Las Vegas Sun

September 23, 2017

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His dream in reach, an immigrant chef is suddenly unsettled

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Deanna Alejandra Dent / The New York Times

Suny Santana outside the St. Francis restaurant with owner and head chef Aaron Chamberlin, who put Santana in charge of a modern taqueria they are opening together, in Phoenix, Aug. 30, 2017. Santana thrived after receiving temporary permission to live and work in the U.S. through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which could end if Congress takes no action.

PHOENIX — Suny Santana had not been working long as a prep cook at St. Francis, a stylish restaurant in the heart of this city, when his employer learned that he was in the country illegally, brought by his parents from Mexico to the United States as a 12-year-old.

Timing and luck were on Santana’s side: The boss, Aaron Chamberlin, told him he could keep the job if he found a way to legalize his status. Months later, in 2012, the Obama administration began the program known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, giving young immigrants like Santana temporary permission to live and work in the United States.

Santana immediately applied, and thrived. His skills, hunger to learn and determination so impressed Chamberlin that the restaurateur offered to put him in charge of a restaurant. In November, the two men plan to open Taco Chelo, a modern taqueria where Santana, at age 24, would be a partner and the chef de cuisine.

This time, though, the timing is not so good.

Last week, the Trump administration announced that it would end the immigration program in six months unless Congress takes action. Chamberlin says the move will not derail the opening of Taco Chelo, but Santana still worries about the future of their partnership and the life he has built in America.

“I thought, this is it, the end of everything,” he said. “What’s going to happen to me now?”

The restaurant industry is moved by immigrants, including many who are in the country illegally. The Pew Research Center estimated in 2015 that 11 percent of all restaurant and bar employees in the United States were not authorized to live and work here.

They often toil in anonymity, washing dishes, cleaning tables and cooking the food for which others win accolades. The National Restaurant Association’s website describes a symbiotic relationship in which “immigrants gain valuable job experience and immediate access to opportunity,” while restaurateurs have a ready supply of labor.

Anthony Bourdain, the chef and TV star, sees another side to the transaction. “Just about every time I walked into a new kitchen,” he has written on his blog, “it was a Mexican guy who looked after me, had my back, showed me what was what.”

For Santana, that apprenticeship happened in reverse. Chamberlin, a restaurateur born to a Mormon family in suburban Phoenix, showed him the ropes and took the legal risk of helping a young man without immigration papers.

Chamberlin, now 44, hired Santana in late 2011 at St. Francis, which he had just opened in the Uptown neighborhood, home to some of the city’s most innovative restaurants. (Chamberlin has since added another restaurant to his portfolio, Phoenix Public Market Café, and has three more on the way, including Taco Chelo.)

Santana had provided a friend’s name and Social Security number, which were not flagged when the restaurant ran them through E-Verify, an online database that checks the work eligibility of new hires. But as time went by, Santana felt badly about lying, and told Chamberlin that he was not who he claimed to be.

“'Just be honest with me,'” Chamberlin recalled asking him. “'Do you have papers?'”

“I don’t,” Santana said, “but I want to be able to work.”

By then, Santana had put in weeks of hard work, and slashed the prep time for the green chili in half. Chamberlin learned that he had done the type of jobs that Mexican immigrants often do: building homes, installing roof shingles, cleaning pools and landscaping yards.

As a teenager, Santana had sold plastic bottles and aluminum cans he plucked from Dumpsters so he didn’t have to ask his parents for money. At 18, he had graduated from high school and enrolled in the culinary program at a community college, but couldn’t pay the out-of-state tuition that Arizona required of unauthorized immigrants at the time.

“The kid had done everything right,” Chamberlin said. “He was worth fighting for.”

Chamberlin says he briefly considered adopting him, but was unable because Santana was an adult. When the Obama administration started the DACA program in June 2012, he pushed Santana to fill out his application.

Since then, Santana has done a little bit of everything in the kitchen, perfecting the rough skills he learned cooking menudo, posole and picadillo norteño at home with his mother in Phoenix. He has cleaned and washed, chopped, sliced and diced. He has cooked and tweaked recipes, invented some dishes and scrapped others.

He has taken his share of yelling and criticism, and done some yelling and criticizing of his own. “I tell the guys in the kitchen, you’re here to learn, but we’re all here to make money,” said Santana, who is currently the chef de cuisine at St. Francis.

Last winter, Chamberlin asked him what he wanted to do next. “I want to have a taqueria,” Santana replied. Maybe he’d open it with his father, he said, or raise the money and do it on his own.

“I didn’t want to lose him," Chamberlin recalled, “and I honestly didn’t want to have him as my competition.” So he offered to create a taqueria if Santana would agree to be his partner.

The new restaurant’s name is a tribute to Santana’s mother, Consuelo Santana, whose nickname is Chelo. She was raised on a ranch in El Pinal Alto, in the mountains of Nuevo León, Mexico, where she learned to soak and cook wheat in limewater, and then drain, rinse, hull and grind it in a hand-cranked stone mill to make masa. It is an ancient, time-consuming process known as nixtamalization, and it is how Santana plans to make the tortillas at Taco Chelo.

In Mexico, his father, José Martinez, had earned a degree in mechanical engineering. But in Monterrey, the northeastern Mexico city where the family lived, the parents felt there was little future for their three children. They all entered the United States in 2003 using tourist visas, and stayed.

Santana doesn’t take all the credit for his success in America. “God was watching over me,” he said.

Intensely religious, he often starts his days with morning prayers at Iglesia La Luz del Mundo (Light of the World Church), a Christian congregation that is part of one of Mexico’s largest homegrown religious sects. He sings in the choir and cooks for church events.

In May, he married a U.S. citizen, Stephany Delgado; he has been talking to a lawyer about obtaining a green card and eventually becoming a citizen. His DACA permit expires in February, but he plans to apply for a two-year renewal before the March deadline set by the Trump administration. He knows, however, that there is no guarantee that he will secure one, or that the program will still exist.

Last Tuesday, after Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the end of the program, Chamberlin sat down with Santana and four other employees who are also protected by it.

“Having to fight every day just to be here, to prove yourself, that mindset is really going to help you become successful in your lives,” Chamberlin told them. “Let’s all look at it as another challenge and hope we can fix it, or someone else can. Until then, we’ll put our heads down and stay focused.”

Santana is trying to concentrate on the opening of Taco Chelo, in a corner storefront in Roosevelt Row, a downtown area of art galleries and mom-and-pop stores that has been rapidly gentrifying.

The restaurant will have a bar adorned with colorful tiles from Puebla, Mexico. One wall will function as a gallery of artwork by artists from Arizona and Mexico. The design is by Gennaro Garcia, the third partner in the project and a painter, sculptor and woodcarver from the Mexican border city San Luis Río Colorado. (Garcia, 45, also began his life in the United States as an undocumented immigrant. He is now a citizen.)

Santana carries a notebook where he writes the questions he needs answered, and the answers that need remembering. These days, it is full of ideas for his menu and observations about the quality of the service he gets at other restaurants.

He said he wants to make sure that everyone who works and eats at Taco Chelo is treated the same way, “regardless of their accent” or the color of their skin. Often, he said, “I go to restaurants and I notice that I’m not treated the same as other people are.”

Now, at least in his restaurant, “I have a chance to fix it,” he added. “I don’t care who you are. If you’re a client, if you’re eating my food, you’ll have my respect.”