Life in The Golden Cage: A Philly Chef On What It’s Like Being An Undocumented Immigrant

You wanna come to the barbacoa for the meeting on immigration?

I would man, but I’m in Tejas.

Well, next time! Have fun!

Thanks man. Do you know Dionicio Jimenez and Mike Strauss? I think they’re both there. El Rey Jefe & Taproom on 19th owner.

–Text exchange from November 8th

I spoke with a Philly chef—a friend of mine—after he shared his thoughts and feelings on attending a discussion on immigration hosted by the people at South Philly Barbacoa. The Philadelphia Inquirer has covered how Ben Miller & Cristina Martinez have been trying to build a conversation on immigration within an industry that relies heavily upon immigrant labor—particularly undocumented immigrant labor. As someone who hasn’t always had an enlightened view on the immigration—having grown up in rather uniform Northeast Philly—I wanted to help share the words of someone who’s helped me see the human side of the issue.

Since I couldn’t use his name, his comments are next to words that people could know him by.

Brion: Do people know?
Philadelphian: Nobody knows. I’m still like anonymous which…is fine. Nobody except my friends and some other people, but pretty much nobody. It’s not like I go and start talking to everybody, hey, what’s up, I am….I mean some people, they may figure out, they may not, but they don’t ask me, which is good.

Brion: Describe what it was like going to that meeting and being able to talk openly about it.
Friend: That was crazy because I wasn’t expecting to say anything at all. I was just going over there, see what’s going on, what it’s all about and then I just ended up telling everybody, hey, yes that’s me. I’ve been here for [nearly two decades]…kind of like a golden cage….this is like a golden cage because you have just limited things that you can do. It is a cage for somebody that doesn’t have documents. You cannot do a lot. You cannot travel. You can’t do this and that because [takes a breath]…it may be, I don’t know, something will happen and it’s scary. Scary.


by Cailee Dennis & Jason Schaeffer.

Brion: What were some things you said or heard at this meeting?
Neighbor: I know for a fact that there’s so many people, they are doing their own thing, they are working with independent, big names, and they [the chefs] may know, may not know, but that night, I met a couple chefs, they were just like me, they’ve been chef here and there…things like that. A couple people there, same situation, but trying to figure out how to get papers, just to work.

Brion: You described feeling as though you’re in a golden cage. Is there a feeling as well that you’ve been here so long and you’ve been working your ass off…
Chef: I don’t really think about. I don’t think about it being just working all the time, but sometime I just want to take a vacation and take the bus or take the airplane and just go. Or just rent a car. I don’t have these documents so I can’t even rent a car just to go for a day somewhere. Some days, it is frustrating because I need to go the grocery and I need to bring a lot of stuff and I need a car for a couple of hours, and I can’t do that. Everything that I do has to be public transportation, or [laughs] my bike.

Brion: You’ve been here for nearly two decades. What about the fact that you feel such a member of the South Philly community you live in?
Coworker: I never have any problem with anybody. Somebody being racist with me. Where I live right now, everybody’s cool, everybody says hi and things like that. I never had trouble with anybody.

How does things like the patently stupid, and glaringly false, statements of people like Donald Trump affect you?
Boyfriend: When he say like stupid dumb things like that and another thousand people agree, it’s kind of scary [laughs]. You see, because one person thinks like this about immigrants in general and—from nowhere—while you know there are people who think the same way, and then, couple thousand people are saying things like that, and it’s kind of scary because you never know who are these people. They may be really nice but [uneasy laugh].

Tell me how you’ve become part of South Philly and how you’ve come to love South Philly.
Employee: The first time I got over here, I moved to South Philly and a lot of people, they were always nice. The people who live in South Philly, the Latinos, the Italians—they were nice. And you’d be part of the community, just, I don’t know, cleaning the street with your neighbor or helping somebody move things. So you become part of the community. You become something to the community. Also, they see you and everything that they do, like anybody else.

You mentioned before that you were working with a lawyer in regard to your status.
Cousin: I was working with a couple lawyers. They pretty much told me that I had to wait. You need to wait because nothing is happening.

For a move on amnesty?
Son: For amnesty or something. But it’s been [nearly two decades] and I’m still waiting [laughs].

Is there a reason why you haven’t been able to get a green card or visa in the meantime?
Brother: I don’t know exactly how that works. For some people, it’s easy, for other people, they give you some bullshit. My friend, he was in Mexico and applied for a visa, and two weeks later, the U.S. Embassy called him and said, hey, we want to interview you. Just like that, boom! And then he was here. But for people that were here already, I mean, the way that we come is illegally but it’s not like you’re doing crazy things, bad things.

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