An Open Letter to My White Sisters….

By Rebecca Powers, A Contributing Author, written July 27, 2020 Last August, I was sitting in a 2-day class “Courageous Conversation:  Beyond Diversity”.  That experience changed my understanding of the racial landscape in America and the part I, as a White woman, have played in perpetuating the oppression of people of color, Blacks in particular—consciously and unconsciously.  Since birth, my skin color alone …

Tea with the People, The Podcast: Episode 3

https://open.spotify.com/episode/598YUuDut3ePNU34uzIEbt?si=oul6_fC0TKmAHq8iG-lJ8w photo credit: APIENC In response to the pandemic and the resurgence of anti-Asian racism, APIENC, an organization that builds queer and transgender Asian and Pacific Islander power, set up phone trees and virtual healing circles to check in with its most vulnerable members. We speak with Sammie Ablaza Wills, director of APIENC, about their approach …

Tea with the People, The Podcast: Episode 2

photo credit: argenisphoto

In response to the pandemic, the undocumented family behind La Morada, a beloved and award-winning Oaxacan restaurant in the South Bronx, created a soup kitchen to feed and deliver meals to the most vulnerable people in its community. We speak to owner Yajaira Saavedra about the uphill battles of being working class and without status in one of the poorest neighborhoods in New York City. Yajaira also shares why she believes the power of community and mutual aid is the biggest lesson we can take from the pandemic.

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Transcript

JUSTINE LEE

Welcome to Tea with the People, the podcast. This is a series of conversations with innovative leaders who participate in our democracy by responding to racial injustices and inequities in the time of COVID-19. I’m Justine Lee, the co-creator of Make America Dinner Again.

JEANELLE AUSTIN

And I’m Jeanelle Austin, the founder of Racial Agency Initiative. We engage leaders who work creatively to activate and support their communities. Through this podcast, we hope to inspire others to do the same. 

JUSTINE

In this episode, we’ll be speaking to Yajaira Saavedra, owner of La Morada, an undocumented, family-owned and operated Oaxaca restaurant in the South Bronx. Their goal is to preserve and share indigenous Mexican cuisine with their neighbors and friends. They love sharing culture, art and community initiatives, while actively participating in social justice causes. 

In response to COVID-19, they created a soup kitchen in the South Bronx serving an average of 1200 meals a day, Monday through Saturday, since April 16th. The people they serve include folks without gas or a kitchen in their building, and people recently released from detention centers and Rikers Island Correctional Facility.

YAJAIRA SAAVEDRA

Hi, thanks for having me.

JUSTINE

Yeah, thanks for being here.

So we’re, we’re gonna get started with a simple question just to warm things up.  I’ve never been to your restaurant but I’ve heard amazing things, and in a lot of the reviews I’ve heard that your guacamole is amazing and everyone’s favorite. But I wanted to see, or I wanted to know, what your personal favorite dish on the menu is.

YAJAIRA

Oh, that’s a tough one. I will say my most favorite dish on the menu is Mole Oaxaqueño. I choose Oaxaca Mole because it’s a traditional indigenous food. It’s a thick sauce similar to a curry, and it takes a minimum of six hours to make, it has over like seven different dry chillies as well as other seasonings. So I find this to be very, very important and my favorite, because not only because of the flavor, but because of its rich history. I don’t know the recipe for this mole. Only my mom and my sister and my grandma does, because only selected people are chosen to actually receive the gift, the traditional gift of learning the traditional recipes. So whenever I taste Oaxaca Mole I taste my family’s lineage.

JUSTINE

Oh, wow, that sounds really amazing. 

JEANELLE

That’s beautiful. 

JUSTINE

It is really beautiful. And now I really wish I could try it. Is that something that is still available on takeout at the moment?

YAJAIRA

Yes, we’re well known for our mole and we’re always offering our traditional food. Right now we’re just limiting ourselves to Uber Eats since our delivery and our staff is very limited and since we’re prioritizing our soup kitchen right now.

JUSTINE

Got it. Ok. Yes, speaking of – you brought up the soup kitchen – I’m curious to hear what inspired La Morada’s response to the pandemic.

YAJAIRA

Our response was very natural. It was rooted, rooted in our love and our responsibility towards our neighbors. We love our community and we always say that if it wasn’t for them, we wouldn’t be open this long, and we wouldn’t, we wouldn’t be successful if we didn’t have their backup. It’s our community, which includes undocumented folks, it includes working class folks, includes people with the same ideals and principles that have supported us when the government and other big corporations have gone against us. So our soup kitchen is out of love and responsibility towards our neighborhood. So we could together be able to survive this pandemic.

JEANELLE

That, that’s beautiful and it’s always good to be able to have community and neighbors that have your back. Can you tell us more about this community? Can you describe them for our listeners so they can have an image in their minds of these people who have your back on a regular basis, and now you’re having their back during this time of COVID?

YAJAIRA

Sure. So La Morada is part of the South Bronx community.  To be more specific, the Mott Haven part of the South Bronx. Historically we have always been one of the poorest districts in the whole country. And in New York City we rank right now 62 which is like the last in health index of the city. We have also like one of the highest asthma rates in the country. We are often just used by big folks, famous folks, repping the Bronx but like everything seems to be just bypass through the Bronx, including the food – there’s a huge food apartheid in the Bronx where we have the biggest food depot, Hunts Point, in the nation. There’s not, there’s like, food scarcity and insecurity due to, like, the majority of that food just going to wealthier parts of the city like Manhattan and other gentrified sections of the South Bronx. 

Because our neighbors, our community, has been historically marginalized, and under-resourced we have often combined our resources and our privilege, including our platform within the restaurant, to make it into a community space and advocate for what is needed in the community. Let it be just human rights, fighting against gentrification, fighting against any incoming corporations that might increase the air pollution. Fighting against food injustice, of course, always being in the front line of immigration. 

My family has, my brother to be more specific, has infiltrated three detention centers, has self-deported during the Obama era, just to bring light on the mass deportation as well as the injustice, inhumane injustice treatment, that undocumented folks were receiving inside ICE detention centers. My community is always I guess, under-seen or, are just like, constantly having just politicians just like ignore us, or just take advantage of us. Or just like, we always say that they are poverty-pimping us. 

JEANELLE

Wow. Yeah right.

YAJAIRA

..The South Bronx title. And we’re always, we continue persisting, we continue… Yes, persisting,  it’s no longer resisting, it’s persisting because we are pushing back now and together as a force. And I’m in love with my community because I see their solidarity every single day. Last January, I was arrested inside the restaurant because I was filming what I thought was an unjust arrest and…

JEANELLE

Wait, you were arrested inside your restaurant? 

YAJAIRA

Yes, yeah.

JEANELLE

Like, okay, so and then you said because you were filming an arrest that was happening outside of your restaurant?

YAJAIRA

Yes. And I automatically started filming the cops because it’s my responsibility to always look out for my neighbors. It’s part of my Christian beliefs to always look out for your neighbor and knowing like about broken windows. So, so, I knew that we were constantly being racially targeted by the NYPD. So I started filming them and then the cops got upset and they put handcuffs on me and threw me on an unmarked black van. And I’m saying all of this because…the South Bronx community…if it wasn’t for them, I could have easily gotten something in my record and that could have led to my deportation because I’m also without status. So this is the community solidarity that the South Bronx constantly shows to La Morada, to myself and my family.

JEANELLE

Wow, thank you. Thank you for sharing that. And thank you for your courage.

JUSTINE

I can hear the love and the care in your voice, and I’m just personally curious to hear if, if there’s like one story that kind of stands out in your mind of someone that you’ve been able to serve during the pandemic?

YAJAIRA

I think our actions speak for themselves and our neighbors have been very supportive. And sometimes we forget about ourselves. 

There was this one neighbor who we just had a lot of bananas and they were getting over-ripe. And she was like, can I have those? And we just gave it to her and did not expecting anything. And then the next morning, she just walked over with a warm loaf of banana bread. 

JEANELLE

Oh, yes.

JUSTINE

Oh I love that. Banana bread.

JEANELLE

That’s amazing.

YAJAIRA

Yeah, that was the best thing ever. I wanted to cry because it was like, it was so delicious. It was full of love. And it was just like, it just reminded me…It was our…it was self care through food.

It was full of love. And it was just like, it just reminded me…It was our…it was self care through food.

JEANELLE

Yes. Yes. Or I like to call it community care when you got your community caring for you.

YAJAIRA

Yeah.

JUSTINE

I’m curious what challenges have you faced during the pandemic and how have you navigated them?

YAJAIRA

Ah, Wow. So, we’ve always, like I said, the South Bronx has always been marginalized, under-resourced and just practically ignored by elected officials and folks that claim to be supportive of us and were in power. So, for the first month of the pandemic, we had to close the restaurant down due to health issues – my whole family was affected by Coronavirus, so we took a month off just to rest and recuperate physically.

And during this time, I started writing the grants. And of course, anybody who knows about grant-writing or loan applications, they know how lengthy they could be. So I attempted to. to apply to all of them to the best of my abilities and with help of friends who are saviors around this, but even though I knew chances are that I was going to get denied. So a really close friend of ours, out-reached to us while I was doing the process and told us that she is willing to do a GoFundMe, but I kept on rejecting that, because I wanted to try. I wanted to try to work things out for ourselves. There’s some pride on that, on always taking the hard route. I don’t know why. But that’s just the way that I was brought up. 

So we, so I applied for the grant and I was of course denied because my whole family is undocumented. So after I was denied of multiple grants and loans, my friend decided to open up the GoFundMe and within a matter of a week, we met our $45,000. And instead of, like, taking that money and, and taking the year off, we decided to open La Morada with the GoFundMe campaign money. And we, within an hour, we ran out of food. We served close to 200 people that day. The next day, we did the same thing. And again, within, within an hour we ran out of food. And we knew that we couldn’t sustain ourselves without any additional support. And then we were getting bothered by the NYPD because of the large quote, unquote crowd in front of the restaurant. So we decided to do home delivery meals, and to ask for help through certain organizations that we thought were going to be more helpful. 

And some of our initial problems then was just the lack of resources such as ingredients to cook, volunteers to work the soup line, and then enough space to actually, like, make sure that we had everything done in a safe manner.

JEANELLE

Thank you. Yeah, I really appreciate you sharing these stories and these sides of, of working to support your community. And that is not always easy. I think sometimes when people think that they’re going to respond to the community needs that they see, some people think that it’s simple and it’s easy, but it’s not always that way. So thank you for sharing those experiences.

So the work that I do, Yajaira, on a day to day basis, is racial justice leadership coaching. And so I work with people who are constantly trying to figure out how do they leverage their agency to practice racial justice within their scope of influence. Like everyday life kind of stuff. And from, from your story, I can tell that like that, that’s what you all are doing. It’s like the way race intersects with your story is deep. 

Can you talk about more how you feel the soup kitchen addresses the challenges of race that you all see whether in the U.S. or within your context in New York City? Do you have any thoughts on the intersection between this work that you’re doing and the problem of race in the United States?

YAJAIRA

Yeah, I mean, I don’t, I don’t understand people who claim to be colorblind. Right? Or to not see color. I think race is very… racism, is very visible and every single day of our lives, especially because this country, we could talk about how it was founded on slavery and genocide. As an indigenous woman I’m constantly reminded that I don’t have the same privileges as a white cis-male. So yes, I I do understand that how race is is constantly a factor and the amount of resources that are neglected to us, again, because we’re located in the South Bronx, in one of the poorest congressional districts in New York City and also in the nation, and also with the highest population of African American and POC in general and working class POC people. 

So I feel really frustrated, seeing how the resources right now with the COVID-19 response has been delegated, seeing how resources has been floated to the wealthier parts of the Bronx, and the wealthier parts of New York City. By the wealthier parts of the Bronx I mean, like the gentrified areas, compared to the poor sections of the Bronx. 

Before we opened our soup kitchen, World Central Kitchen had already established in the South Bronx for over a month. They decided to work with Beatstro, Mott Haven Bar and Grill and other restaurants that are in the gentrifying section of the South Bronx. All of these restaurants are like less than a block away from each other. And these are restaurants that have been in existence for less years than La Morada. Most of these restaurants are notoriously known to receive money from developers. So they’re, they’re linked in so many ways to the gentrification force that has been displacing us and destroying the South Bronx prior to the Coronavirus.

So it was very alarming to see how World Central Kitchen, instead of choosing smaller restaurants through 138th Avenue who have been longer, for more years, moms and pop shops than La Morada, they were just ignored. La Morada has always been in the spotlight for, for many like throughout the media, like there is no way that folks could go through the South Bronx and not know about La Morada. So I don’t understand why is it that instead of having to work with somebody who has been already well established in the community, they chose to go with the developers and with restaurants that were in the gentrification area, and with restaurants that work closely to the corrupted democratic machine of the Bronx. And chose to like work directly with Michael Blake, and the Arroyos with Mott Haven Bar and Grill rather than with people who have always put the community first. 

So that is one way that we can see how race plays a big part in the South Bronx. It’s not only race, but it is also socio-economic difference where people with power, people with wealth are always chosen over people who belong in the working class.

It’s not only race, but it is also socio-economic difference where people with power, people with wealth are always chosen over people who belong in the working class.

JEANELLE

It’s so political, right? It’s not… And, and I love how with the story that you painted, you painted this picture of how race becomes tied and marbled and twisted into the politics and into the decisions that, that are being made. And it’s not just, “Oh, I don’t like you because of the color of your skin.” It goes deeper than that, and with the power structures and the policies that are made, and decisions that are made behind closed doors. And when, when restaurants like your own, are overlooked and it don’t make no sense. Like it’s all a part of the system of racism.

YAJAIRA

Yes. And who was it? I think it was Malcolm X? Or I would like to say it was Malcolm X who said, “Not all skinfolks are kinfolks.”

JEANELLE

Come on now! Hey!

YAJAIRA

Well that can be heavily applied right now through gentrification. So it’s not only about race, like I said, it’s also just a socio-economical standard. And holding people accountable, including myself. And that’s the reason why I always try to be transparent and to have deeper connections with my neighbors and with my community. Because I know that I’m also human, and I will always need somebody to check in on me.

So, at least when we talk about race and social economics, we also see how people work closely with our neighbors, with the people, the day to day folks. And if that’s not happening, then there is a missing link. And there’s often a lot of corruption as we experienced in the beginning of COVID-19. So it was a very uphill battle in which we had to fight to establish our soup kitchen, which mission was to just serve hungry people, people who didn’t have, who don’t have gas, who don’t have kitchens, or who have lived in faulty buildings, like the projects and can’t go down 20 flights of floors, because they, the elevator is broken, and therefore they’re not going to do a line for food distribution, and carry up groceries 20 flights. So we started ranking up volunteers to help us deliver hot meals and make things a little bit easier.

So it was a very uphill battle in which we had to fight to establish our soup kitchen, which mission was to just serve hungry people, people who didn’t have, who don’t have gas, who don’t have kitchens, or who have lived in faulty buildings, like the projects and can’t go down 20 flights of floors, because they, the elevator is broken, and therefore they’re not going to do a line for food distribution, and carry up groceries 20 flights. So we started ranking up volunteers to help us deliver hot meals and make things a little bit easier.

There’s days where I just feel like it’s always either a battle between hunger and the Coronavirus or asthma. Like there’s so many factors and I see a hot meal as another resource, another way that we could actually use to survive another day. And at least I have that clear conscience every day where I say, like, “Hey, maybe the system didn’t help us today, like every other day, but at least I was able to feed this amount of folks.” 

And it’s sad because, like, I was talking about Beatstro and World Central Kitchen and Mott Haven Bar and Grill. Most of the folks that, that we started serving in our soup kitchen didn’t even know that this was in existence. And this was like already a month into the Coronavirus. So, again, who were they serving? Was it the gentrified area? Was it the middle class? The wealthiest part in the Bronx?

So it’s sad and like even see with race-wise on how the South Bronx has also the highest death rate in the city. And again, it’s mostly Black and Brown folks. Working class folks. And we’re not even given the title or the recognition as – what do you call it? Essential workers. 

JUSTINE

Yeah. Yeah, a lot of this has just made me think about, we’re learning so much right now from this pandemic. And I think we’re all hoping that what we’ve learned will actually make matter, you know, is, is something that can actually take and make change, make things better for, for working class folks, for people of color for the community in South Bronx.

So I’d love to know, like, as a result of operating the soup kitchen, what are you hoping changes about how people engage government in New York City?  I mean, from what I’m hearing, there’s not a lot of trust in government.

YAJAIRA

From this pandemic, people could see that it’s not only a matter of democratic or republican.

I think that we should hold our elected officials accountable. And our elected officials should be rolling their sleeves not only during election year but throughout the whole year as well. 

And our elected officials should be rolling their sleeves not only during election year but throughout the whole year as well. 

I feel that from this pandemic, we could allocate resources to other departments, rather than cutting off resources, right on the budget cuts. We could talk about budget cuts in education, health system, like, and how the NYPD has the least amount of cuts. So, like, we need to allocate resources better into departments that are actually going to help our community and our city prosper, rather than get persecuted. I think that’s the biggest lesson we can learn from the pandemic.

JEANELLE

Thank you for sharing that. In listening to your story, Yajaira, it sounds like you, you get so much motivation from the people in your community. I mean, you’ve said over and over and over again, it’s the community. It’s the people that you’re working for and who are working for you. I think that’s so beautiful.

And so we want to create an opportunity as we wind down to hear from you in terms of what help do you need right now and for the people who are listening to this podcast, how can they follow you and kind of keep track of y’all? 

The one caveat we say is that we have to leave money off the table because everybody needs more money. So outside of additional funding, what, what help do you need right now, and, and how can people follow you all and just kind of keep tabs on La Morada?

YAJAIRA

Sure, so you can follow us through Instagram on @LaMoradaNYC, We’re also on Facebook and the worldwide web on LaMoradaNYC.com. And for personal help, my brother is still fighting his deportation case. So if you can sign his petition for him, for our family to stay together, which is, the link is in our Instagram bio, that will be much appreciated. 

Also, you can read our statement about what we believe being an ally should look like.  And what we expect from allies now in the COVID-19 epidemic. All of this can be found in our statement as to why we broke off with World Central Kitchen, and that is also posted in our Instagram and website.

JEANELLE

Thank you.

JUSTINE

Thanks, Yajaira. Yeah, I was wondering also, this is a final question for the evening: Can you share with us a word of wisdom as a parting gift to our listeners?

YAJAIRA

As a family, we have always moved forward through faith and prayer and through community. And I believe that there is strength and community in mutual aid, rather than in any larger corporation or amount of money or powerful people. I think there’s power within our community, which we have to endorse and continue supporting in order for us to move forward together.

JUSTINE

Hmmm. I love that. 

JEANELLE

Thank you, Yajaira, for sharing those stories. Thank you for joining us today and for sharing all the insights into your community, into your work and into your passion. We really appreciate it.

YAJAIRA

I appreciate you giving me the time and the platform to share.

JEANELLE

Of course. This has been Tea with the People, the podcast.