An American Story: Chef Dionicio Jimenez’s Journey To Citizenship

Were you doing any Mexican cooking or is that something you picked up from home?
I never did Mexican food back in Mexico. I did everything else. I think the most experience I have is in Italian food. I learned a lot from Marc. He’s a really good teacher. For Mexican food, there’s what I picked up growing up, and when I go back, I travel a lot. Of course, I like Mexican food, but I don’t like the city food. Small towns, country and shore food. Everything fresh—like ceviche. That’s how I like it. When I go back now, I don’t go to the fancy restaurants. I go to the market. You buy a pound of tortillas and a pound of meat from across the street and somebody cooks it for you—I think that’s the best food you’ll ever have. You go to the mercato, there’ll be fresh tortillas and avocados here and here and on the other side there’s a guy selling cecina or some other type of meat with a charcoal grill set up on the side. They have all the ingredients you need. Mexico City, Puebla, the small towns–the markets are everywhere. It’s the best food you’ll ever have.

I’ve read about Marc having this incredible group sitting around a round table in the restaurant—you, Mike Solomonov, Justino Jimenez, Jeffrey Michaud…
At that point, it was fun because Marc started doing tasting menus—around 2002 maybe. So you’re at this round table in the dining room—Marc, Jeff Benjamin, Michaud, and everyone working in the kitchen—right by the kitchen and everyone is having some wine, talking about the menu. It was a good experience for all of us. There was so much potential because Marc was pushing everyone to be better every day. Yeah, we’re gonna start doing everyday tasting menus and you’re going to help me do it. He encouraged and pushed us to give him ideas. You could see that everyone was working really hard to be the best.

What was the date you got your citizenship?
July 10th [smiles]. That was kind of hard. I started my application in 2000. At that point there was amnesty announced for those that came before. I was kind of scared to ask Marc about it. I was thinking what if he says no. I mean, he was not going to pay for anything—I was going to cover everything. He just needed to sign papers, stuff like that, saying I was working there. Luckily, he did and we started working on it.

But was there a fear of losing your job?
It was there. It’s your employer and you don’t know exactly what is going on, what could happen. It could go both ways.

So it was a 15 year journey. Do you remember when you started the application?
It was around summer. I think it was somewhere between May and July. I contacted a lawyer and she gave me all the paperwork and advice I needed. At some point, Marc has to go with me to meet and talk with the lawyer. I never went to City Hall. I went to the lawyer and she took care of everything. You need to sign this and this—she filled out all the applications. That’s how it happened. Always, you scared. You hear from a lot of organizations, be careful, there’s a lot of scamming, people taking money from people trying to get papers. It happens all the time with lawyers—they never do anything to get you your papers. It finally happened for me, but it took me 15 years. Only for my green card, it took 6 years. I got that in 2006. You file for everything but it’s step by step.

How did you get here?
I came over here with nothing, like everybody else.

How then?
Walking. Just walking.

Describe that.
It’s tough. I was living in Mexcio City. From Mexico City, I flew to Tijuana. From Tijuana, I took a bus to Nogales Sinora. Then from there, we stayed in a house—with a lot of people from Mexico, Central America, South America, a lot of people doing the same thing—for two days. We had to hide the whole time we were close to the border. They had their process.

What about the people you were traveling with? Restaurant workers like you? Carpenters?
Everything. Everybody was trying to make a better life for their families. Everybody’s history is really hard, some more sad than other ones. You see people who had been trying to cross the border for months or even over a year but they can’t. Sometimes luck means a lot. People who can’t make it, they stay working along the border because they sell everything they have to make it here and they don’t have anywhere else to go.

After the second night, we were told, you have to go. We’re going to cross.

Then they drive us to where we’re going to cross the border. It’s a shitty truck. Falling apart. 15 people. One on top of the other. We crossed to the part of the desert close to Calexico [CA; a 5-6.5 hour drive depending on the route]. We walked for three nights.

from July 10th, 2015. courtesy of Dionicio Jimenez.

from July 10th, 2015. courtesy of Dionicio Jimenez.

What are you carrying with you?
Water. A little food. You have to carry two, three gallons of water. At one point, somebody drops water and you pick it up. We walked into third day, having been told that somebody’s waiting for us there to take us to California. What happened was that the border patrol was waiting there for us. That was the hard part—because you’re walking all that time and you think you’re making it and the border patrol is there waiting for you. I think the border patrol scared them [the people he was supposed to meet] away.

What was it like traveling through the dessert?
We were sleeping during the day and walking at nighttime. It was hard because you couldn’t see where you were going. No light. No nothing. A lot of cactus. Snakes.

How do you sleep in the dessert during the day?
Under a rock or under a tree—you find it [the shade]. You find where you’re going to pass the day and you stay there. We started late afternoon. The second day we slept a bit and started walking late afternoon. The next day, we didn’t sleep. We kept walking into late morning. We didn’t want to sleep because people were there waiting for us and we knew we were getting closer. And then we got picked up by the border patrol after walking all through the night and into the late morning.
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