Last Friday, undercover police officers entered La Morada, the beloved South Bronx Mexican restaurant, and arrested the owners’ eldest daughter, Yajaira Saavedra, while also threatening to arrest their youngest daughter, Carolina, who instead was taken away in an ambulance after having a panic attack.
Owned and operated by Oaxaca-born, Mixtec speakers Natalia Mendez and Antonio Saavedra, and their three adult children, La Morada has been an anchor for its South Bronx community for a decade. With five varieties of mole offered daily, the restaurant has been ranked on par with Enrique Olvera and Daniela Soto Innes’ Atla and Cosme in downtown Manhattan, and acclaimed by the Michelin guide, the New York Times, the New Yorker, and Eater, among others. It has also been included on Travel and Leisure’s list of the top 50 best tacos in New York City.
La Morada is a restaurant everyone can love: delicious, humble, affordable, with a warm, homey vibe. It is the kind of place that can make us feel good about globalization, if globalization means better tacos for all. But critical acclaim and a foodie following were not enough to spare the family from overpolicing.
At a press conference held a few days later, Saavedra reported that Friday afternoon, shortly before the dinner rush, two plainclothes officers entered the restaurant. When she asked the officers what they were doing there, she says they refused to answer.
“One of them demanded my brother to shut down the restaurant and to serve him a glass of water,” she told the Mott Haven Herald. “I honestly thought it was one of those gentrifiers that was disappointed that we didn’t have avocado toast. I was like, ‘all right, let me deal with this.’ And it ends up being an undercover cop.”
Saavedra recounted that when she asked for a warrant, asserting her Fourth Amendment rights, the officers threatened to “flip the place,” and showed her their badges and guns before handcuffing her and placing her in an unmarked police van without being given any information about why she was being arrested, and then detained at the 40th precinct for three hours without explanation.
According to a report by Eater New York, the New York Police Department has stated that the officer who initially entered the restaurant was “seek[ing] refuge to avoid a physical altercation” after making an undercover narcotics purchase from an individual “who became aggressive and began to follow her.”
Although the NYPD did not make a direct reference to the fact that she and her family are undocumented and she is enrolled in the federal DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) program, Saavedra and her family suspect a correlation.
Natalia Mendez, Yajaira’s mother and acclaimed head chef of La Morada, told Civil Eats, “I was under the impression that I was in a sanctuary city, but more barriers are being placed by the mass policing that targets unjustly the working class like my family and local street vendors.”
As Eater NY points out:
While NYC is a sanctuary city, undocumented residents are still at risk for detention and deportation. And while the NYPD does not typically hand detainees to ICE, according to the Times, arrest information is sometimes sent to the state and then to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which ICE can then access. Since President Donald Trump took office, New York immigration-related arrests of residents without criminal records have reportedly more than tripled.
La Morada is not just a restaurant, it is a beacon in the South Bronx. Signs on the wall read “No More Deportations” and “Black Lives Matter.” A lending library full of books in the back of the dining room offers food for the mind. Neighbors who live nearby, hospital employees from Lincoln Hospital, foodies from all over the world, and elected officials all love to eat Natalia’s cooking. And, like me, they bask in the hospitality the family offers to everyone who comes through the door.
Even the bathroom is decorated with important imagery: pictures of Natalia and Antonio’s son Marco in a cap and gown when he crossed the U.S.-Mexico border in 2014 with the DREAM 9 and crossed back, requesting asylum while also risking deportation. When Natalia received proclamations and awards from the New York City Council in 2016 and El Museo del Barrio in 2017, she spoke fervently and inspiringly in Mixtec, Spanish, and English, declaring her love for her community, her pride, and her assertion that she and her family and core members of their community and that they, like all of their brethren, deserve respect and rights. But even the fact that the mayor of New York has kissed Natalia’s cheek and eaten her mole, can protect the family from the danger of deportation or intimidation by the law.
Some details of the incident remain under wraps, as the family’s attorney will be filing a lawsuit alleging violation of Yajaira’s civil rights. In the meantime, their neighbors came out in force to connect the unjust police behavior directed at Yajaira to long histories of police brutality, displacement, violence, and white supremacy in the Bronx.
And the question remains: Was the family targeted because of their political beliefs? Because they are outspoken about their immigrant status? Or did they merely experience the same treatment many of their neighbors receive every day?
In my recent book, Eating NAFTA: Trade, Food Policy, and the Destruction of Mexico, I chronicle the many ways that trade and food policies, like NAFTA, have harmed working-class people, including rural and indigenous populations in Mexico who have seen their ways of life, their access to land, and their traditional ways of procuring, preparing, and consuming food destroyed. It is deeply unfortunate that this shift has coincided with the recent boom of ancestral Mexican cooking in high-end restaurants, long lines for tacos, and debates among food lovers about the relative merits of escamoles and huitlacoche.
In my book, I argue that the larger context of inequality and displacement of Mexican farmers doesn’t need to lend a bitter taste to those tacos, if we are more aware and advocate with elected officials for more humane and sustainable trade and development policies. But, now, I take that back.
Our tacos should have a bitter taste if we think that we can enjoy mole and fresh ground corn tortillas while ignoring the realities of the people to whom these foods belong. Displaced in the early 1990s from their communities of origin by factors including NAFTA, families like the Mendez-Saavedras took it upon themselves to provide for their children in the U.S.
Excluded from the small business loans, health insurance programs, and legal assistance offered to U.S. citizens, the family has built La Morada from scratch with their own effort. And rather than building it only for their own livelihood, they turned it into an anchor in the community, a haven open to all.
That haven has been violated by police intimidation. If we don’t have a bitter taste in our mouths, we should. This incident is a call to action to connect our love for food and those who prepare it to the issues of gentrification and displacement, abuse of power and police brutality, immigration and deportation. Seeing these interconnections enables us to be allies and act in solidarity when events like this occur.