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This Mexican Restaurant Plans To Serve Hot Meals to Children Detained in the Long Beach Convention Center

Luis Navarro, the chef and CEO of his family’s own 14-year-old Lola’s Mexican Cuisine in Long Beach, was watching KTLA on Monday when he learned the children would arrive any day now.

In early April, the City of Long Beach agreed to partner with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to utilize the Long Beach Convention Center as a “temporary holding center” for up to 1,000 unaccompanied migrant children for a period of 90-120 days. And now the kids were coming.

Almost immediately, Navarro picked up the phone and reached out to the mayor’s office, hoping his family could do whatever possible to provide some small comfort to these children amid their scary, dangerous journeys and ongoing detention.

By Wednesday, Lola’s started spreading the word about its plans. The restaurant, which has two LBC locations, is creating an emergency fund to prepare or provide hot meals to the detained children, using 100% of the proceeds from its merchandise, donations, and gift card sales.

“I’m trying to put myself in the situation of a child who has just traveled 1,500-2,500 miles, who is here by themself, been in a camp, being processed for who knows how long,” Navarro tells L.A. TACO. “Why not greet them with a hot homemade meal? That’s what we’re working towards.”

The undertaking is a continuation of the work Lola’s started once the Covid-19 pandemic struck, when it partnered with global non-profit World Central Kitchen to provide meals to community elders sheltering at home. By mid-April 2020, the restaurant had organized a network of Long Beach food businesses who together were making and serving over 1,500 meals a day.

Now that they know how to do it, and that they can do it, they want to do it again.

Navarro, who grew up in Norwalk and La Mirada, but has called LBC home since 1999, wants to create a similar system at the Convention Center, whether Lola’s handles the cooking alone or with the help of nearby restaurants. If not permitted to prepare meals for the kids directly, they’ll finance and maintain an emergency reserve fund that will help feed them.

Navarro says the Convention Center news offered him at least some sense of relief. He feels that the existing detainment facilities and migrant camps create further chaos and uncertainty in these kids’ lives.

In Long Beach, perhaps the children can reap some benefits from more concerned members of the community, like his family. As opposed to the previous administration, he also feels the move provides better clarity and compassion for those migrating to the United States from Central America and Mexico.

“There’s a lot of hatred,” he says. “People don’t take the time to understand why people are migrating in the first place. And these are children by themselves in a new country. I can’t even imagine how petrified they are. It’s a relief to see that at least something is being done.”

Navarro believes Mayor Robert Garcia’s intention is to help reunite the kids with family.

“There are a lot of unknowns,” he admits. “We don’t know what this entails or what the whole game plan is. I know that the #1 goal of the mayor, as stated, is to reunite these children with their families. And I really hope that is the case.”

His optimism is buoyed by receptiveness from the mayor’s office, which he has been in frequent contact with, along with indications that a number of local people and entities are also reaching out, trying to do something to alleviate the children’s suffering.

Navarro himself immediately heard from others who wanted to volunteer and help Lola’s, such as nearby pizza spot Four Horsemen.

If you want to help them out, too, the merch is cooler than your average restaurant swag, with gothic-scripted windbreakers bearing a pachuco cross, locally handwoven serape blankets, and coffee beans from Chiapas roasted right in Long Beach.

If anyone would rather donate through a gift card, you or someone you love can use it for a meal, and enjoy a dish like the Coca-Cola-braised carnitas or pork-shoulder-and-veal birria, which is made that way because their Jalisciense abuela was never a big chivo fan. These gift cards can also be donated back to the restaurant as a way of contributing cash straight to the fund.

Either way, Navarro simply wants to use what his family does to provide whatever degree of solace is possible into the lives of children caught in a heartbreaking, embattled situation.

“While they are here, whether it’s for days or weeks, if we can grace them with a little bit of love, that is our ultimate goal,” he says. “These children need some love.”

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