Phoenix's Restaurant Community Is Finding Its Voice Through Protest

“It's funny that standing for what you feel is right and just is now considered becoming an ‘activist.’”

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Jan 10 2018, 11:00pm

Chef Keenan Bosworth. Photo by LAURA SEGALL/AFP/Getty Images

On the morning after President Donald Trump’s August 2017 rally in Phoenix, Arizona, chef Keenan Bosworth, owner of the Pig and Pickle restaurant in Scottsdale, was cuddling with his daughter and reading the news on his phone. Suddenly, to his surprise, he came across an image of himself: In the photo, Bosworth was covering his face with a black T-shirt to keep from breathing in the pepper spray Phoenix law enforcement had shot into the crowd protesting the rally.

As the hours passed, Bosworth began to be pinged by fellow chefs who’d spotted the photo of him in rally coverage. Then, an employee from Bosworth’s restaurant tagged him on Facebook to inform him that Breitbart was featuring his photo in a piece titled “Antifa, Leftists Riot in Phoenix.”

Bosworth, who opened Pig and Pickle about four years ago, wasn’t shocked that a photo of him was circulating in the media, but he was taken aback to read that Breitbart was calling him a rioter. He’d attended the protest with a couple of friends from Phoenix’s culinary scene, including Jacob Cutino of Cutino Sauce Co. Cutino’s co-owner and wife Natalie is an immigrant from South Africa; since Trump became president, Cutino says he felt like he couldn’t ignore the current political climate in Arizona and the country overall. “This is first time I've ever felt like our civil rights and the way we perceive our lives as citizens here in America are being challenged,” he says. “It's funny that standing for what you feel is right and just is now considered becoming an ‘activist.’”

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“In the food industry, we have a lot of Latino workers and they generally work harder than anybody else, and I think that's a fact pretty much nationwide,” Bosworth said. “Any kind of ban on Latino immigrants is problematic to me. Obviously, that affects our staff. It affects our business and their ability to want to be here or not,” he continued, noting that about 10 people who work at Pig and Pickle can be stopped for being Latino under SB 1070, Arizona’s harsh anti-immigration law where, according to the Center for American Progress, “any person of color, or anyone with a foreign accent, can be required to prove their status and be jailed—regardless of whether they are a citizen or an immigrant—until they can do so.”

James Beard-nominated chef Silvana Salcido Esparza, la jefa of four iconic Mexican restaurants including Barrio Cafe in Phoenix, says after Arizona passed SB 1070 in 2010, she started noticing a venomous, racially charged tone when she heard fellow Arizonans say "Mexican." Before, Esparza says, it seemed like talking about Mexican food, culture, and people in Phoenix was joyful.

“The joy would come from a memory of a meal, a drink, or a memory of a trip,” she says. “Then after SB 1070 began, instead of a nice memory it became fear. Then the food part got erased. Then the travel part got erased. Now it’s, ‘You're taking our jobs away’ or ‘you're a rapist’ or whatever Donald Trump says we are.”

An immigrant's hands touches your food from the minute the seed is in the ground, to the harvest, to the movement, to the production, and to even cleaning your freaking plate.

Esparza—who is lauded for her Chiles en Nogada, roasted poblano peppers filled with chicken, apples, pears, pecans, and dried apricots—has been countering SB 1070 and anti-immigrant sentiment by paying homage to her culture through food and art. In response to SB 1070, she started the Calle 16, a mural project located in Phoenix’s 16th street to “build Mexican-American pride” and bring community leaders and artists together.

In the 1990s, when Esparza was an executive chef at Arizona State University, there was an undocumented Mexican man who worked with her on catering projects for 16 years. After SB 1070 was passed, she says he was rounded up and sent back to Mexico.

“He eventually came back, but got caught again,” she said. “He stayed in Mexico. I think he might be in Veracruz.”

Esparza says that SB 1070 and the presence of Arpaio sent waves of chill and terror throughout her community in Phoenix. “Very busy streets became empty. The long lines at Ranch Market, the Mexican store, went down to the point where the store actually filed for bankruptcy,” she explained.

It pains Bosworth to observe Latino and brown-skinned immigrants being targeted by law enforcement in his city. “I very purposefully have a restaurant in Scottsdale, where there aren’t many Black restaurant owners,” he said. “Sometimes, in my own way, I feel like that’s my silent protest [against discrimination].”

Bosworth says that he’s not always overt about his political stance while at Pig and Pickle. “As a restaurant owner, I might lose some business with people because they don’t like what I’m posting [on social media], but so be it.” As a business owner, Cutino says Homeboy’s Hot Sauce hasn’t suffered since he protested the Trump rally.

Thanks to chefs like Esparza and places like the Coronado, a two-year-old vegan-vegetarian restaurant in Phoenix, residents have hubs to turn to for local activism. The Coronado’s owners never miss an opportunity to mobilize the public. When a diner walks into their space, they’ll see a box collecting menstrual products for women in local shelters. On the bulletin board, there are fliers saying that no military recruitment is allowed on site. If Puente, a Phoenix-based grassroots migrant justice organization, wants to host a fundraiser or event, the restaurant gives them the space for free. Last September, the Coronado threw a party with Bazta Arpaio, a People United for Justice campaign against the former sheriff’s policing methods. Currently, nobody at The Coronado makes less than $12 per hour and they’re hoping to raise their baseline wage to $15 as business grows.

“It’s less about it being a restaurant and more about it being a gathering spot,” chef Elle Murtagh says. “As far as it being political, the Coronado is a space to go to exercise ideas or venting about what’s going on in the world.”

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Esparza agrees, and she isn’t scared to risk losing customers for standing up for what she believes in. After closing on Day Without Immigrants last February, Esparza says she received hateful phone calls and death threats. Still, she says she’s not backing down. “Because an immigrant's hands touches your food from the minute the seed is in the ground, to the harvest, to the movement, to the production, and to even cleaning your freaking plate,” she says. “And probably cleaning after you're done digesting that food. So yes, there's politics in our food.”