'Activism is our secret spice': South Bronx restaurant turns into soup kitchen

The family-run restaurant, which opened in 2009 and has won Michelin acclaim for its Oaxacan food, has also served as a soup kitchen during the pandemic.
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Natalia Méndez cooks in the kitchen of La Morada, an award winning Mexican restaurant she co-owns with her family in South Bronx, Wednesday Oct. 28, 2020, in New York. After recovering from COVID-19 symptoms, the family raised funds to reopen the restaurant, which they also turned into a soup kitchen serving 650 meals daily.Bebeto Matthews / AP
/ Source: AP (Associated Press)

The special dish at La Morada, a small Mexican restaurant in the Bronx, varies from day to day: Perhaps it’s enfrijoladas, handmade tortillas covered with black bean sauce and pico de gallo. Or beef with a side salad.

One thing doesn’t change: It’s free.

The family-run restaurant, which opened in 2009 and has won Michelin acclaim for its Oaxacan food, has also served as a soup kitchen during the pandemic. In addition to serving paying customers, it makes about 650 meals a day for the unemployed, New Yorkers who live without gas and can’t cook, older adults or the disabled.

A worker lifts a box containing prepared meals at La Morada, an award-winning Mexican restaurant in South Bronx, Oct. 28, 2020, in New York. The restaurant became a soup kitchen during the pandemic and is currently making about 650 meals a day for the unemployed, the poor and New Yorkers who live without gas and can't cook.Bebeto Matthews / AP

The Mexican owners of the restaurant are activists who speak up in defense of immigrants without authorization to live in the U.S. — a sign, “No Deportations,” hangs behind the door.

They describe the soup kitchen as fulfilling work.

“We always say that activism is our secret spice, so I feel like it was just very natural for us to serve the community with what we have,” said Yajaira Saavedra, 32, co-owner of the restaurant with her parents. “It also goes back to our Indigenous roots when we all pitched in, gathered small ingredients and made a big pot as a meal.”

Yahaira Saavedra, right, co-owner of the Mexican restaurant La Morada, and volunteer Dan Zimberg, left, cross a street pushing a trolley load of boxed meals prepared at the South Bronx restaurant, Oct. 28, 2020, in New York. After a fundraising campaign during the coronavirus pandemic, Saavedra and her parents transformed the restaurant into a soup kitchen, serving 650 meals daily.Bebeto Matthews / AP

The Bronx is among the areas hardest hit by the virus. When La Morada’s soup kitchen opened in April, people lined up in the street and 200 soups were gone in less than an hour, the family said.

“We realized the necessity was huge. The next day, without thinking, we cooked double,” said Saavedra’s mother, Natalia Méndez.

Volunteer Dolly Caulderon, center, prepares to hand out boxed meals prepared at the South Bronx restaurant La Morada, Oct. 28, 2020, in New York. After a fundraising campaign during the coronavirus pandemic, La Morada, an award winning Mexican restaurant, reopened and now also functions as a soup kitchen, serving 650 meals daily.Bebeto Matthews / AP

The family was sickened with COVID-19 symptoms early in the pandemic, and had to close the restaurant for a month. When they reopened — with help from an online crowdfunding campaign — they started cooking for the poor, as well.

Their requests for emergency federal small business loans had been rejected due to their immigration status. The Small Business Administration says applicants for small business loans must be U.S. citizens or “qualified aliens,” which includes immigrants lawfully admitted for permanent residence.

Volunteers unload boxed meals prepared at the South Bronx restaurant La Morada, Oct. 28, 2020, in New York. After a fund raising campaign during the coronavirus pandemic, La Morada, an award winning Mexican restaurant, was reopened and now also functions as a soup kitchen, serving 650 meals daily.Bebeto Matthews / AP

Saavedra is a beneficiary of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, which gives young immigrants who were brought to the country as children but never obtained legal residency the right to work and shields them from deportation.

Her parents are living in the country without authorization, having crossed the Sonoran Desert in 1992. Saavedra and brother Marco followed a year later with relatives. Marco, who also works in the restaurant, applied for asylum last year.

Natalia Méndez cooks a meal with pork chops, Jalapenos and cactus plants in the kitchen of La Morada, an award winning Mexican restaurant she co-owns with her family in South Bronx, Oct. 28, 2020, in New York. After recovering from COVID-19 symptoms, the family raised funds to reopen the restaurant, which they also turned into a soup kitchen serving 650 meals daily.Bebeto Matthews / AP

Before the pandemic, La Morada was a community book exchange center and had named a poet in residence. Images of protests and of immigrants demanding an end to deportations of family members decorate the restaurant’s purple walls.

Yajaira Saavedra place stickers reading "La Morada Bx Mutual Aid Kitchen" on food boxes in her restaurant being prepared for distribution in her South Bronx neighborhood, Oct. 28, 2020, in New York. Saavedra, 32, and her parents Natalia Méndez and Antonio Saavedra own La Morada, an award winning Mexican restaurant that reopened and also turned its operation into to a soup kitchen during the coronavirus pandemic, serving 650 meals daily.Bebeto Matthews / AP

Today, volunteers and local service organizations, churches and businesses help distribute the food and donate ingredients, and a Brooklyn nonprofit, Rethink Food, provides key funds. The food is delivered to communities in need and to community fridges, a network of over a dozen refrigerators on New York sidewalks.

The soup kitchen runs Tuesday through Friday. On Mondays, Méndez and several helpers do prep work, cleaning and chopping lettuce, garlic, onions, tomatoes and other ingredients.

Volunteer Dawn Cherry, center, hands out boxed meals prepared at the South Bronx restaurant La Morada, Oct. 28, 2020, in New York. After a fund raising campaign during the coronavirus pandemic, La Morada, an award winning Mexican restaurant, reopened and now also functions as a soup kitchen, serving 650 meals daily.Bebeto Matthews / AP

Volunteers come and go throughout the day, grabbing boxes of food to distribute. With the help of small local grants, the restaurant has even hired a few new employees.

“It is mostly the community pitching in and friends and allies just saying, ‘We are going to do this, we are going to fight together and survive,’” Saavedra said.