South Philly’s undocumented workers need love – and aid – and Cristina Martinez and Benjamin Miller want to get it for them

Cristina Martinez and Benjamin Miller, owners of South Philly Barbacoa and Casa Mexico provide for their customers and address the needs of their undocumented employees during this pandemic.

Whether it’s sunny and warm or wintry and freezing cold, I’ve witnessed, first-hand, the adoration that eaters have for the Italian Market’s South Philly Barbacoa, and its recently-opened adjunct two-doors-down Casa Mexico. 

Legendary as a chef (James Beard-nominated) and as an artisan of barbacoa – a Mexican traditional process of butchering and slow-cooking lamb – Cristina Martinez gets crowds lined-up along Ninth Street, and salivating, on a daily (very early, like 6 am) basis for her wares, chickpea-lamb consommé included.

Cristina Martinez

Martinez and husband Benjamin Miller (who own South Philly Barbacoa together) opened Casa Mexico in February 2020 for later-in-the day fare (6 to 10 pm or until they sell out), sit-down service, and a more expansive menu (than South Philly Barbacoa) that includes tacos, guisados (stews), braised chicken legs, pork shanks, and more.

Martinez and Miller’s locations in the Italian Market are also famed for taking on undocumented workers, a fight close to home as Martinez is famously and proudly undocumented. To that end, Miller formed the Popular Alliance for Undocumented Workers’ Rights organization and its #Right2Work initiative for that very fight.

Miller told me a while back that Cristina was “brave,” as she faced her struggles doing business as an undocumented worker. Though he shies from calling themselves freedom fighters (“We aren’t the frontline of activism…”), the married couple knows well that they have a platform – a tasty one at that – because of the food. “We have the ability to share our story through the food. The corn we grow for the restaurant, named for Isaias, is part of the resistance as it comes from indigenous Zapatista communities in Chiapas. Our very existence as a restaurant with an undocumented owner is resistance. For us, there’s no going backward now.”

Martinez said. “We’ve also had to take risks due to difficulty circumnavigating the system as an undocumented business leader.” The risks have paid off, but Martinez warns that neither they nor we, can mistake the exception for the rule. “The systemic criminalization of the labor of immigrants creates an exploitative system. As chefs, we have a social platform and can address this injustice.”

Casa Mexico

Cut to the present day, and South Philly Barbacoa and Casa Mexico have had to make adjustments due to COVID-19, and its workers – undocumented – have suffered with the slow down. But, there is help. 

“South Philly Barbacoa has remained open through the pandemic, Saturdays and Sundays for pick up only, take-out packages with barbacoa, tortillas, consome, and the fixins,” noted Miller, the other day. 

“Casa Mexico is doing curbside pick-up, and we have been able to accommodate serving the customers one by one. All of our team wear masks and gloves, and our staff has been greatly reduced. For the first several weeks of the shut-down, we worked at Barbacoa with no crew at all, to do the preparation. For our undocumented staff, I created a GoFundMe for those who will not qualify for any stimulus check, unemployment, or loans through the government. Our generous customers donated over 13,000 of the original 6,000 we asked for, and we were able to hand out envelopes in time for people to pay rent. As restaurateurs, we have been already certified and tested multiple times (and licensed) by the city on hygiene and cleanliness, and are subject to regular inspections, so as far as food safety, cross-contamination, and hygienic practices, we are already experts before the crisis hit, and we are taking special precautions now, especially maintaining social distance with customers and very limited contact.”

Miller also spoke about the advances in both the menus at his locations, as well as that of the amnesty of undocumented populations, in Philly and beyond.

“Over the last year our food has continued to get better, and we are still digging deeper into our tradition and ingredients. Casa Mexico re-opened five weeks ago, and Cristina’s food there is reminiscent of the guisados she was cooking at El Compadre. Different stewed meats served with tortillas, changes daily. We are hosting chefs doing pop up take out menus, including Omar Tate’s Honeysuckle on Tuesday nights, who recently moved back to Philly from Brooklyn. We have some more friends in the kitchen Monday through Friday, led by chef Aziza Young, who started providing free meals to low-income elderly, non-ambulatory, and youth back in March. We have partnered this project with Jose Andres’ World Central Kitchen and locally organizing with 215 People’s Alliance, providing 200 free meals daily. This work only scratches the surface of the need for good food to fight the hunger epidemic which has gripped Philly for years, we need more restaurants to join on this project to feed the community. We are happy to cook in whatever capacity we are able to, and we want to be a part of the political movement building that needs to center people over profits, and take steps towards our country’s founding goal of democracy, and equality. We urge folks in the restaurant industry to push for the amnesty of undocumented people who support us as the backbone of the nation’s food system. In so many ways we have to come to face the consequences of our ignorance and re-build things differently.”

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