Chef News

Silvana Salcido Esparza On Immigration, Public Backlash and Death Threats

Chef Silvana Salcido Esparza.
Chef Silvana Salcido Esparza. Jacob Tyler Dunn

"I received hate, and even death, voicemail and letters at every restaurant," Silvana Salcido Esparza told New Times recently in an e-mail.

The popular James Beard-nominated chef (who operates four restaurants in Phoenix, including Barrio Cafe) was describing the backlash that she and her staff faced recently after participating in last month's Day Without Immigrants protest.

The Day Without Immigrants, held on February 16, was a grassroots day of protest that called on immigrants — and those who stand in solidarity with immigrants — to refrain from going to work and school, purchasing goods, or dining out.

The protest was intended to highlight the economic and social impact that immigrants contribute to the U.S. economy and culture.

Immigration is an issue that underpins much of the food industry in the U.S., which relies on both documented and undocumented immigrant labor for economic survival. President Trump's hard-line immigration policies have galvanized the food world in ways unprecedented in recent memory. (Even the upper-crust South Beach Food Festival, held recently in Miami Beach, included a panel on the topic of immigration).

It's not so surprising, then, that restaurateurs, chefs, and food-service workers were a major part of last month's Day Without Immigrants protest. Most notably, celebrity chef José Andrés closed most of his D.C.-area restaurants. Rick Bayless, the Chicago chef and television personality, also closed several of his restaurants.

In metro Phoenix, though, the Day Without Immigrants was mostly business as usual, and most of the city's prominent restaurateurs and chefs have stayed out of the political fray.

Esparza has never been shy about voicing an opinion, though. Immigration is an issue she cares deeply about.

"I have to recognize and acknowledge that there are dozens of immigrant hands touching the food I serve," she says. "From the fields to the kitchen, chances are the food you eat was touched by immigrant hands. That says everything for me."

For many familiar with the chef, her participation in the Day Without Immigrants was not surprising. She was an outspoken critic of Arizona's SB 1070 immigration law a few years ago.

She says that the "Barrio familia was nothing but supportive in our decision to close for a Day Without Immigrants."

But not everyone was so supportive.

Not long after announcing her restaurants' closures on social media, the angry posts, letters, and phone calls started to roll in.

Esparza says that even the Facebook page for the satellite airport location of Barrio Cafe received "hate" posts.

But despite receiving angry calls and what she describes as death threats, she says she would make the same decision again.

"Sí, I would do it again," Esparza says. "I sincerely doubt that the guy that said that I should die meant that he was going to be the one to make it happen. It was more like 'you should die,' and therefore seems like empty threats."

Esparza is one of the most prominent pro-immigrant voices in the local food and business community, and one of the few that seems willing to risk alienating potential customers.

But she wishes more business owners had joined her in showing public support for immigrant workers last month.

“I will be honest,” she says. “The lady with a thick accent that said that she was looking to thank places in Arizona that closed, but only found us and a couple of smaller places, her gratitude gave me strength.

"But it left me thinking of how sad it was that not too many businesses closed their doors in Arizona, the hotbed of immigration, the home of SB 1070," she says.

"Did we forget? Why didn't restaurants who make their living off the food that comes from another country (probably not their country) close? I really thought that there would be more restaurants closing in support."

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Patricia Escárcega was Phoenix New Times' food critic.