Last year, Jessie Marrero and Lou Bernard quietly celebrated Hispanic Heritage Month, which spans from Sept. 15 to Oct. 15. The general managers of Qui Qui and Roy Boys, respectively, used their social media platforms to highlight their Hispanic colleagues in the hospitality industry, but kept it limited in deference to ongoing Black Lives Matter demonstrations. This year, they had greater ambitions.
D.C. restaurant workers came together to mark Hispanic Heritage Month by making specialty cocktails and offering food specials throughout the month. To cap things off, they’re throwing a fiesta at Roy Boys in Shaw on Oct. 13. Highlighting Hispanic employees’ contributions to the D.C. dining scene remained a focus, but they also wanted to share more Latin cuisines with District diners and create a space to gather.
Bars participating in the Oct. 13 fiesta include Espita, Allegory, Never Looked Better, and The Mirror. A bartender from each location is crafting a cocktail showcasing their Hispanic heritage. James Lanfranchi of Never Looked Better will serve a spirit-forward cocktail called “Nelumbos” with Dominican rum, while Oaxacan-born Daniel Sánchez will make “A Tale of Two Cities” at Espita with either mezcal or gin. The fiesta starts at 4 p.m. No tickets necessary.
Hispanic restaurant employees also paused to take stock of what they survived over the past 18 months—from cooking becoming lethal to staffing crises, violent diners, absent transportation, grief, and shifting mandates. Some couldn’t qualify for unemployment benefits and faced food insecurity.
“We’re all talking about [the] food and beverage industry and how a lot of us suffered,” says Qui Qui chef and owner Ismael Mendez. “But a lot of us didn’t look at the people who were behind the scenes. They had it way worse, honestly.”
Marrero and Bernard have long wanted to shine a light on Hispanic workers in diner-facing positions at both high-end restaurants and neighborhood bars. “People forget that Hispanics do just as much in ‘front of the house,’” Marrero says. “I want people to see that we’ve been serving you this entire time and you may not have noticed.” Marrero is the granddaughter of Puerto Rican and Dominican immigrants and Bernard immigrated from Bolivia.
Showcasing them matters, Marrero says, because bringing greater visibility to their work could inspire others to grow and take on new roles in the restaurant and not feel pigeon-holed into working either in the kitchen or as support staff.
Immigrants fill many critical roles. “Hispanics do the majority of [work],” Mendez says. “They deliver food, they’re in the kitchen, they’re dishwashers, they work at the laundromats, dry cleaning. They’re the backbone.”
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Current Population Survey, there were nearly 1.9 million foreign-born workers in the accommodation and food services industry, a number which doesn’t include the adjacent industries Mendez refers to. Some are still reeling from losing their jobs or experiencing a reduction in hours. “People that have worked for major companies or companies for a long time, they feel betrayed in a sense,” he says.
For many denied unemployment benefits because of their immigration status, the pandemic was devastating. Restaurants like Succotash in Penn Quarter donated meals to unemployed restaurant workers, but Bernard says some Spanish speakers missed these opportunities, especially if they weren’t on social media.
Some started cottage industries to stay afloat. Margarita Crespo, a sous-chef at Roy Boys before the pandemic, began selling tacos like her mother made in Guerrero, Mexico. They were simple and something she didn’t notice others selling in the area unlike the pan dulce pastries she first considered. She considered the business a success after bringing in between $600 and $800 on weekends from customers.
Crespo advertised the pop-up on Facebook. It went so well that Roy Boys incorporated her tacos into a rebrand. Demand was slacking for their then oyster-focused menu and after a co-worker tried her tacos, she proposed a menu change to management and arranged a tasting. The restaurant appointed her head chef, and today, next to the Roys Boys sign, there’s another for Rita’s Tacos.
Crespo will serve her tacos at the fiesta on Oct. 13, alongside dishes from a few others. The Commodore’s head chef Noah Ramirez plans to make fried plantains and smoked beans—a Southern twist on the meals he had during summers spent with family outside of San Miguel, El Salvador. A number of Salvadoran-inspired specials have also made their way onto Commodore’s menu.
Like Mendez, Ramirez says he joined the festivities to share new dishes with D.C. and to show support for unemployed and underemployed kitchen workers. Some of the proceeds from the fiesta will go to CASA de Maryland, an “immigrant and Latino advocacy organization.”
In addition to Qui Qui’s Puerto Rican fare, Mendez serves rotating Mexican and Salvadoran specials at his Shaw restaurant. His mother is Mexican and one of his staff members is Salvadoran. For the fiesta, the team plans to make pernil (Puerto Rican pork shoulder) and pupusas.
Marrero hopes to draw a range of people, from those familiar to those curious. That’s what happened at Casa Kantuta—a Bolivian pop-up Bernard helped run in August that was packed nightly. Kantuta brought the Hispanic community together while simultaneously introducing people to Bolivian culture.
Despite making it through the first 18 months of the pandemic, and inspiring stories like Crespo’s, memories of the darkest months haven’t been wiped away. Some Hispanic restaurant workers are still looking for recognition for perseverance and willingness to keep working in dangerous situations. “It made a big difference that we never left our jobs,” Sánchez says. Without us, he adds, “everything falls apart.”
Correction: This story initially misspelled Jesse Marrero’s last name.