Immigration debate hits home at local restaurant

Lunch at La Morada Restaurant on Willis Ave.

Lunch at La Morada Restaurant on Willis Ave.

La Morada owners watch Washington for reforms

Before Natalia Mendez immigrated to New York City from Mexico in 1994, she had long aspired to open her own restaurant. In 2009, she realized her dream when she opened La Morada on Willis Avenue in Mott Haven.

Now that Mendez has achieved her goal of bringing her home cooking to Mott Haven, she has another big dream; to return to her home village in southern Mexico to see aging family members while they’re still alive. But because Mendez is undocumented, immigration officials would deny her reentry into the US if they catch her trying to return.

Undocumented from motthaven on Vimeo.

“I haven’t seen my mother in over 25 years and I have a grandmother who is 105 years-old, who I haven’t seen in 30 years,” she said.

Last November, Mendez and millions of others living without legal status in the US were hopeful when President Obama announced the Deferred Action For Parents of Americans Act. The proposed plan would ease travel restrictions for undocumented parents of US citizens and permanent residents (Mendez’s youngest daughter, Carolina, was born in the US), place a moratorium on many deportations and allow immigrants who entered the country without legal status under the age of 16 to work legally for three years. In addition, the plan would make it easier for undocumented immigrants to start businesses by allowing them to open bank accounts and conduct business on the books.

But when a federal judge in Texas blocked the order in February, a standoff ensued between the President and congressional Republicans, putting the reforms on hold.

Mendez, who worked as a seamstress in the city before opening La Morada, still remembers those days. Immigration officers regularly raided the garment factories where she worked, she recalled, but she always managed to get away.

“One time I escaped through the staircase, leaving everything behind. I left my bag and coat and took to the streets,” she said in Spanish. “I was pregnant with my youngest daughter.”

If the President prevails, Mendez’s whole family would benefit. Her oldest daughter, Yajaira Saavedra, who was four years-old when Mendez brought her north, would receive a three-year work permit. Saavedra, 26, recalls life as a child in the impoverished, rural southern Mexican state of Oaxaca, where she lived with her grandparents as a small child. She remembers hiding apples and oranges her grandfather brought home, because she was forced to ration what little she had.

Saavedra, who has a marketing degree from CUNY, and Carolina, have been outspoken opponents of online grocer FreshDirect’s proposed move to Port Morris, saying the move would hurt small, family-run businesses like theirs. Stickers boycotting FreshDirect adorn La Morada’s front counter.

“As a small business, we’re impacted because we’re part of the community,” said Saavedra. She was one of dozens of residents and local business owners who spoke at a public hearing at Hostos Community College in November, urging the state’s Empire Development Corp. not to provide a $10 million subsidy to FreshDirect, as part of a $140 million package of tax exemptions and subsidies from the city and state. Government policies that subsidize big food production and supply companies, Saavedra testified at the hearing, continue to cause the destruction of small farming communities in rural Mexico, just as happened when poverty and hunger forced her mother to flee Oaxaca 20 years ago.

Mott Haven has been a major destination for Mexican immigrants in recent years. According to the US census, the number of immigrants from Mexico who live in Mott Haven and Melrose nearly doubled between 2000 and 2010, from 3,277 to 6,140.

The deep purple walls of La Morada—-which in Spanish means both The Purple One, and a place of residence—-lend the restaurant an intimate, serene feel. In a review in the February New York Times, the newspaper praised its Oaxacan menu and family-friendly, homey atmosphere. An older, similarly favorable Daily News review is posted near the restaurant’s entrance.

“If we don’t have the ingredient, we don’t serve it or cook it. We need to have integrity in what we cook,” said Mendez.

Despite her anxiety over matters in Washington, she said, her focus remains on serving fresh food that reminds many of her customers of home, while introducing other diners to the flavors of Oaxaca.

“I’m undocumented, but I’m not hurting anyone,” she said. “I’m contributing to this nation.”