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‘DREAMer Is Not a Metaphor!’ A Chef and Entrepreneur Shares His DACA Story

Editor's Note: The Supreme Court's recent ruling to uphold DACA is already facing new challenges. The Trump administration announced this week  that it would not be taking any new applications for DACA. The fees for renewing DACA are also increasing. In the face of all this, we asked DACA holder, chef and entrepreneur Rodolfo Barrientos to share his story of resilience and inspiration. If you would like to share your DACA story email editor@lataco.com.

[dropcap size=big]I[/dropcap]  started the food truck as a last ‘oora. It was my way of going out with a bang if I was gonna go out at all. In a foolish display of arrogance, I quit my job convinced that I would find something else that paid me the same amount or better now that a work permit was not an issue.

Sadly, I was mistaken. I made the decision to leave my job at one of the worst times in the job market. The 2008 market crash happened a few years earlier and unemployment records were through the roof. Finding any job was a feat all in its own, let alone finding a good paying job. Resolved to make a decent living, I ended up having to work three jobs at the same time in order to pay for all my bills and expenses. It was a nightmare that had become my reality, but I continued just going through the motions of waking up, brushing my teeth, heading to one job, then the next , getting some rest and repeating.

To give some context to my story you first need to understand my legal situation, I am a DREAMer. It’s not a metaphor. It means  I benefit from a temporary legal status that grants me  a work permit, a  driver's license and the ability to live in the United States without the constant fear that I will be deported … as long as I pay the bi-annual fee to renew my status and as long as being a DREAMer doesn’t become illegal. It is a mutual agreement, between the government and “us”  where we give the country our youth, our dreams, our trust and in return we get a paper that  allows us a “maybe” ticket to the American Dream. 

Before DACA, most of us had to either work under the table, or if somehow you managed to get a decent job like myself, you were bound to it with no hopes of ever leaving. You might ask yourself why would you want anything else when you are blessed with a good job? All humans have the innate desire for freedom, to be allowed to make the choices that will guide our paths. 

When you are “illegal” your humanity is stripped, and your very living deemed criminal. This is exactly what would happen if any of us tried to pursue any different life that exposed us. Looking for a better job would mean defending our worth based on a paper that deemed us “worthy.” Ultimately this situation was forcing us to become exploited by being offered low wages and soul crushing jobs. So, I did what most of us did and kept my head down, worked hard and seized any opportunity that was thrown my way. I got a job at a start-up company called Pinkberry where I worked hard and moved up. 

As much as I hated the feeling of having no choice, I kept my head down.  This taught me a great lesson in life, which was that of gratitude. No matter what conditions you are faced with in life, if you look at it through the right filter, you will find hope. If you are grateful for what you have, it opens opportunities. 

Working for a startup fueled my passion for creating a business of my own and cultivating its growth. I found my passion in entrepreneurship. 

Keeping Hope Alive

[dropcap size=big]I[/dropcap]t was a challenge keeping this dream alive when I did not see a clear path, but I refused to let it go. To keep my entrepreneurial spark alive, I would go to school part time, taking business courses in hopes to one day  have a chance to be part of the world of entrepreneurs. This was challenging both economically and physically while working three jobs. I kept going, fearful that if I left school, I would lose another fight. I was fighting internally, with the demons that told me there was nothing I could do for a chance at a better future.

In 2009, with a slogan of hope, President Obama took office. The country was in a bad place and everyone needed a leader. His presidency was characterized by a symbolism of change and the idea that things would be different for people of color, but the country was in serious economic turmoil. Before he talked about anything immigration related, he focused on pulling the country back up from under the economic crisis. In 2012, just a year before he ended his first term in a moment that seemed unreal, he offered us a chance and a way out of obscurity.

I gathered all my documents, recommendation letters, high school transcripts, awards, community service pictures, anything that could prove that I was a good citizen. It was a scary process fueled by doubt that it was in our best interest. Many saw it as a trap led by the government to gather our information and eventually banish us from the only place we knew as home. As skeptical as I was, I could not pass the opportunity and remembering my grandpa’s words, “el que no arriesga no gana.” No risk. No reward. 

I took the chance. I submitted my documents and waited.  Sometime in 2013 I received my work permit. The feeling of surreal freedom that took over me was immense. I could finally start making strategic moves in my life with hopes of bearing fruit. Things that people take for granted like a driver’s license now became attainable for me and every DREAMer.

One of my first moves was to find a new job. My chances for a good paying job were slim. I was burning through my savings and I was losing myself in the idea of failure, leading me to fall into the next big mistake in my journey. Working three jobs and getting very little sleep puts you in a very vulnerable mental state.  

Credit: Gracias Señor Taqueria
Credit: Gracias Señor Taqueria

Taking My Shot

[dropcap size=big]O[/dropcap]ne of my bosses suggested we start a business together. Food trucks were at their peak popularity and I had been contemplating the idea a few years prior but lacked know-how and the legal status to do so. My boss at the time seemed to have experience in the field of starting businesses and I was tired of working three jobs for the salary of one. We decided to go 50/50 with the initial idea of renting a truck from one of his connections and establishing ourselves in the City of Industry.

I put forth my 50%, which was $5,000. That covered my part of the rent for one-month, initial equipment and product to get ourselves started. It was agreed that he would be renting the truck and getting all the equipment, while I worked on the menu and continued to save for the future of our business that was in the works.  

A couple of days later, he vanished. He quit the company and he was nowhere to be found. This added a tremendous weight to the cloud that was already looming over me. I took him to small claims court to no avail. Soon, realizing that it is more acceptable by our legal system to be an actual criminal that steals money from hardworking individuals than it is to be a responsible and productive member of society. I felt destroyed and hopeless. 

My life was at a tipping point and I was either going to succumb to depression or continue to fight. Not proud to say I was leaning more towards depression. My mom came into the picture because she started to worry about my situation. I could not let her see me defeated after all she had done to bring me to the United States for a better life. I armed myself with courage and decided to get to work. First, I had to find my way into the food truck world and do as much research as I could. 

I visited as many commissaries as I could in search of a food truck which I could rent to get my business up and running. Some truck owners made their truck prices too high since they knew the high demand. Others told me that there was a wait time; time I did not have.

In addition to these missteps, there was also the obstacle of being a new entrant to the food truck world. 

Growing Pains

[dropcap size=big]T[/dropcap]he food industry is a highly competitive world and as such there are not many individuals willing to help you let alone give information on how to become one of their competitors. As a result, there were times when I was sent on a wild goose chase.

I eventually found someone who was selling his truck. His name was Benito and he too was an immigrant with two kids. Living “illegally” was killing his spirit and he hoped to move back to his native land of Puebla to start a Mezcal farm. His truck was old and colored the most interesting shade of green you could think of for a food truck, but I saw potential and to be honest it was the cheapest I could find. I didn’t have all the money he was asking for but I shared my plan with my mom and she put her trust in me and lent me some money. 

The pressure was on. My mom lent me money she had arduously worked for since she came to this country. Everything I had was invested in this venture and I still owed Benito money for the truck. There was no time to waste. I needed to start making cash quick. 

I always wanted to have my own business, to create something with my stamp , something that was an amalgamation of my life experiences and roots . The truck seemed to be the perfect platform for me to share what I enjoyed and create something from my heart. I had never cooked professionally before in my life. 

I was a fair cook, but to cook for the masses that’s a whole different ball game.  Dreams and aspirations are beautiful and are what keep us motivated but as an entrepreneur, it is key to keep a balance between dreams and reality.  I had taken the most challenging step, which was to gain the courage to risk it all. But to be successful I had to make a profit or at least make enough to keep me afloat until we made a mark in the community. 

Without time to waste, a day after purchasing the truck I went out to sell. My strategy was to keep the same locations the previous owner had and focus on quality and marketing to win over the locals. Benito catered to the community of the Pacific Palisades. A community I would soon find out was characterized by its distrust for kitchens on wheels.  

I started by elevating the quality of my ingredients, using organic produce and making everything fresh, with a high focus on authenticity instead of gimmicky marketing like “fusion food” or “gourmet truck.” 

The original customers were not happy with a $2 taco. They were accustomed to paying $1 and would not have it any other way. Our Latinx customers didn’t value our culture and our white customers didn’t trust us. 

I started sampling our birria, which was not yet very popular here in the states. Once again, our Latinx customers thought there must be something wrong with it otherwise I would not be giving it away. They were not used to a truck practicing sampling. The residents of the Palisades wouldn’t even take my samples. What seemed like a good idea for me did not seem to resonate with the original clients, and with one decision that I thought would help I was hurting an already trembling establishment.

Everything Is a Taco

[dropcap size=big]J[/dropcap]ust like that I lost my first battle, I stopped making birria. A decision I would regret years later when it became the latest trend. I was beaten by the city of the Palisades, I was rejected by own culture, and I hazed by the other local food truck owners as they saw me as a lost case. The food truck owner, Benito, with years in the business had very little hope for me. They would tease me and make comments like “es chamaco no sabe en lo que se metió.”

I refused to give up and frankly I had no choice. I had to make this work. There was no fallback plan. I continued to wake up at 4A.M., turning on those burners and shoveling that ice into my “roach coach “ as some people called it. But most importantly, I continued to strive for continuous improvement. 

There was something that kept bothering me and it was the tortilla. As a native Mexican, I was accustomed to eating all my food in taco form. Yes, it is true we eat tacos every day. It is part of our culture and way of eating. Your typical Mexican household will purchase a pack of tortillas at the local store and eat them with our daily meals, making tacos with everything that is set on our plates. We don’t discriminate, it can be a piece of fried chicken or French fries or even a kabob. 

With this knowledge in mind, I told myself , “This is why, this is the reason Latinx customers won’t pay $2 for a taco.” I need to give them something they can’t make themselves. I needed to give them tacos on hand made tortillas. 

This new idea was exactly what I was missing, it gave our customer something they could not easily make at home and it gave us a competitive advantage. The question now was how I could keep costs down and make fresh tortillas. Sergio, my newly hired cook, offered a solution. We devised a technique that would allow us to freshly make tortillas keeping our cost at a reasonable range to sell our tacos at a bargain price. 

With the help of loyal and hardworking team members, we started to resonate with people. Customers started to see value in our offerings and the community of Pacific Palisades started to trust us. With offerings like our Tecate Beer battered fish taco we won or first contest at Tacolandia 2017.  The Palisades Post and L.A. Taco featuring us helped us gain notoriety. The kids from the local high school became avid clients and, with their tech savvy, gave us a presence on social media. We became a staple establishment in the community and continue to expand our reach across Los Angeles. 

Recently, as I approached my home kitchen for my daily cup of coffee, I saw my mom with tears in her eyes as the news reporter uttered in the background the words “DACA.” I knew right away it was good news as my mom hugged me with joy that for two more years, I had a chance at continuing my dreams and goals in the United States. She cried because she knew her son would not have to walk the streets with fear of deportation for the next couple of years.

Me on the other hand, though relieved by the Supreme Court’s decision felt an intense sense of urgency. An urgency to fight for my rights with more intensity than ever before, because though the battle today gives us hope and a breath of optimism by the support from people who believe in our cause , I know that there will be much more pushback from the opposing side. I know that the victory today means greater battles tomorrow. I cannot know the outcome; but I do know that I will continue to fight for my dreams and the dignity of those who are oppressed. I will continue to bring awareness to injustice and continue to demonstrate our worth with actions. 

As an immigrant, you are continually being trained and prepared for heartache, for disillusion, and any adversity you can think of. That is the life of immigrants. We take the insults and all the adversities you throw our way and we keep going. 

There is no stopping us, we never have and never will stop. Javier Cabral put it perfectly when he said, “A taco is effort, vocation and heritage, it’s home and feeling . A taco is the voice of those who can’t be heard and the reward of those who just never stop.”

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