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Who Will Stand Up For Latinx Immigrant Restaurant Workers Now?

flickr/Helen Harrop

Anthony Bourdain was a champion for undocumented immigrants. The rest of the food industry needs to follow his lead.

There are two kinds of white people who work in restaurants. The kind who doesn’t learn the names of the Latinx immigrant cooks, and the kind who does. And there are two kinds of celebrity chefs. The kind who leaves the kitchen to pick up his award and forgets about the crew that made him, and the kind that doesn’t. Anthony Bourdain was the second kind. In his first book, Kitchen Confidential, specifically in the section “Who Cooks,” he made it very clear who is feeding America — something other celebrity chefs have never bothered to point out:

“Most of the Ecuadorians and Mexicans I hire from a large pool — a sort of farm team of associated and often related former dishwashers — are very well-paid professionals, much sought after by other chefs. Chances are they’ve worked their way up from the bottom rung; they remember well what it was like to empty out grease traps, scrape plates, haul leaking bags of garbage out to the curb at four o’clock in the morning. A guy who’s come up through the ranks, who knows every station, every recipe, every corner of the restaurant and who has learned, first and foremost, your system above all others is likely to be more valuable and long-term than some bed-wetting white boy whose mom brought him up thinking the world owed him a living, and who thinks he actually knows a few things.

You want loyalty from your line cooks.”

Bourdain didn’t just ask for loyalty, he returned it. In season 1 of his first television show A Cook’s Tour he took his cameras to Puebla, home of the line cooks in his kitchen. The episode was called “Puebla: Where Good Cooks are From.” Bourdain’s host in Puebla was Bourdain’s colleague and sous chef Eddie Perez, who Bourdain described as the “backbone of Les Halles,” his French restaurant in New York City.

Let other white people swallow every lie in the press about Latinx immigrants. White Americans work side by side with Latinx immigrants, both documented and undocumented, in restaurants every single day. There is no plausible deniability for them. They know undocumented immigrants aren’t choosing to be undocumented. They know that America needs them, exploits them, and persecutes them.

Bourdain’s loyalty and willingness to tell the truth didn’t end with humanizing immigrants. He also demanded real solutions from the people showering him with awards and television shows.

In an interview with Eater, he urged the James Beard Foundation to fund para legal aid for Mexican cooks.

It’s not a fucking Benetton ad. Maybe pony up some of that money for free paralegal advice for the great number of Mexican immigrants who have been working in this business all of these years who are struggling to stay in this country and would like to do it legitimately. Just seems like there’s a lot of money floating around, and I’d like to see a little of it broken off to reflect those that are actually cooking in this country.

He also spoke on social media about the need for the culinary establishment to fight for immigration reform.

And in a society where it is rare for to go against the well-worn yet fictional narratives that vilify undocumented immigrants, Anthony Bourdain told the truth about that too. He told the Houston Press in 2007:

“People have differing opinions on what we should do about immigration in the future. How open or how closed our borders should be. Fine. But let’s be honest, at least, about who is cooking in America NOW. Who we rely on — have relied on for decades. The bald fact is that the entire restaurant industry in America would close down overnight, would never recover, if current immigration laws were enforced quickly and thoroughly across the board. Everyone in the industry knows this. It is undeniable. Illegal labor is the backbone of the service and hospitality industry — Mexican, Salvadoran and Ecuadoran in particular. To contemplate actually doing without is to contemplate mass closings, a general shake-out of individually owned and operated restaurants — and, of course, unthinkably (now) higher prices in the places that manage to survive. Considering that our economy and employment picture is now largely based on us selling hamburgers to each other, the ripple effects would be grave. I know very few chefs who’ve even heard of a US born citizen coming in the door to ask for a dishwasher, night clean-up or kitchen prep job. Until that happens — let’s at least try to be honest when discussing this issue.”

Anthony Bourdain was not a politician. He was not a political activist. He was a cook who spent years with Latinx immigrants on food production line in sweltering kitchens. The fact that he spoke up at every opportunity on behalf of immigrant Latinx restaurant workers was motivated by an extremely simple formula: loyalty, plus an extreme aversion to bullshit.

Bourdain explained his loyalty to Latinx immigrants in Parts Unknown “Season 9 Ep 1: Los Angeles.”

I worked in French and Italian restaurants my whole career, but really, if I think about it, they were Mexican restaurants and Ecuadorian restaurants, because the majority of the cooks and the people working with me were from those countries. That’s who, you know, picked me up when I fell down; who showed me what to do when I walked in and didn’t know anything and nobody knew my name.

Bourdain proved that you didn’t have to master the nuances of immigration policy or have a degree in political science to have the courage to defend undocumented immigrants. He saw his crew being persecuted and criminalized and he wasn’t willing to ignore that for the approval of the culinary establishment. As a wealthy white man, he didn’t even pay a price for it, so culinary industry elite, take note.

In the days following his death, social media and blogs were flooded with people of color grieving and honoring him. Why was he so loved for doing something so simple? Because the stakes are life and death, and almost no one else in a position of power, especially a white man, will stand with us. Activists working to help undocumented immigrants are everyday, mostly Latinx people with the courage to stand up to the dominant culture in America. Around the country, they have formed rapid response teams to respond to ICE raids, raise money to bail people out of immigrant prisons, and look after the families whose loved ones have been deported. And for their trouble, they receive racist hate mail, death threats and a deafening silence from the political establishment.

Almost no one else in a position of power, especially a white man, will stand with us. Click To Tweet

Democratic politicians spout the same misleading, toxic catchphrases as everyone else. Undocumented immigrants shouldn’t cut in line (as though there are any orderly lines for immigration paperwork, much less ones they are allowed into). Undocumented immigrants must avoid criminality (turns out they do a better job of that than native born Americans.) Democratic politicians have done the math. By speaking up to tell the truth about undocumented immigrants they are taking a risk. They calculate what they will gain, factoring in the lower rate of voting and political donations of the Latinx community. They correctly assume that with Republicans literally advocating for policies that kill our loved ones, we have nowhere else to go. A red Trump hat is hate speech in a Mexican restaurant. So for Democrats, the math always comes out the same. Silence at best. Status quo at worst. As a result, the Trump message of fear and bigotry carries the day, and the Democrats get our support no matter what.

But the food industry is in a unique position. As a wealthy white man, Bourdain didn’t pay a price for speaking out. If anything it burnished his reputation as a fearless teller of truth. So not only do privileged people in the culinary industry not have plausible deniability, they have nothing to lose.

Bourdain was criticized in some corners for being too political. When a person of privilege would like to gingerly step around the bleeding body of a person of color, they say that defending them is ‘too political.” But Anthony Bourdain didn’t step around the bodies of his friends. And he wasn’t someone you silenced.

I can attest to the truth of everything he said. I have spent decades looking for the truth about the dystopian and horrifying ways that America treats undocumented immigrants. I have worked in restaurants, studied politics in academia, worked on Capitol Hill, and bore witness to the lives of my undocumented family and friends. The truth is this: America has deliberately and strategically created an underclass of undocumented immigrants by targeting certain types of immigrants for criminalization. You don’t have to understand immigration policy to see that. Twenty million people, the vast majority of whom are people of color, don’t just get up and say ‘You know what? Screw economic stability, family unity, and safety, I’m gonna be undocumented.’ Twenty million people constitute an underclass purposefully created and steadfastly maintained by the white power structure. Despots need fear to maintain power. Fear needs a scapegoat. Undocumented immigrants cannot defend themselves, so scapegoating them is the perfect crime.

What I’m saying is, we could really use a hand here. And people in the food industry — Food Network executives, celebrity chefs, food award foundations, food bloggers, food related charities, should be the first ones to stand up. Anthony Bourdain did everything he could in his tragically abbreviated life. He stood with us. But he is gone now. We need powerful allies more than ever.

Trump didn’t invent deportation. He didn’t even invent ICE. But he has made life more terrifying and more dangerous for all immigrants and anyone who loves them. His dehumanizing rhetoric harks back to genocidal heads of state.

It gives everyone from ICE agents, border patrol officers, and school yard bullies license to racially profile and harm people with impunity. He is currently suing California for trying to defend its communities against his illegal and unconstitutional power grabs.

He is carrying out increased mass deportations proudly, and increased the number of non-criminal deportations significantly.

People in the food industry should be the first ones to stand up. Click To Tweet

And since Latinx immigrants are the reason the squeezed middle class can buy produce or eat out on a weekend, since they trained and made possible the career of every famous cook in America, I challenge every person in the food industry to step up now.

Here is the plan, food industry titans — people who have made their fortunes making and talking about food. Here is what we expect of you from now on. Let’s call it the Bourdain doctrine:

When you hear hateful rhetoric, stand up to it. I want to see Rachel Ray in a ‘no human is illegal’ t-shirt.

Demand action from your government. You know, the one that listens to you and not us?

Demand rational, comprehensive, immigration reform now.

Demand the closure of immigrant prisons.

Demand ICE be abolished.

And when the political establishment drags its feet like it always does, that is not the moment in which you shrug your shoulders and say you did everything you could.

It is time for you to pony up money for legal assistance and bail money.

It is time for you to create health care funds, since undocumented immigrants cannot access health insurance.

It is time for you to publicly shame the government for separating families and terrorizing children.

It is time for you to walk your happy ass up to the state capitol where you live, and demand that the state government to do anything they can to protect your employees.

And if you are a restaurant owner, know your rights. When ICE shows up to your restaurant to raid the place, you need to be prepared. Don’t let them do a single solitary thing they aren’t legally allowed to do. If your staff did something criminal, it wouldn’t be ICE visiting you, it would be the police. Your staff are being picked up and incarcerated for coming to work. And you are the one that hired them with the full knowledge of their status, so you damn well know that. In the words of Anthony Bourdain, let’s at least try to be honest.

As the tributes have poured in for Anthony Bourdain, I see many of the same people he excoriated, claiming to have respected him. So let’s test out that hypothesis. We all know that Anthony Bourdain hated lip service. He despised posturing. Anyone who claims to have loved him or shared his values must pick up where he left off. Latinxs in the food industry lost our most passionate champion in the elite culinary establishment. Who is going to step into the void?

Loyalty and truth. That’s all it takes.