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Their restaurant closed because of COVID-19. For an undocumented family, savings is their only safety net.
La Morada was born in the last recession, in the spring of 2009.
“We’ve kind of already been tried by fire,” said Marco Saavedra, 30, who manages the small Oaxacan restaurant in the South Bronx that his parents started, known for its moles and as a hub of community activism.
But that doesn’t mean they were prepared for this. Not for the whole of New York City to essentially shut down, not for their foot traffic and their take-out business to dry up almost completely.
“This scenario, it’s unprecedented,” Saavedra said. Almost impossible to imagine, especially for his parents, who have invested so much in the restaurant.
“It’s just very demoralizing. Because they were willing to work till they got an emergency notice that we had to start shutting down.”
But as the virus and layoffs and closures spread, their sales dropped precipitously.
“Whenever we would be open, it would be like 20% of our normal sales for the day,” Saavedra said. They kept doing take out at first, trying to see if they could make that work, but the numbers were just so low that eventually they made the only decision there was to make — they closed. Completely.
“It was a no-brainer,” he said. “It just wasn’t profitable for us to remain open.”
Still, it’s tough. The entire family works at the restaurant — Saavedra, both of his sisters, both of his parents. All of them, except his youngest sister, are undocumented, something they’ve been open about publicly for a long time. On La Morada’s website, they describe the restaurant as “undocumented family-owned and operated.” Both Saavedra and his sister, Yajaira, are DREAMERS and activists. And over the years, the family has turned the restaurant into a hub of social justice activism in the community.
“As undocumented folks, we knew that we never really have safety nets. We won’t have Social Security when we retire,” Saavedra said. “We won’t, even though we pay our taxes … receive the $1,200 check.”
They also won’t be able to file for unemployment, or for a small business loan from the new federal Paycheck Protection Program to keep the restaurant afloat. They, and millions like them, won’t get any financial help at all.
“It’s gonna be hard,” Saavedra said. “Thankfully we do have savings. Just because, as undocumented folks, my parents were working basically 80 hours a week since the business opened for the past 10 years, and I’ve been working 60 hours a week since I joined them six years ago.”
Working so many hours all those years, they never had much time to spend money. They never took a vacation. All they did was save.
They knew, always, that they had to be their own safety net.
“We have to make sure that the years that we’re putting into now, like, that’s our retirement plan,” Saavedra said.
It’s also now their cushion to survive the next few months with no income.
“It’s the first vacation we’ve had in, like, a decade,” he said. “It’s enjoyable to have rest, but I think it also just feels so weird because we’re just so accustomed to 60 hours is the norm, and 80 hours for my parents is the norm, that I feel like our bodies are not accustomed to this. So it’s kind of hard, but it helps that as a family we’re so close knit that we entertain each other and stress each other out, but also rely on each other.”
But this is all coming at a particularly tricky time — their lease for La Morada is up in June. So they are simultaneously trying to figure out what to do about paying rent while they’re closed and negotiate a lease extension.
“We want to keep on paying rent even though we’re closed in good faith that we’ll get a lease renewal,” Saavedra said they’ve told the landlord. Because long term, his feeling is, what’s a few months of rent compared to another five or ten years of income and job security?
If the landlord won’t renew their lease, though, the calculus is different.
“Hopefully he can come around,” Saavedra said. “Because obviously, I think everyone knows the restaurant industry is gonna be hit hard, but all industries across the board especially in New York City, and I think it will also be hard for him to find someone else to lease it.”
For now, they’re still going back and forth. It’s a stressful dance. Saavedra doesn’t know, yet, what’s going to happen.
“Ideally we do want to continue with the restaurant just because my parents’ life savings went into it,” he said. “Thankfully we’ve been doing well these past few years, but I mean, they did put in so much work into it that we wouldn’t just want this to be that last chapter of it.”
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