(Screen capture from "What's Eating America" clip from MSNBC)
“Are you ever afraid of being detained or deported yourself?” Andrew Zimmern asks South Philly Barbacoa chef Cristina Martínez, in a clip from Zimmern’s and chef José Andrés‘ new show on MSNBC, which will air this Sunday at 9 p.m.
“No,” Martínez answers. “Tenemos que hacer la lucha.”
It’s a way of saying “we have to be in the struggle” — which means the fight to make things better for other undocumented immigrants like her. But also alludes to an expression commonly used by Mexicans and Central Americans to describe the daily grind, with all of its challenges and heartbreak.
And Martínez has had her share of those.
Her son died a few years ago, and her adult daughter, Karla, lives in Mexico. Benjamin Miller, Martinez’s husband and co-owner of South Philly Barbacoa, told Generocity‘s Julie Zeglen in 2018 that wanting to put Karla through school was the reason for Martínez’s immigration to the U.S.
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“[T]he fact that she has been able to financially support her family is what Miller calls a ‘bittersweet success,'” Zeglen wrote, “because of her undocumented status, she can’t travel to Mexico to visit them.”
Sunday’s show won’t be the first time Martínez or South Philly Barbacoa is on TV. The restaurant was part of an episode of Netflix’s “Ugly Delicious” food and travel show which aired in February 2018, and then she was featured in a full episode of “Chef’s Table” in September. That same year, in August, Martinez appeared in a segment about immigrants in the restaurant industry on late-night comedy show “Full Frontal with Samantha Bee.”
Martínez’s lamb barbacoa earned South Philly Barbacoa a listing in Bon Apetit‘s best restaurants of 2016 list, and a coveted James Beard Award nomination for Martínez, but it’s her big-hearted advocacy that has earned her a unique place in Philadelphia’s restaurant world.
South Philly Barbacoa organized several #Right2Work dinners — a platform for people to have a meal and discuss undocumented workers’ rights — as Albert Hong wrote for Generocity in 2016 — “including those of being able to openly speak your native language in the kitchen and receiving equal pay for the same work as others.”
On January 14 of this year Martínez was slated to create a special dining experience, along with Puerto Rican chef María Mercedes Grubb, as part of Reading Terminal Market’s “Market to Table” and in collaboration with GUSTO culinary series. When a magnitude 6.4 earthquake hit Puerto Rico January 7 — followed by multiple lesser magnitude but destructive quakes — Martínez and Grubb quickly pivoted, offering four nights of pop-up dining that raised funds to benefit those affected on the island.
“We have to leave something behind, A seed,” Martínez says to Zimmern in the preview clip of Sunday’s show. “And maybe I’m not going to be able to change that many things, but the seed is planted.”-30-
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