation.

(Full disclosure: Smith served as an adviser to Un Buen Carnicero, the film I directed, featured in the post below.)

Victoria Bouloubasis is a food writer and journalist who writes about food's cultural symbolism and identity, sustainable agriculture, the fight for fair food access and farmworker and labor rights A chief contributor to INDY Week since 2008, she has also published in The Guardian, Modern Farmer, The American Prospect and The Local Palate. In 2014, she directed Un Buen Carnicero, a bilingual documentary produced by Vittles Films with funding from the Southern Foodways Alliance. She is currently pursuing an MA in Folklore at UNC-Chapel Hill.

 Un Buen Carnicero

 A good butcher listens. When customers at Cliff's Meat Market in Carrboro, North Carolina began asking for cuts in Spanish, owner Cliff Collins started looking for help. For nearly 18 years Tolo Martinez has worked behind Cliff's counter, learning "country" English and giving college professors, blue-collar workers and long-time patrons exactly what they want—and always with a smile. Un Buen Carnicero goes behind the courtesies of the butcher's counter on the eve of Independence Day to explore the complex realities of immigrant life while celebrating America's freedom and questioning its convenience.

This bilingual documentary was filmed in the summer of 2014. It is a film by Vittles Films for Southern Foodways Alliance Greenhouse Film Projects. 
14 min.  Spanish and English with subtitles

Director: Victoria Bouloubasis
Director of Photography, Editor: DL Anderson
Producer, Second Camera: Mikel Barton
 

 Mother Guadalupe

    • Guadalupe en su vestido
    • Guadalupe outside her eastern NC home, wearing a hand-crafted dress from her mountain village in Guatemala. Guadalupe has lived in North Carolina for more than a decade working at a poultry processing plant. iPhone photo by Victoria Bouloubasis.

With a long, definitive swoop of a pencil, Wilbur finishes the last problem set of his math homework and scurries out of his seat at the kitchen table in his family’s trailer home in rural eastern North Carolina.

He stands up next to my friend Pete, who is nearly six and a half feet tall.

Wilbur is eight years old, with a big belly and a shy smile. The spiky hair atop his round head hits as high as Pete’s hip, which provides a sturdy base for Pete to rest the hefty Canon DSLR camera he holds in his palm.

“Take a picture, man,” Pete says, kneeling to meet Wilbur’s eye level and to show him how to cradle the camera in his pudgy hands.

Wilbur grips the Canon with both hands, his finger barely reaching the shutter. The smudgy lenses of his glasses poke the viewfinder as he peers through a tiny, morphed rectangle to watch his mother flip tortillas on the stove. He bobs his head from side to side with the camera pressed firmly against his face, becoming comfortable with the view.

Pete visits Guadalupe and her two young sons at least monthly as an employee of North Carolina’s migrant education program. His job is to ensure the boys, children of a migrant worker, are getting what they need from school. Today he arrives with a packed bag of notebooks, pencils and erasers, stories and a carton of PET Neapolitan ice cream. Because he is also here for Sunday supper. 

Guadalupe chats to me as she toasts peanuts, sesame seeds and pepitas to be ground and simmered for the base of her Guatemalan mole sauce. Wilbur waits as if to get the right light. He looks both professional and miniature behind the lens as the camera rests on the curve of his protruding belly. I hear the prolonged click of the camera’s shutter over the sizzle of seeds popping on a pan.

Wilbur makes straight A’s in math at school. He speaks better English than Spanish. He also speaks better Mam than Spanish, the language indigenous to his mother’s mountain village in Guatemala. They are here because here there are jobs. Guadalupe works the overnight shift at a poultry processing plant. She cuts chicken breasts off of the bone, by hand. Hundreds of them, from 7 pm to 7 am. I don’t know how much money she makes, but it’s enough to live in a small trailer home with her two boys and two friends.

Guadalupe’s kitchen is modest. The limited décor includes monsters drawn in crayon, by Wilbur, all over the walls and above the stove, and a photograph of her parents in a dusty frame on top of the refrigerator. She brings it down to show it to me; her father had died a couple of weeks before. She has no legal permission to travel, to mourn at home. She is, in a sense, stuck.

I’m not sure anyone aside from Pete had asked her about it before. This prompts her oldest son, 14, to pull out a few albums from back home. He giggles shyly as he points to photos of himself as a baby, cradled in his older sister’s arms. Guadalupe tells me how her older daughter married very young, barely out of her teens. In telling me this story, I notice a departure from the way she normally speaks Spanish, which is pretty quickly and a bit jumbled, a lilt rising in inflection in a way I suppose Mam does. But when she speaks of her family left behind— of the parents who no longer walk the hills of her village, of the daughters whom she speaks with almost weekly, but hasn’t embraced in over a decade—Guadalupe slows down. She looks up, anguished yet still composed. It is a look that needs no words, no translation. That maternal gaze riddled with worry. Wilbur’s laugh snaps her out of it. His glasses are now nearly pressed against the static of the television screen as he laughs along to an episode of El Chavo Animado, a cartoon version of the classic Mexican comedy series El Chavo del Ocho. At Guadalupe's urging, he gets up to help me clear the table of his toys and math notebooks. We all sit and eat the decadent beef mole Guadalupe fixed for us and talk about fashion and homework and school.

Wilbur’s brother doesn't say much, but he blushes a lot and smiles down at his hi-top sneakers. He has worked unofficially as a migrant farmworker for a couple of years, but is back in North Carolina now with the hopes of staying permanently. He left his abusive father in Guatemala to be with his mother. He, like his mother, is undocumented. He picks tobacco and harvests sweet potatoes. At 14, he is currently in deportation proceedings. (This is why I won’t mention his name here.) He still goes to school while he waits on his case, still tries to learn English—and better his Spanish. He slicks gel in his hair every day and continues to make friends, while our government works on kicking him out.

Here in North Carolina, a powerful, thriving, dominant agricultural industry is tightly interwoven with and hugely dependent on migrant labor. I think we sometimes forget that this works because we eat, because we consume, and because too many of us are comfortable (or comforted) in our ignorance.

Seasonal, migratory labor to the rural South has become the norm. The hands that feed us are hands tied to a cycle of repression and injustice. Supporting that is a variety of societal behaviors. Among them: consumer choices, discriminatory legal policies and community prejudice. Our food system encourages families to cross borders and to work for a dream that doesn’t necessarily exist as a reality.

What does that mean, then, for our neighbors who live this way, but who are always spoken about in the context of labor? Why do we label Guadalupe as a worker if she maybe identifies her worth and value more as an amazing cook, as an avid gardener, as a mother doing all she can to fight for her children's education and well-being? It’s easy for me, for any scholar or journalist, to become entranced with the rhetoric attached to communities we document. But if we don’t check ourselves, we become irresponsible, paternalistic, and victimizing. Our society demands a lot from the underserved and underprivileged to prove their existence and to justify their struggle through an awestruck narrative. But their reality is about a basic human right to better one’s life. And we can all relate to that. My hope with this scholarly pursuit is to show the beauty in the quotidian and the worth in someone’s personal reality, no matter what it is, through their own words.

Victoria Bouloubasis is a food writer and journalist who writes about food's cultural symbolism and identity, sustainable agriculture, the fight for fair food access and farmworker and labor rights A chief contributor to INDY Week since 2008, she has also published in The Guardian, Modern Farmer, The American Prospect and The Local Palate. In 2014, she directed Un Buen Carnicero, a bilingual documentary produced by Vittles Films with funding from the Southern Foodways Alliance. She is currently pursuing an MA in Folklore at UNC-Chapel Hill.

    • Wilbur
    • Wilbur plays around with a fresh cut of pineapple in his mother's kitchen. iPhone photo by Victoria Bouloubasis. 

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