“Antonio and I decided we weren’t going to die in Oaxaca.”

Alex Fine

Alex Fine

America cannot eat without immigrant food workers. This is Natalia Mendez's story.

Natalia Mendez, age 48, is chef-owner of La Morada, a Oaxacan restaurant in the Bronx that she runs with her husband and children. Under a banner that reads “No Deportaciones / No Deportations,” the family serves a range of Oaxacan specialties, from tlayudas and pozole to molcajete, complemented by handmade tortillas and a wide assortment of mole sauces.

According to the Pew Research Center, 22 percent of food-service jobs in the United States are held by immigrants; almost half of those individuals are not authorized to work in this country. In large, global cities, that proportion is likely to be even higher—in New York, where one in five citizens is an immigrant, 74 percent of food preparation workers and 67 percent of cooks are foreign-born. That combined life experience, knowledge, and tradition have helped to create the vibrant food culture of which Mendez is a part. Here, she discusses raising a family on two sides of a border, founding La Morada at the height of the financial crisis, and how she’s strived to integrate the restaurant into the neighborhood she now calls home.

This conversation has been translated, edited, and condensed.


Natalia Mendez: My husband Antonio and I migrated to the United States from San Miguel Ahuehuetitlán, in Oaxaca, Mexico, in 1992. I was 22 and he was 25. For generations , our families had lived off the land—we grew corn, squash, beans, peanuts, chile peppers, and other crops that would grow in the rainy season. But in the late 1980s and early 1990s, there were droughts throughout Southern Mexico. Our land dried up, and indigenous people like us migrated to other states and countries.

At the time we had two small children—a three-year-old daughter and a two-year-old son—and Antonio and I decided we weren’t going to die in Oaxaca.

We left our children with my parents and came to New York because I had heard there was work in the garment industry. We had only planned to stay for one year—we wanted to save money and then go somewhere else in Mexico, like Mexico City, to start a business.

We arrived to Washington Heights [in northern Manhattan] on February 4, in the middle of winter. It was freezing. I worked in several odd jobs: I cleaned houses and sold flowers and tamales.

“The first years were difficult. I felt I didn’t belong here.”
The hardest thing for both of us was being away from our children. The idea was always to earn enough savings so our children could go to good schools—so they wouldn’t go without an education as we had. I always had a hunger for knowledge (that’s why our restaurant has a library).

When we saw how many good schools there were in New York we decided to bring our children here and stay. The first years were difficult. I felt I didn’t belong here, and I was afraid of being found by immigration officials. We tried to fix our status, but we were defrauded by people claiming to be immigration lawyers. They took around $20,000 from us.

But our children’s education was always the most important thing for my husband and me, and the three of them—Yajaira, Marco, and Carolina, who was born in New York—have all graduated from good colleges. Once we reached that goal, we asked ourselves—now what?

We opened La Morada in 2009. It was right after the 2008 financial crisis, and rents in the South Bronx were low. We decided to open a place with authentic Oaxacan food, with homemade sauces and tortillas, chiles, grilled meats, and beans. Word got around, and slowly we grew into what we are today.

“When you have a solid foundation, principles, and values, there’s nothing to fear.”
Today, I feel at home here. La Morada is part of what makes the South Bronx the neighborhood it is. We’re a part of this community. We’re all different races and of different faiths, but our customers are part of our family. We know our neighbors, the local police officers and firemen. The family that owns the nearby Chinese restaurant eats here for free, and we eat there for free. The owner of the bodega down the street knows that if he runs out of tomatoes we’ll lend him some; if we run out of something we can go to him. It’s like a small town.

I’m not afraid of being deported. My feet are deformed from years of working on [them]. When we opened La Morada, we worked 12- to 14-hour days, seven days a week. We paid $20,000 to $30,000 each year in taxes. Why would I be afraid?

I was hungry and I wanted my children to get a good education and not to suffer as I did back in Mexico. Is that my crime? I would do it again one hundred times.

We’ve learned from our children, who are now grown and have committed acts of civil disobedience [Editor’s note: In 2013, Marco went to Mexico and then returned to the U.S. seeking asylum; his case is pending ]. We told ourselves we’re not going to be afraid, and we’re telling other people in our community not to be afraid. We haven’t done anything wrong—we’ve just come to look for a better future in this country.

When you have a solid foundation, principles, and values, there’s nothing to fear. When I look at the way my children were raised—with love and an education—I don’t worry about them. They help out at the restaurant, but they’re also pursuing their own careers: Yajaira is working part-time at the Bronx Museum of the Arts, Marco wrote a book and is an activist in addition to working at La Morada full-time, and Carolina is studying at the International Culinary Center.  I do worry about the 11 million other undocumented people in this country.

With respect to our future, I tell my children that it’s always good to have a Plan A and a Plan B. My Plan A is to open a second restaurant that focuses on authentic indigenous cuisine from Oaxaca. We’d put up indigenous art, serve meals on clay plates, and I would work with traditional varieties of maize, a wood-fired tortilla maker, and we would make traditional stews and sauces.

That’s Plan A. Plan B is to rest.

Are you an immigrant to the U.S. who works in food or farming? We’d like to hear your story. Send us an email at [email protected].

Danielle Renwick is senior editor of explorepartsunknown.com.