By Marisel Salazar
In honor of Hispanic Heritage Month, Zagat Stories asked Latinx chefs from across the United States about their experiences being Hispanic in the restaurant industry, how it has shaped them, and what needs work.
Chef Grace Ramirez was born in Miami and raised in Venezuela. She moved to New York at age 24, producing and directing for MTV and Nickelodeon as well as working on Throwdown with Bobby Flay on Food Network. She joined hurricane relief efforts in Haiti, Puerto Rico, and Venezuela, and she is currently working with World Central Kitchen, Nuestros Pequeños Hermanos, World Child Cancer, and Wellness in the Schools. She’s the author of La Latina and The 5-Ingredient Electric Pressure Cooker Cookbook.
Latinxs are the workforce of the country. We are essential. Early on during coronavirus, who was distributing food in the market, who was getting your delivery? Latinxs. We were exposed a lot to the virus. I would see it with my own eyes, especially when I was at the market. We are at risk.
I work with World Central Kitchen distributing meals to the community. My lines in Queens, the Bronx, and Harlem are predominantly minorities—Latinxs and African Americans. In Queens, the lines were so insane. They were mostly from the Latinx community and the people who live in Queens are the restaurant workforce. Seeing them without a job because they can’t come back to work is crazy. They came, rain or shine, every day in line to get that food. Even being in the line to get food is exposing them to coronavirus.
I had coronavirus very early on. I was supposed to have an insane year traveling the world doing social work and mentoring from January to September. When I came back to New York City, the coronavirus had started. I got sick early on in March.
I came from Rwanda to Oaxaca via Qatar. “There’s no way I didn’t have coronavirus,” I thought to myself. I started feeling really sick, more than a cold—really achy and exhausted, and I hardly ever get that level of exhaustion. I went to get tested, especially because I have asthma.
I was sick with coronavirus for 20 days. Then I got called to work with World Central Kitchen in New York City. I was coordinating the logistics to make meals from 500 to 100,000. But I was delirious, sick on my bed trying to coordinate this thing. I couldn’t help the Latinx community by going out then at that time, but I had to do what I could in any way, shape, or form.
When everything started shutting down, all I could think about were my line cooks, servers, dishwashers. They are mostly Latinx. I had moments where I needed to lay down because I was stressed because I would pass out from what was going on.
Latinxs are essential. Look at it from the whole food chain—Latinxs are the growers and harvesters. We work in the fields and supermarkets, we are cooking and distributing food. Latinxs are the food chain. I understand that at a minimum life has to go on. But if no one is working, how are we going to eat? And on the other hand, Latinxs are forced to work despite the dangerous conditions. My team said to me, “No matter what, we have to work—or else our families are going to starve.”
The Latinxs waiting in line for meals from World Central Kitchen say, “If it wasn’t for you guys, I wouldn’t be eating. I get in the line at 5 a.m. so I can get a meal and a farmer’s box, because I’m in trouble. My restaurant closed, my kids are not going to school anymore, so they aren’t getting lunch.”
Coronavirus is the universe telling us something. For me, I work on projects that I get compensated for, and then I balance it out by doing a social project. It’s what keeps me sane and grounded—giving back is my fuel. The struggles that I see and feel within the Latinx community keep me going, because it is so daunting. To have so many doors closed in your face, and so few seats at the table. It’s not a question of whether or not I’m going to feed the Latinx community. It’s that I have to do it.
I went to culinary school 10 years ago, and Hispanic women have come a long way. There were hardly any females in the kitchen and hardly any Latinx chefs that were leads then. Things have changed, especially when you have a Mexican woman like Daniela Soto-Innes as the World’s Best Female Chef by the World’s Best 50 Restaurants. But it’s still a lot harder for us in all aspects of life in this country, unfortunately. You see more of Latinxs being celebrated, but I think we still have a long way to go.
I used to work at MTV, and I always remember this moment with Jennifer Lopez. I asked her once, “Do you ever feel stereotyped?” and she replied, “I know the stereotypes are out there, and yes I’ve been stereotyped, but I don’t believe in stereotypes.”
Stereotypes are out there. But we have to internally shift. Hay que creérsela. We have to change the narrative. We have to know our power. I am working with the voting movement She Se Puede with Eva Longoria and America Ferrera on doing just that.
Our vote as Latina females can change the election if we understand our power. But we don’t even register to vote or go to vote. Why? Because we don’t think we are good enough. We don’t believe in our power. We are always doubting, putting ourselves down, because some of us have no education and we don’t feel good enough. When we understand our power, we can change things.
Of course I’ve been bullied, stereotyped, and harassed in the kitchen. But once I understood my power, everything changed. I was the only person in many kitchens that could speak both Spanish and English. I can speak to my line cooks and prep cooks and lovingly to my dishwasher in Spanish, and communicate with my head chef in English. I can be a voice to my Latinx community and try to have a fairer, better kitchen, and create a less toxic environment. I saw myself as a United Nations sort of person between my workers and my bosses—and the kitchens I was in changed for the better.
I went to a traditional French culinary school. There was lots of yelling in the kitchen. Everyone was treated poorly. I was not okay with this. If you learn to be that way, then you will continue to be that way, because that’s what you’ve learned. I don’t want to be treated this way, so I’m not going to treat others this way.
For example, when I worked at Eataly, my superiors were all non-Hispanic males. I was the only female. I knew I needed to be a voice to these workers in the kitchen and make them understand how important they are, and that it is not okay to be treated like shit. They are not desechables, or recyclable—they are essential. But I would see their shame because they didn’t speak English, and because let’s face it, most of these people are undocumented.
I come from a strong line of proud Latina women. I knew I was in a privileged position to have a strong voice, papeles, and an education. But I can understand why a lot of Latinos take shit because they are afraid they are going to get fired, or are undocumented and are providing for a family.
I’ve been told many times that I’m “too Latin,” but I think it’s so funny. I’ve turned those comments around, and use them as fuel to keep going and to be actually even more Latin and to celebrate my culture. What does that even mean to be less Latin?
We must be the change we want to see. We Latinx can’t demand respect if we don’t respect ourselves and in our homes. You can’t go home and treat your family poorly and expect to be treated fairly by others. First and foremost, we need to take responsibility for ourselves. This creates a ripple effect.
I have to lead by example, and I have to be the change that I want to see at every moment so that things can change. This virus is teaching us we need to be more united to move forward. Everyone is affected by the virus. We must be more united. As Latinxs, it starts with our leaders. Our leaders can be better leaders. Educate your children. Working internally, we have to shift to believe that we are not minorities, but how essential we are. We shouldn’t be ashamed, but really proud of who we are and the value that we have to this country and economy.