A few weeks ago, I went to Jackson Heights, Queens to watch the World Cup. My friends and I packed into a booth at Pollos A La Brasa Mario, one of the neighborhood’s many Colombian restaurants, to see the Selección Colombia take on Poland. Everyone, myself included, was wearing a Colombia jersey -- most of them, like mine, were knockoffs. Every TV in the place was set to Telemundo. No one was speaking English.
It’s hard to overstate how much restaurants like this mean to me. I spent the hour-long journey there reading about the child separation crisis at the border and the president’s plans to deport as many people as possible. My mood instantly brightened once I saw the menu, which was full of food I grew up eating but never learned how to cook. The waitress addressed everyone at our table in Spanish, even my gringo friend who was just tagging along and had no idea what she was saying. The waitress called me “amor,” even though we’d never met and it’s possible we’ll never cross paths again. Everyone was happy, even though Colombia was playing like shit. It was a brief respite from every terrible thing that’s happening in this country. For a couple of hours there, it felt like I wasn’t even in this country.
I’m not saying that I stepped into a restaurant, ate a bowl of oxtail sancocho -- a hearty stew with potatoes, plantain, and the aforementioned oxtail -- and forgot every piece of bad news the world was churning up. But for the 95-or-so minutes of the game and the time it took us to get our checks, I remembered it’s still possible to feel good about the world. And I kind of felt like I was at a restaurant on the beach in Cartagena, where for less than $30 you can get a bowl of sancocho, a fried red snapper -- with the head still on it, of course -- and a basket of fried plantains.
Of course I’m going to feel transported by the food and the sounds and sport of my country of birth. As an immigrant, I try never to take that scene for granted -- certainly not at this time of year. As a journalist covering immigration, I’m aware of how dismal this national moment feels, especially to the two-thirds of Americans who oppose splitting up the migrant families arriving at the Mexican border. As birthdays go, this one could definitely be more festive.
So for this Fourth of July, if you want to support immigrant communities? Support immigrant restaurateurs, the smaller the better. Don’t be like Kirstjen Nielsen and go to a Mexican restaurant owned by Todd English, of all people (also, don’t be like Kirstjen Nielsen, period). Oh, and tip well. Some of that money goes to the busboys and the cooks and all the people whose work you don’t see. You’ll be doing more than you may realize -- and, to boot, getting a great meal out of it.
In a political time, even food is politics
Jackson Heights is more than Colombian restaurants. It’s one of the most diverse neighborhoods in New York City, and thus, in the world. Nearly 60 percent of its 166,000 residents were born in another country. A 2011 report by the New York Daily News found that immigrants from 51 countries live in the three-block span from 83rd to 86th streets. Some experts estimate that people in this neighborhood speak some 167 languages.
Earlier this year, United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, the agency that handles immigrant affairs like naturalization, removed a section about fulfilling “America’s promise as a nation of immigrants” from its mission statement. Even if we’re no longer a nation of immigrants at the policy level, Jackson Heights still is. As immigrant communities have increasingly come under attack by the federal government, the people who call these ethnic enclaves home now find themselves at risk. In turn, local restaurants and bars, places that were once simply reminders of a country left behind, have become hubs of public life, of safety.