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One of the country's top chefs and her battle for undocumented immigrants

Undocumented Mexican chef Cristina Martinez has captured the media’s attention in recent months, thanks to her food – and activism – in South Philadelphia. Now featured in an award-winning podcast 'Mejor Vete, Cristina.'
3 Abr 2018 – 07:02 PM EDT
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South Philly Barbacoa, owned by Mexican chef Cristina Martinez, ranked sixth among the 10 best new U.S. restaurants. Martinez is now featured in a prize-winning Univision podcast: 'Mejor Vete, Cristina.'
Crédito: Univision

After almost a decade living undocumented in the United States, Cristina Martinez is a widely renowned chef specializing in Mexican-style barbecue.

Martinez, who escaped domestic violence in Mexico and settled in Philadelphia in 2009, has also helped spur debate over the legality of more than one million undocumented workers who are the backbone of the restaurant industry in the United States.

Last year, Univision produced a Spanish-language podcast, called Mejor vete, Cristina ("You Better Leave, Cristina") about Martinez’s story, and on Tuesday it won the prestigious Ortega y Gasset prize for multimedia journalism.

Bon Appetit magazine ranked Martinez' restaurant, South Philly Barbacoa, sixth on its list of 10 best new U.S. restaurants in 2016.

The food served up on weekends at the tiny locale – barbequed lamb, consomme with rice and chickpeas, cactus with carrots and tortillas made with corn from the southern Mexico state of Chiapas – took a back seat to Martinez' goal of helping the more than a million undocumented immigrants who work in restaurants throughout the United States. Despite being essential to the U.S. hospitality industry, these immigrants live in constant fear of deportation.

Martinez worked illegally as a pastry chef in an Italian restaurant when she first arrived in Philadelphia. She met and married Benjamin Miller, a U.S. citizen, but was then fired because she didn't have work papers. She is blocked from applying for U.S. residency.

“It's difficult. The government penalizes you,” she says. “We can't go visit our family. And undocumented people can't have a bank account or own a property. Undocumented people like me live in virtual darkness.”

For 18 months, she cooked and sold Mexican versions of barbeque and other dishes from her apartment, despite Miller's concern about the legality of the operation. As demand grew, they sold their food from a pushcart on weekends.

South Philly Barbacoa opened in July 2015 and was packed until it closed in June last year after Martinez decided to concentrate her energy on another South Philly restaurant, El Compadre, she took over after the death of her late son.

'Vete Cristina'

The podcast series is a documentary about Martinez's life. It tells the story of how she escaped a kidnapping, left her children behind to cross the desert (twice), freed a child from ‘coyotes’, sold quesadillas on the street, washed dishes for $7 an hour and founded a national movement for immigrant rights. All that while being undocumented and managing to get her restaurant recognized among the best in the country.

The podcast was narrated by Univision journalist Inger Díaz Barriga, who also investigated the story and wrote the script. The jury of the Ortega y Gasset awards called called it "magnificently presented by the narrator, full of subtlety and delicacy, which relates ... universal issues such as immigration, abuse, sexual harassment and precarious or illegal jobs."

Social activism

Martinez says she's quite aware of the important role she plays in her community, and that's why she's decided to put no immigration status requirements on those asking her for jobs. She prepares special platters for Mexican immigrants who work in construction or other restaurants and has opened her restaurant to many art exhibits.

She also imported corn from autonomous Chiapas communities linked to the Zapatista guerrilla movement, to serve the only authentic tortillas made in the United States.

It's important to support the community, she says. “It's not just about doing business. This is how we support our community over there, our community here, and we breathe life here into our tradition and our history.”

But perhaps the most important decision that Martinez and Miller took to benefit their community was to host meals with other chefs to find ways to support undocumented employees at risk from U.S. immigration inspection of restaurants.

“It's not just that they are taken away,” says Martinez. “We have to have a strategy for what we can do for our employees. They are part of the business, the backbone of our restaurants," Martinez adds, noting that they have little social power or visibility and limited job opportunities because they lack work permits and language skills.

The chef chats have extended to other issues, such as the right to earn as much as other workers and to speak native languages in the kitchen; racism; the different ways in which the food media looks at restaurants run by immigrants and others; and the need to talk less about the food and more about the people who cook the food.

The chefs' meals have also drawn professionals who volunteer to help with issues like immigration procedures. “Lawyers come and we talk about what's happening in the community. We make the immigrants back in the kitchens more visible,” Martinez said.

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The meals led to the establishment of an organization, the Popular Alliance for Undocumented Workers' Rights, that now runs the gatherings and other events. Entrance is free but donations are accepted.

Martinez said the movement has three key goals: give visibility to the undocumented workers who make the meals served in many U.S. restaurants; promote their right to work under their real names, without the need for fake IDs; and allow them to visit family back home, with a guarantee that their jobs will be waiting for them.

Miller said he totally supports his wife's goals. Gone are the days when he scolded her for selling her dishes clandestinely out of their tiny apartment. He's participated in other chefs' dinners in New York, Los Angeles and Florida, and is redesigning the restaurant's website.

The movement, now starting to be known as #Right2Work, has even expanded abroad. “My husband went to a convention in Copenhagen and we already have the support of some chefs in Europe,” Martinez says.

Using all their resources, from their kitchen to their tables and even Twitter, Martinez and Miller are keeping up the conversation about the changes urgently needed in their community.

The best thing about their sixth place spot on Bob Appetite’s list, they say, is that it will strengthen the fight for the rights of undocumented workers in their industry.

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