Photos by Charles Shan Cerrone.
This piece is part of the new DrexelNow series showcasing "A Day in the Class" for some of Drexel University's most interesting and impactful courses.
Cristina Torres was a little nervous to be there.
The senior culinary arts and food science student had been to El Compadre — a low-key, traditional Mexican restaurant run by chef-owner Cristina Martínez — before. Her parents back in Los Angeles had heard of the Philadelphia-based immigrant’s famed barbacoa and told Torres to go check it out, as they wouldn’t have the chance to themselves.
But now, Torres was here with her SPAN 440 class, which she decided to take as an elective to elevate her Spanish-speaking from how she was used to speaking at home. The class had been invited by Martínez to join her for a meal and a discussion about her life, her immigration status and her advocacy for agricultural worker and immigrant rights.
As a Mexican-American also interested in the culinary arts, Torres looked up to Martínez — she was proud to see a Mexican woman become so successful by following her passion.
“She’s a really strong person, and I admire so much about her,” Torres said of Martínez.
But while at the restaurant on a trip to the restroom, the atmosphere around her reminded Torres of another strong woman — her grandmother, who passed away in Mexico in June before Torres could say her goodbyes.
She swears she could smell her grandmother — her perfume — in that space.
“It was really emotional for me because I felt that calm, peace, serenity,” Torres said.
Torres’ experience was applicable to the course, titled, “Sanctuary Spaces and Practices in the U.S., 1982–present.” Steve Vásquez Dolph, an assistant teaching professor in the Department of Global Studies and Modern Languages in the College of Arts and Sciences, built the course as a way to study the trans-historical questions about where people belong, what spaces exists to protect them from state violence and how these spaces have been built autonomously. In the modern world, this knowledge serves as an intellectual framework to discuss immigration issues like detention and family separation, as well as the role that both official and unofficial “sanctuary cities” like Philadelphia play in these political issues.
“I think part of the reason why we're so polarized about this issue and it's such a flashpoint is because people don't really understand it,” Dolph said of sanctuary cities. “A sanctuary space, most of the time, is just following the law. People have Fourth Amendment rights and you as a citizen can help to protect those rights. That’s it.”
Torres said she didn’t know much about sanctuary cities, and how people like Martínez could make their way despite their status, before she took the course.
“In the class, we’re digging into what’s going on and people who are going through it and trying to make a difference and having problems,” she said.
Upon meeting her, it’s hard to think of Martínez as one who’s been held back by her undocumented status. She shares smiles with the students despite the weariness in her eyes from waking early to cook for both the restaurant’s daily costumers and now this group. On the menu: mole chicken, pork in salsa verde, rice, beans and salad. The Lindy Center for Civic Engagement had generously stepped in to sponsor the outing, allowing the students to enjoy the experience free-of-cost to them.
The small restaurant is impeccably set for the family-style meal. Each guest sits in front of matching plates and napkin holders, leaving their seat to periodically ladle fresh juices into their pint glass. As the hum of a small window AC unit mixes with the din of the students’ chatter, it’s announced that Martínez’s husband and the restaurant’s co-owner, Benjamin Miller, has arrived with yield from their Lancaster-based farm. This is where the restauranteur couple grows the specific type of corn necessary for El Compadre’s traditional, hand-ground tortillas.
The students leave their seats and help load the produce into a storage space behind what is now the new location of South Philly Barbacoa, Martínez’s previous restaurant which gained national buzz when it was named one of America’s best new restaurants in 2016 by Bon Appetit magazine.
Martínez pauses the load-in to speak with a neighborhood woman and present a bite of fresh, sweet corn for her and her child. Martínez told the class that although she has built up this community through food, she knows a true “sanctuary” doesn’t exist for her here because of her status.
“The different ways that I [resist] the government are cultivating my corn, feeding people, offering equality in my restaurant,” Martínez said of her feelings about the current political climate around the topic of immigrants and immigrant rights. “I’m going to keep going with this, because this protects me; and if anyone wants to come here and do me harm, well here I am; and I won’t be moved … and I’m not afraid.”
The opportunity to interact with Martínez personally — hearing her story and her struggles — was an unparalleled experience for the students, Dolph said, and something that the course was built upon.
“Drexel has a strong focus on community-based learning … so I wanted to explore that component in the course,” Dolph said. “I'm not an expert. I am not an immigration historian. I don't know the fine-grain details, but there are people in the community like activists, lawyers and people like Cristina, who's undocumented, who have firsthand, immediate knowledge and can speak directly to the students. I don't need to lecture the students about Cristina’s story. She can speak to them and I don't need to put myself between the students and their learning and thinking. That doesn't need to be my role.”
Anaïs D’Ottavio, a senior in the Global Studies program also in the current SPAN 440 class, said the trip to El Compadre felt to her like a “mini study abroad.” She’s enjoyed the chance to both delve into interesting readings and modern situations while also honing her Spanish-speaking through the class.
“I just really enjoyed that, to get away from the class setting for a day,” D’Ottavio said. “Going to the restaurant and hearing her story is so much more powerful than reading a text or watching a video. Even from her mannerisms and her expressions … her opinions were able to come out without being calculated or rehearsed.”
For Martínez, there is also a mutual benefit, Dolph said. In their first meeting to discuss the possibility of the class excursion, he said that Martínez and Miller relayed that the opportunity to talk to the students about living in a sanctuary city from an immigrant’s perspective would be very beneficial, as it’s not so cut and dry as one on the outside might think.
“They wanted a chance to be able to talk about that with people who are specifically studying this issue so that they could take that back to their communities and sort of relay that,” Dolph said.
Following the class, after the students had made their way into the South Philadelphia dusk, Martínez explained why she enjoyed opportunities like this to address the “foundation of the future world” — the next generation in need of safe space to experience the joy of living, of truth and of otherness.
“With all the food, and all the culture around us, we can change, little by little,” she said. “But we can also fall in love with the different communities that make up the United States.”