“Nos quitaron tanto que nos quitaron el miedo.”
“They took away so much that they took away our fear.”
Oaxaca to the Bronx
The year old awning is slightly soiled from the natural accumulation of snow, rain, and all of the muck that develops during New York City winters. Yet, La Morada’s awning, featuring vibrant purple lettering suavely overlapping earthy mesa colors, bears an undeniable air of authenticity and ethos. La Morada’s awning represents Natalia Mendez and her husband Antonio Saavedra’s journey from their native Oaxaca to the Bronx.
As one passes through La Morada’s doors you instantly feel a wave of social protest and rebellion course through your veins. A party of twenty young professionals sits in front of the communal lending library - some are white, some are Latinx, a black woman is wearing a hijab. The few tables in the restaurant are lined together in two rows to accommodate this large party while smaller groups are huddled at countertop seating with storefront views of Willis Avenue. The matriarch, Natalia, is a motherly woman who proudly walks up to her patrons and inquires about their meals “¿Todo bien?” and inconspicuously returns to the ceaseless movement of cooking, packing, and speaking Spanish in the kitchen. Both, Natalia and Antonio, look weary during their shifts, but they gracefully administer their tasks and greet and wave farewell to their clients who pass in and out of the family eatery.
For nearly thirty years Natalia and Antonio have lived in the United States —paying taxes after crossing the Sonoran desert to access the American Dream for their family. After a devastating drought in Oaxaca crippled the farming micro-economy of San Miguel Ahuehuetitlan, Natalia and Antonio left their children back home in Mexico and made their way to New York City. Years of hard work led the family to be reunited in the Bronx and together they started their very own restaurant in Mott Haven. The family set up shop as a self-identifying indigenous Oaxacan restaurant owned and operated by undocumented immigrants. It’s encouraging to see La Morada’s workers walk by with their shoulders back and their heads raised high as opposed to many of the undocumented immigrants who often live life in the shadows, afraid of making waves and drawing unwanted attention to their “legal” status. My mother was one of them.
A Blade of Grass
It’s here in the South Bronx that a group of high school students came together to design a community art project funded by A Blade of Grass, a non-profit organization collaborating with artists who work with communities to enact social change through art. In unison with La Morada and led by Ecuadorian born artist Ronny Quevedo, the group of local teenagers (all Bronxites) took the responsibility of working as junior designers to develop the restaurant’s new and improved awning.
A five foot long white sign declaring “No Deportaciones” in scarlet red is suspended over La Morada’s entranceway, a clear reminder to all patrons that this safe space is owned by a family of immigrants. Ronny (who I met for the first time) and I finally find a place to nestle ourselves into and discuss the community art project, one that he does not consider solely his. Instead, Ronny views the awning as “a shared experience with the restaurant, the teens, and myself...I try to be conscious that there are elements of the project that don’t need me.” This humility motivated Ronny to lead the team of high school students from diverse backgrounds; Dominican, Puerto Rican, Honduran, and African-American, to utilize the Mott Haven library and Bronx Art Space to brainstorm concepts for the awning. They designed the mountains, buildings, and farmers featured in the artwork today. But first, Ronny and the teens interviewed every single worker at La Morada and focused on understanding and internalizing the restaurant’s mission and history. In tow, a camera crew filmed the teens during their ten week long project. According to Ronny “the documentation is helpful to understand outside perspectives of the work.”
As the South Bronx community continues to see different faces encroach upon their neighborhood from all corners, Ronny believes that the gentrification narrative says “‘What’s around is not modern’ and what I say is what’s here is valuable and can be uplifted.” For Ronny Quevedo, art is a way of life that moves him to examine and interact with many of the commonplace things he encounters in his neighborhood. As a boy in Guayaquil, Ronny sculpted toy guns and hoops out of cardboard, while his mother, a seamstress, encouraged his creativity. “What we have, like shopping bags, awnings, and billboards, they’re all part of our daily experience.” It’s this sort of utilitarian thinking that made the La Morada awning project successful.
Yajaira Saavedra’s Arrest
Nearly a year after the new awning was hoisted atop La Morada, January 11, 2019 saw Yajaira Saavedra, Natalia and Antonio’s daughter, arrested by the New York Police Department. After Yajaira and her family recorded an arrest in progress, police officers entered La Morada, arrested Yajaira and led her to an unmarked black van across the street from the eatery. At the time Yajaira feared the worst, as a DACA recipient living under the Trump administration’s overzealous ICE detainment measures, deportation could have become a reality. Instead, Yajaira was held at the 40th precinct for three hours where she recalls “I was thinking about my safety, my family’s safety. Who was going to take care of my niece? I was worried about my sister who had gone through a surgery due to a tough pregnancy...It wasn’t my first time getting arrested, so I recalled all my training as an activist.”
Within a matter of minutes the 40th precinct was overflowing with Yajaira’s family, friends, and neighbors who were all worried about her safety. Later that evening Yajaira was released and bolstered by her spirit of activism and neighborhood to continue her work on behalf of Mott Haven. “This is the core of Mott Haven. One of the highest concentrations of Mexican populations in the city.” says the young restaurateur. According to Yajaira, the Bronx, specifically Mott Haven, is experiencing “food apartheid”. A condition that impedes Bronxites’ ability to access fresh and healthy food that is simply out of their price range. Yajaira states “Hunts Point is the biggest importer in the nation, yet we don’t have access to that food. Only the wealthy can afford that food.”
Four months later, Yajaira and I sit on a tree pit’s wooden railing in front of her family restaurant and discuss her arrest. The young activist nervously looks behind her and from side to side. “NYPD has their station constantly harassing us. They patrol within a one block radius and station themselves in buildings around us.” says Yajaira as she quickly looks back at me. A car pulls up and parks directly behind us and adds to the tension that has suddenly enveloped the air.
According to Yajaira “artwork is a form of community engagement, involvement and hard work.” The reality of this match made in heaven between Ronny, the socially aware artist, and La Morada, the activist restaurant, dawns on me when I look up at the farmers standing beside the concrete building. I ask Yajaira what the artwork means and she replies “The culture vultures and gentrifiers take advantage of our food. But, if you want our food you need to know about our narratives.” As I take a bite out of my savory chicken quesadillas and look around the cozy eatery I realize that this place is more than just a business. La Morada is part of the Saavedra family’s identity and it stands as a testament to the shared narrative of their journey from Oaxaca to the Bronx.
In the midst of the hip clothing and accessories and all of the boutique shops that have arrived, one must take solace in the black and brown faces in front of the barbershop, the ladies pushing their strollers down the sidewalks, and the gleeful boys howling by the basketball court. Leaders like Ronny and Yajaira are the reason why communities thrive, why businesses flourish and people come together. They are an inspiration for all and perhaps Ronny sums it up best when he states “People can see what can be done through collaboration...We don’t have to go very far to showcase our values, our agency.”
A film covering the creation of La Morada’s new awning will be screened on June 6th at 6 pm at Bronx Art Space.
Please visit http://www.abladeofgrass.org/events/rooted-in-neighborhood/ for more information.