Six days a week, Irene Castillo is in charge of bringing the flavors of the Mexican central state of Puebla to Brooklyn’s local hot spot, Jalapeño King. Respecting the culinary traditions of the women in her family, Castillo seasons the salsas, rice dishes, and stews, while her husband Rafael Eustaquio grills the meats for the tacos. Their 30-year-old son, Jonathan, attends the clientele and runs the social media accounts.
For two months, however, the family-run business had to close down due to the pandemic. Unlike many other businesses, Jalapeño King reopened in South Slope on May 15, and since then the Eustaquio Castillo family has joined a community-wide effort to tackle COVID-19 — and the systemic social inequities that have put Latin American immigrant families at greater risk for the disease.
“We managed to survive with the savings we had. Well, the savings are over, but for us the important thing was always health and life,” says the 56-year-old Castillo, who has lived in the same Brooklyn apartment for the past 31 years. “We are still surviving. Our clients have helped us a lot to keep going. We’re a very small business, and unfortunately small businesses had very little help.”
The COVID outbreak has disproportionately impacted the Latin community, with high rates of cases, deaths, and economic losses. According to Mexico’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, at least 2,452 Mexicans have died in the US during the COVID-19 pandemic. New York is by far the US state with the highest coronavirus death toll among the Mexican migrant community, with 773 deaths (deaths in Connecticut and some counties in New Jersey are included in the total). Hispanics and Latin Americans comprise 18.5 percent of the US population, but 30 percent of positive cases nationwide.
“At least I counted about 30 [deaths], of people I know,” said Miguel Angel Badillo, president of Hidalguenses en Nueva York, an association of migrants from the southern state of Hidalgo. “It impacted us so much that entire buildings of migrant families were infected.”
Many migrants are still afraid of seeking testing over a fear of acquiring debt, or testing positive and missing work. Badillo says many fear they will be quarantined, leaving them unable to cover their family’s expenses. Ineligible for economic relief, migrant families have depleted their savings, facing serious financial problems. A recent poll revealed that across the US, 72 percent of Latin households, 60 percent of Black, and 55 percent of Native American households report serious financial problems due to the pandemic, compared to 36 percent of white households.
As the pandemic worsened food insecurities, long lines of people formed outside food pantries and community centers, increasing the risks for migrant families. The city distributed food boxes, but the items didn’t reflect the diets of the Mexican and Latin community. To coordinate a better nutrition response and mobilize the resources of the community, Jalapeño King and a local nonprofit, Mixteca Organization, worked together to prepare and distribute tortas to the Latin American migrant community, mainly Mexican families, during the weekends of August.
“The boxes of vegetables that the city gave us lacked, for example, tortilla, chile, or cilantro that our community needs to cook.” says Lorena Kourousias, executive director of Mixteca, which offers immigrant rights programs, mental health counseling, and workshops to the Mexican and Latin American immigrant community in Brooklyn.
In mid-August, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a concerted effort to increase coronavirus testing in Sunset Park due to ongoing spread of the virus. Although free testing has been available since June, many Latin families are still reluctant to seek out testing due to their immigration status or fear. There’s a long history of mistrust, debt, and discrimination within the Latin community from the health sector. Language is also another barrier; Mixteca has identified at least 89 different languages among the community.
For the last weekend of August, Jalapeño King and Mixteca came together to promote testing in the gentrified South Slope/Sunset Park community and ensure Latin families are reached. Kourousias arranged for a community mobile testing unit to come to Mixteca, just around the corner from Jalapeño King. The Eustaquio Castillo family donated 125 tacos and tortas to thank people for taking the test. The preferred choice was their tortas, which in 2015 were honored with the Best Torta award by The Village Voice.
“We’re in a pandemic, but we’re surviving. We have work, a house, and the business, why don’t we give a little to someone who may not have enough to buy a torta? That’s why we decided to make the donation,” says Castillo, originally from the town of Chietla in the state of Puebla. “There are people who might say, ‘If they give me food then I’ll take the test.’ So there are now two interests.”
For the past seven years, Jalapeño King has served a clientele made up mostly of güeros and gringos, as Castillo calls them. The “Tacos, Tortas, and Testing” campaign, however, attracted the same amount of white and brown people, and the offer sold out. Castillo felt happy to support the health of her community, while sharing her Poblano (from Puebla) touch.
“Bringing a piece of Mexico, with a Poblano flavor, has been important because there are a lot of businesses here but not everybody does it as it should be. I am Poblana, I cook Poblano style,” says Castillo. “I know how my food was born because I saw my mother cooking it, I saw my grandmother too. It’s our tradition and we’re sharing it.”
With winter approaching, many migrant families hold grim views of the economy and the coronavirus outbreak. Support networks among the Mexican and Latin American immigrant community, like the one created by Jalapeño King and Mixteca, could help counteract the void left by the government.