‘We are prioritizing the community’: Mott Haven restaurant feeds the South Bronx

Natalia Mendez, owner of La Morada
Photo courtesy of La Morada

Although stereotyped for its poverty, crime and food deserts, the south Bronx is also home to a highly rated New York Times restaurant.

La Morada at 308 Willis Ave., in Mott Haven, is run by Natalia Mendez and her husband Antonio Saavedra and their kids, Carolina, Yajaira and Marco. Yajaira told the Bronx Times when the citywide shutdown happened they stayed open briefly, but remained closed until April 14.

However, knowing many people in the low-income south Bronx were struggling financially, they sprang to action. The family, which is undocumented, has been cooking nonstop and delivering food to churches, shelters and people in the neighborhood.

“We are prioritizing our community,” Yajaira said. “The south Bronx is notoriously has gotten lost in red tape and a lot of politicians who just use the south Bronx for political campaigns.”

They are serving 450 meals a day and partnered with World Central Kitchen, which is subsidizing 250 of them. In 10 years of being open, the eatery has become known for its authentic Oaxacan cuisine, its books, welcoming atmosphere and activism.

Owner of La Morada Natalia MendezPhoto courtesy of La Morada

The family is working long hours during the crisis and barely making any money.

“Anybody who comes to us we try not to turn them down,” she said. “We don’t expect a thank you. We’re just grateful to be alive. Living in the south Bronx people already feel like they don’t know where their next food will come from. We feel their pain.”

They know they face an uphill battle.

“As undocumented folks, we knew that we never really have safety nets,” they said on Facebook.  “We won’t have Social Security when we retire. We won’t, even though we pay our taxes [and] 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.

The Saavedra family, who owns La Morada. Photo courtesy of La Morada

Pelham Bay resident Lisa Dunn went to La Morada six or seven years ago and fell in love with the restaurant. She frequents there often and when she heard about their situation wanted to help. So, she launched a GoFundMe on April 9 and so far, it has raised more than $42,000.

“They’re just amazing people,” Dunn said. “They’re doing all this at their own expense. I’ve never met any people like them.”

The family hopes the crowd funding will offset their costs and help them reopen full time.

“We are an undocumented family-owned and operated Oaxaca Restaurant in the South Bronx,” the family said in a statement. “Our goal is to preserve and share indigenous Mexican cuisine with our neighbors and friends. We love sharing culture, art, and community initiatives while actively participate in social justice causes.”

If you would like to make a donation by a means other than credit card, or if you have any questions, contact lamoradagofundme@gmail.com.