Many Philly restaurant kitchens are staffed primarily with Latino immigrants

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Updated 4:30 p.m.

Latino immigrants who work in some of Philly’s most notable restaurants are planning to join a nationwide action scheduled for Thursday, Feb. 16, Billy Penn has learned.

Referred to as “Un Dia Sin Inmigrante” (“A Day Without Immigrants”), the event is a walkout and one-day work stoppage designed to highlight the contribution immigrants make to the local and US economy.

Local participants are expected to include both documented and undocumented workers in the food industry — Billy Penn has heard that staff at Le Virtu, Zavino, Tredici, Sampan and some Starr and Garces Group restaurants will be taking part — as well as construction and janitorial workers.

“It’s not a strike,” said Carlos Aparicio, who oversees three Philly restaurants and one in DC as corporate chef for the Zavino Restaurant Group. “It’s not coming to work to make an impact and show how important the immigrant community is to the whole country.”

He believes a majority of his immigrant staff will stay home from work on Thursday, although the decision wasn’t easy.

“They don’t know what to do because they respect their job, and they don’t want to make their source of income suffer,” Aparicio said. He confirmed that he had discussed the issue with Zavino owner Greg Dodge. “The message that I gave [our staff] was we believe and support them.”

Will his restaurants close? “It all depends,” he said. “If we only have two workers, we might trim the menu. If we lose a day, that’s around $10,000 in sales, so that’s definitely an impact.”

Stephen Starr, on hearing of the plan, told Billy Penn that he would not punish or fire any workers who participated. “It’s sad that it has come to this,” he said. “These are really dedicated, hard working people who make America better. They should not have to live in fear.”

The day of action does not appear to have a central organizer, but instead has spread organically via social media and word of mouth.

“People had been floating this idea for months, what would happen if they all stayed home from work,” said Desi Burnette, statewide coordinator for a coalition called Movement for Immigrant Leaders in Pennsylvania (MILPA).

Then “somebody made a meme, and this was the first date that kind of stuck.”

The national meme centers around an uncredited poster with the message “Mr. President, without us and our contribution, this country will be paralyzed.” It calls for immigrants (both documented and undocumented) and their supporters to refrain from going to work or opening their businesses, to keep their kids out of school and to avoid shopping or buying things online on February 16. People in cities from DC to Chicago have indicated plans to participate. There is also a second, similar action planned for May 1.

Burnette noted that addition to the hostility toward immigrants at the federal level, there are threats at the state level.

A Pennsylvania-specific flyer circulating on Facebook makes mention of SB10 and HB14, the bills pending in the state Senate and House that would make it illegal for Philly and other Pa. cities to maintain their “sanctuary” status and force local officials to comply with ICE deportation requests.

“[The legislature] comes back into session on March 13,” Burnett said, “so we’re encouraging people to use the day to organize and fight back against those bills.”

“We’re closing El Compadre in solidarity,” said Ben Miller, co-owner with his wife Cristina Martinez of South Philly Barbacoa and that restaurant in the Ninth Street Italian Market. Billy Penn has also heard several other of the Mexican restaurants populating that strip will also shut down for the day.

So will some Center City restaurants. “We have chosen to close for lunch at all establishments within the Schulson Collective to support this campaign that is set to occur on Thursday,” said Michael Schulson and Nina Tinari-Schulson, whose Philly venues include Sampan, Double Knot, Harp & Crown and the seasonal Independence Beer Garden. “These are dedicated and hard-working individuals who make this great country better and we unequivocally support them.”

At Le Virtu on East Passyunk, where the entire kitchen staff under chef Joe Cicala is made up of immigrants from Mexico, co-owners Francis Cratil Cretarola and Cathy Lee are generally supportive. Their employees know it — which is why they gave fair warning.

“[Our sous chef] Poli came to us and asked how we felt about the staff taking part in the protest. It was cool of him to ask,” Cratil Cretarola said. “Le Virtu won’t be closed, but we’ve capped our reservations at 18, which Joe will handle solo. No walk-ins. Of course we support this.”

Via a spokesperson, Jose Garces also voiced his support. “We recognize the immigrant community is an essential part of the hospitality industry,” said the celebrity restaurateur, whose Philly spots include Amada, Tinto, Village Whiskey, Garces Trading Company, Distrito and Volver. “We support the right for hospitality industry employees to have their voices heard. We are in close communication with any employees who plan to participate Thursday and doing our best to mitigate against any potential impact to our guests’ experience. We will not take any adverse action with any employee who chooses to participate.”

Aparicio, of Zavino, predicts that many restaurants will be affected.

“Seventy-five percent of the immigrant community in Philly works in the restaurant industry,” he said. “It’s a shame that more people with power and money haven’t come out to defend the rights of their workers.”

Many area immigrants also work in the construction, janitorial or landscaping industries, said Carmen Guerrero, an Norristown-based activist and co-founder of the Coalicion Fortaleza Latina PA.

“We are inviting everyone to not go to school or work, don’t buy anything, stay at home, post messages on Facebook in support, also send messages to Trump about what we do,” Guerrero said.

She added: “The invitation to join in the action is not just for immigrants, it’s for everybody. Because this is an immigrant nation.”

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Danya Henninger

Danya Henninger is director of Billy Penn at WHYY, where she oversees the team, all editorial decisions, and all revenue generation — including the...