We had the opportunity to speak with Yajaira Saavedra from La Morada: a neighborhood staple in Mott Haven specializing in Oaxacan cuisine. Yajaira operates the restaurant with her mother, brother, and other family members. Aside from the phenomenal moles that put La Morada on the map, La Morada is known as a safe gathering space for people in the community. Yajaira and her family actively participate in social justice causes in their neighborhood, and they use their platform as a way to share their culture and art with their neighbors.
Tell me a little bit about La Morada.
La Morada is in the South Bronx, Mott Haven. It’s currently considered one of the hottest spots in New York City, so it’s being rapidly gentrified. However, we hold onto our tradition – we stay grounded to our tradition. What we serve in La Morada is authentic, traditional, indigenous food from Oaxaca, Mexico. My family is Mixtec. Through our food, we’re not only nurturing folks, but we’re also cultivating a community in the South Bronx.
For a lot of people who aren’t familiar with the regional differences of Mexican food, how is Oaxacan food different?
Sure. So, when we talk about Mexican food, we have to remember a lot of history plays into it. Mexico was colonized by the Spaniards, but we also had different indigenous tribes that are still in existence.
In the southern states [of Mexico], there are a lot of indigenous tribes still in existence. The Mixtec tribe is one of them; it’s the tribe that my family belongs to. We come from a small town called San Miguel, and we conserve the tradition through our food. We try to stay as truthful to not only the recipe, but also the ingredients and the methods. For instance, we use a volcano mortar called molcajete to grind our sauces and most of our ingredients. We try not to fry as many things because in Oaxaca, in our village, most things are actually just sun-dried instead of fried. There are a lot of chili peppers – a whole variety of chili peppers. And those are the ingredients that are used for our Mole.
We are also conserving our spiritual values through our food, so there’s more significance I believe through those practices in which we make sure not to exploit the land. In the restaurant, we try to cultivate things; grab all of our ingredients hyper-locally from our community gardens and local farmers.
We try to always use the best ingredients, but not over-charge our plates. We could say it’s farm-to-table, but our mission is to provide a healthy, good plate for the average customers – our neighbors.
I love how much thoughtfulness you’ve put into the menu, and how you’re really a part of the community.
Thanks. I feel like small business owners – that’s part of our responsibility. We owe it to our community, that we are so successful, and that we’re still open – we’re still open after 10 years.
If it wasn’t for the community, I don’t think that we would have survived.
Our restaurant was established because as undocumented immigrants, we were just tired of getting exploited. I remember having jobs in which I wouldn’t even get paid. I would just get fired once they found out about my status. The same thing happened to my parents, and most of my family members work in kitchens. So we decided to put all of the family savings and skills together, and open up a Mexican restaurant.
I can tell that you have a really special relationship with your mom. I’d love to hear more about what it’s like for you seeing her work in the kitchen every day.
Well, I am the daughter of a matriarch. And it is a family-owned business. We all knew how real it could get – more than 12 hours days, sometimes seven days a week, barely any breaks, wishing you are fired… but you can’t because you work for your parents. So if you do something wrong, you know you’re going to have to work twice as hard to fix that mistake.
Sometimes, I just want to watch a movie. Sometimes, I just want to sleep a little bit extra. And I want to give up.
But my mom is the rock of the family. I see her; I see how she makes all this amazing food from scratch and doesn’t take shortcuts, and I feel like I have nothing to complain about. I’m blessed to see so much integrity in her work and her actions. And despite the difference in culture, despite the political friction – she stays grounded and true to her ideals. Sometimes as an indigenous woman, I want to be hip; I want to integrate into American society. My mom reminds me where my true values are. So just seeing how honest she is, I can’t say no, I can’t give up, I have to continue persisting and pushing forward. That’s why I admire her.
Why is it important for you to be more than just a restaurant?
We make that a point at La Morada, in which we are always talking about our activism, our history, our struggles… our community struggles. Because we don’t want folks to just leave empty in the sense that they just came to eat. It’s not a fast-food restaurant. We’re here to nurture, not only with food but also with knowledge. And we always claim that activism is our main spice.
What can the community do to continue to support restaurants?
You can start off by creating community, get to know your neighbors. If you haven’t spoken to the person who serves your food, just say thank you. Next time you go to a restaurant, make sure to always tip your waiter. And also, definitely, tip your street vendors. Acknowledge where your food comes from – from where it’s sourced. And also, the history of your plate. Just support more mom and pop stores rather than large corporations. Talk to folks, and again, get to know your neighbor rather than just listening to all stereotypes and the negative remarks. That way, you can make your own judgment about the person rather than having generalized thoughts.
To hear more of Yajaira’s story, check out Season Two, Episode Eight of the Open Belly podcast on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, or wherever you get your podcasts.
308 Willis Ave. Bronx, N.Y. 10454
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Images by Alyssa Broadus | Edited by Emily Neudorf & Kristen Reames