It’s The Intention Behind The Tortilla

We are watching the Comey investigation on CNN, my wife and I are sharing coffee and our plans for the day.

“Before you take off for your day, can I ask you a few questions for Aztlán Collective?”

(We put Comey on mute…)

Jo Novelli-Blasko: Why did you close on Day Without Immigrants?

Silvana Salcido Esparza: To support my brothers and sisters. Especially this year, I felt fueled by the administration and the foul things that are now coming out of our White House. It makes me want to take action.
 Besides, I was asked by an immigrant if I was going to close in solidarity… We both knew the answer before she could finish the question.

Day Without Immigrants was staged on February 16, 2017. Silvana closed both the barrio cafe on 16th street and barrio cafe Gran Reserve, in the historic Bragg’s Pie Factory off Grand Avenue.

wiki: “Some restaurants fired their workers who chose to take an unexcused day off on the 16th. Twelve Hispanic workers in Catoosa, Oklahoma were fired for not showing up to work. In Nashville, 18 people lost their jobs for skipping work to take part in the boycott. JVS Masonry in Denver fired around 30 workers for not coming into work on that Thursday. Twenty-one people were fired from Encore Boat Builders for failing to show for their scheduled work day.

J: Did you think it might be a hardship for your staff to go without pay on that Thursday? This is what I thought about. When I was working three jobs to stay afloat, one missed shift and I’d have trouble.

S: My staff has been with me a long time. Tens of years in some instances. My participation in Day Without Immigrants is par for the course. My staff applauds my choices.

Seattle, WA protest by Matt Mrozinski

Sherman, TX protest by LM Otero

Boston, MA protest by Craig F. Walker

J: What about the diners you turned away? Are you worried about losing customers for demonstrating your solidarity by closing?

S: I think it’s a fine line between ‘shut up and serve people’ and ‘speak up and possibly alienate a customer who had no clue of my political views. I’d much rather act according to my heart. If what I do on Day Without Immigrants brings hate from the southeast, it’s worth it to raise visibility.

J: Why do you say southeast? The southeast United States?

S: Yes. It was their accents on the voice mail and the numbers on the caller id.

The morning after Day Without Immigrants, Barrio Cafe voice mail boxes were full.The messages were hateful and explicit. Some threatened her life, prompting her to call the police.

Honestly, this is not the first time this has happened. when I spoke up at the signing of SB1070, I got all kinds of people calling me from area codes all over the US. threatening me, my businesses, and staff. We survived that just fine. We weren’t scared. These feeble responses don’t frighten us now.

By Ernesto Yerena

Photo by Jonathan Gibby

By Ernesto Yerena

J: So then, has your support of Day Without Immigrants affected your business?

S: It hasn’t. In fact, we actually saw a surge in sales afterward. But we operate successfully all the time, it is what we do, no matter my social participation.
 My businesses are very healthy for different reasons.

J: Do you see your closing on Day Without Immigrants as an act of resistance?

(By this time, trump in on mute… )

S: No, it’s not resistance. It’s about support.

J: That’s why it works. Did you post a note on your door?

S: Yes.

(Comey is back on the screen.)

J: Every year, you post on Facebook about Cinco de Drinko.
 It’s up now. Doesn’t it make you want to close your doors on May 5?

S: Why? So I can stay home and eat mole?
 (We laugh. I know the answer is no.)

The first time I posted that picture, I didn’t try to protect her identity… its that girl from Jersey shore, the one that’s always drunk. someone complained about it, so I put a black block over her eyes!
 (we laugh again…)

Look… this morning, I wrote to these folks and asked them to take out the hat! (Silvana shows me a picture of some beer advertisement for Cinco de Mayo… in the background are stupid cardboard sombreros hanging from the ceiling.)

J: Tell me about your recent sadness over the popularization of the taco. I think I know, but want to hear you say why it’s important.

S: There was an ad, recently, on my Facebook feed. for some awful reason, fb thinks I want to see ads for Mexican restaurants in Mesa. The ad was for southern fried chicken tacos. it looked goooood!

(we laugh! Where’s breakfast anyway!?)

Crispy chicken, all salty and shit. But the only thing Mexican about their ‘tacos’ was the word they used to name it. The little old lady I visited in the remote village is nowhere to be found in this dish.

J: But you say and know you can’t possibly ever recreate the tortilla you tasted there and then. I believe that too. Is this romanticizing in a way that’s maybe not so great…?

S: I can’t begin to duplicate the food in Mexico. Even my own food tastes better when I make it in Mexico. I know, I have the privilege of cooking in there.

Why do you think these people who are selling this food with yellow cheese and chips and salsa are intending to do on Cinco de Mayo? Fill seats. Sell food and booze.

Remember that guy in Johnstown?

We stopped in my hometown on our way to Niagara Falls, we were eloping. we ate at the only Mexican restaurant in the area. Silvana and the owner were convivial and talked in Spanish for the time it took our food to cook. when the food arrived, he excused himself and invited us to enjoy our meal. What was on the plate bore no resemblance to anything Mexican. “Bell peppers? Canned tomato? when there are jalapeños y cilantro in the grocery stores?” Silvana asked me. On the way out of the restaurant, the owner asked her how was her meal. she told him, as I excused myself and thanked him for the dinner. Silvana held his feet to the fire as I went off to the restroom. when I joined her in the car she told me what happened.

“I asked him… ‘do you eat like this at home? is this how you ate in Mexico city? why do you do such a disservice to our country’s food?’ i showed him my Mexican citizenship card. I said “you know better…you know how good the food is in Mexico. you have access to ingredients. serve what you eat and the gringos will eat it and they will love it. cos it’s gooooood.”

Remember when I asked him why he served such bad food, what did he say? ‘Because it’s what they want…pinche gringos and I have to fill this restaurant.’ I say bullshit.

J: So it’s the intention behind the tortilla.

S: When I came back from Mexico in 2001 and opened Barrio Cafe, I didn’t care about what the customers wanted, I cared about the food I was serving and its regional style. I make no pretenses about my food and have not since the beginning.

I didn’t necessarily consider of the combo-plate-seeking diners who want the yellow cheese, chips, and salsa. when enchiladas, chile Rellenos, and chile colorado all have the same uninspired sauce, all the food tastes the same, looks the same. I think it’s disrespectful of Mexican culture.

I’ve been critiqued for this too: Even by my own raza, they will say things likes ‘the inexpensive place is better.’ That’s fine.

A customer once told me, ‘with great success comes great responsibility.’ I believed it then and I believe it now. it’s my responsibility to elevate Mexican culture. I try to do that in everything I do, especially in my food.

(Comey is still on mute.)

Jo Novelli-Blasko interviewed Silvana Salcido Esparza in their home on May 3, 2017.

About the Author:

Jo Novelli-Blasko is an artist and writer based in Phoenix, AZ, and Rosarito, BC. She has been developing The Habitorium since 2013. It is a platform for considering how habits work and shape everyday life. Jo earned a master in Performance Studies at New York University. She is currently writing a collection of short stories called ‘Crying in Public.’

Originally published at on May 5, 2017.