Restaurant owners use food to bring awareness to immigration

By Katherine Briante
June 2, 2016

“As an owner of her own business, she is not the owner. I am the owner!”

Ben Miller and Christina Martinez own the small Barbacoa restaurant in South Philadelphia. Even though most people know the restaurant as “theirs,” Ben is actually the sole owner due to the fact that Christina is undocumented.

“I have the papers, my social security number is on the lease, I’ve got the health inspection.  Everything is under my name, even though she does most of the work, and it’s her tradition, and it’s her food, you know, I’m the one who is legally the owner of it,”  Miller said.

Martinez wanted to make sure her children got the proper education, so she risked her own life to make sure they had a better future. To try and make money in her home country, she sold her lamb and other food but it was not enough to help pay for expenses.

“My wife Christina was born into a barbacoa family, that was their trade. Before she was born, they dedicated their livelihood to cooking this lamb on the weekends, so she has been in the tradition her whole life. She married into another barbacoa family, had four kids, [then decided to come] to the United States,” said Miller.

She traveled through the desert and paid a coyote (smuggler) to help her cross the border. When Martinez finally got to the United States, her only thoughts were to find work to give her children a better life.

While in the United States, Martinez started to work in restaurants without proper documentation. In some cases she used fake working papers, which is an extremely risky thing to do that often puts undocumented workers in vulnerable positions.

“The chef needs to staff his restaurant and he needs these hard working people but he also can not really look too hard at the idea that is presented to him. That is kind of the way the industry is kept in limbo and all these workers without papers are able to pass through,” Miller said.

Miller and Martinez met while working together in a restaurant.

“We met working in a restaurant. It seemed like a smart thing to do to get behind her tradition because she was so strong and such an expert about that we started as food cart; we did that for about a year. Then in July of 2015 we opened in this brick corner,” Miller said

The New York Times found that, “according to 2008 estimates from the Pew Hispanic Center, about 20 percent of the nearly 2.6 million chefs, head cooks and cooks are illegal immigrants. Among the 360,000 dishwashers, 28 percent are undocumented, according to the estimates.”

“Undocumented workers can fight for back wages, [but] a lot of them do not know that, and also probably some of the owners do not want them to know that because there are still some bad guys out there that do not want to pay guys no over time, under the minimum wage, cash, and if somebody complains then [the owners will say] ‘i’ll report you to immigration,’” said Miller.

According to Workplace Fairness, undocumented workers get fired because their Social Security numbers are invalid. They reported that “25% [of undocumented workers] say they were fired for complaining about unsafe working conditions, 21% say they were fired for union activity.

Miller and Martinez use their restaurant and the publicity they receive through the industry to let their voices be heard to raise awareness for an issue that affects their lives greatly.

“It is one kind of cultural strategy to inject this kind of political conversation into the dining world media. When we got press about our restaurant opening, we always talked about immigration,” said Miller.

A chef Miller got in contact with suggested that they set up a dinner gathering where all chefs, who would be in attendance, would contribute a dish to bring. Documented as well as undocumented persons were also in attendance to start conversations on the treatment of undocumented workers in the restaurant industry.

“This kind of collaborative dinner event allows chefs to stand in solidarity with what we are doing by being present at the event and by contributing a dish and bring some awareness to people that are restaurant frequenters who may not know what is going on behind the kitchen door,”  Miller said.

Miller and Martinez have hosted many more collaborative dinner events after their first. They have been a success and effective in a way of educating as well as bringing together different people with different ideas and providing a space for people to talk about immigration.

As a restaurant industry we throw really good parties with good food. We bring people out and bring people together, and people have a lot of important conversations around the dinner table,”  Miller said.

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Katherine Briante

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