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How food and conversation can be a ‘foundation for us to start building consensus’ on immigration

Cristina Martinez (left), co-owner and chef at South Philly Barbacoa, served her much anticipated barbacoa at the 11th #Right2Work Dinner. December 2, 2016 Category: EventFeatureFeaturedMediumMethod


Editor's note: This article has been updated to include specific examples of undocumented workers' rights. Edit 12/4 @ 8:12 p.m.
With more and more discussions happening around the issue of immigration, including in Philadelphia, where does something like food play a part in it all?

The fact is that many of America’s kitchens and restaurants are operating thanks to undocumented workers, who make up approximately five percent of the civilian labor force, according to the Pew Research Center.

The issue of undocumented workers in the food industry was brought to the literal dinner tables at the 11th #Right2Work dinner last Tuesday at the Aquinas Center in South Philadelphia. The dinner series, started by Ben Miller and Cristina Martinez of South Philly Barbacoa and now run by the Popular Alliance for Undocumented Workers’ Rights, is a platform for people to have a meal and discuss, yes, undocumented workers’ rights, including those of being able to openly speak your native language in the kitchen and receiving equal pay for the same work as others.

It was the biggest turnout for the series and was the first to feature a panel of chefs and food journalists to offer their views.

Juan Escalante, a writer and undocumented immigrant who is the digital campaign manager for America’s Voice, an organization fighting for policy change to better immigrants’ lives, commended events such as #Right2Work as places where change can start locally.

“We may not agree on everything,” he said, “but altogether, what I emphasize time and time again is that we need to make sure we have open and honest dialogue that provide the foundation for us to start building consensus.”

And there was, indeed, some disagreement.

Tunde Wey, a Nigerian-born chef currently based in Detroit, said that systemic racism plays a big part in the way certain restaurants are and aren’t covered by the media, which is something that needs to be talked about, no matter how uncomfortable or complex finding a solution can be.

“Everything is complicated — that’s the reality, that’s the starting point,” said Wey, who runs a dinner series about this topic across the country called Blackness in America.

Harold Villarosa, executive sous chef at New York City-based Jacob’s Pickles and founder of the Insurgo Project, said he didn’t think it was a “white or black thing.” He emphasized that he wasn’t denying that racism is a front-and-center issue — rather that “there is no excuse for you to achieve greatness in your life,” to which Wey replied we can’t “mistake the exception for the rule.”

As for the media, journalists Neal Santos, known in Philly for his food photography and enthusiasm in urban farming, and Victoria Bouloubasis, associate food editor at INDY Week based in Durham, North Carolina, both said they feel a responsibility as journalists to not only cover authentic stories about food, but also the people behind the food.


The #Right2Work panel. (Photo by Albert Hong)

“This is who’s cooking our food, this is who’s washing our dishes and cleaning the spoons that we just savored,” Bouloubasis said. “This is parts of our history that we’re neglecting when we’re just merely talking about what’s on the plate. These are the humans behind our consumption.”

Jessica Sanchez, owner of the Miami-based, Colombian-American restaurant Loba, concluded the discussion by stating that people like Martinez are the ones taking the risk of voicing their status as undocumented immigrants.

Oh, and she’s a fan of Mayor Jim Kenney, who said last month that Philly will stay a sanctuary city: “Man, your mayor is the shit,” she quipped.

And things may be getting better soon. Philadelphia City Councilwoman-at-Large Helen Gym attended the later half of the event to rally support for a solution she is working on with the Sheller Center for Social Justice at Temple’s Beasley School of Law that would honor that right to work this dinner series has been fighting for.

“We are only going to get what we are organized to take,” Gym said to the audience. “Nobody in City Hall, Harrisburg or D.C. is going to fix this situation for us.”



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