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How These Boyle Heights Bartenders Made Sure L.A.’s Undocumented Back-Of-House Workers Didn’t Go Hungry During the Pandemic

here is all the help for the undocumented back-of-house workers in L.A.?”

This realization by Aaron Melendrez, Othón Nolasco, and Damian Diaz of Va’La Hospitality during the beginning stages of the coronavirus economic onslaught on L.A.’s hospitality industry was sobering. Melendrez, in particular, noticed something: “I started scrolling through all the different GoFundMes out there and I noticed that there was not a single brown face in any of the photos, just pretty bartenders.” Nolasco had the same thought. 

A few days later, the three of them created No Us Without You to attempt to remedy this ASAP. To this day, it remains to be the only DIY charity organization aimed specifically toward providing aid for undocumented back-of-house workers in the bar industry in the country.  

Photo by Christian Monterrosa
All photos by Christian Monterrosa.

“Our original goals were very modest, feeding 30 families for at least a week,” Diaz chimes in during a phone interview with L.A. Taco. But that initial goal has grown to feed 112 families a week where the head of the household is an undocumented worker. That was when No Us Without You knew they were touching on a big humanitarian gap left unfilled during the COVID-19 crisis.

“The look on some people’s faces when they see that they have not been forgotten, you can just tell they are really grateful,” shares Diaz during the call.

A food relief kit delivered by No Us Without You ranges in seasonal ingredients from week to week, but will always include simple family-friendly staples. A typical kit includes five pounds each of rice and beans, two dozen eggs, 10 pounds of potatoes, one gallon of milk, two pounds of chorizo, 10 pounds of onions, 15 dozen tortillas from Kernel of Truth Organics, a family-size lasagna from Secret Lasagna, Few For All’s pasta and sauce, and 10 pounds of organic vegetables and fresh produce donated by Elias Produce & Suay Sew Shop. A donated bottle of GT’s Kombucha is even included for gut health, cuz L.A.

“I tell them that the kombucha is like a tepache, pero mas tutti-fruity, y now la gente likes this kombucha stuff!” Diaz jokes. 

Photo by Mel Castro @melhummel

Diaz is the one who usually facilitates the exchange and vets the workers in need to see if they are among the undocumented demographic that No Us Without You is aiming to serve, thanks to his fluency in Spanish.

“Many of the undocumented workers come with their children to pick up supplies," Diaz explains, "because they have nowhere else to go, and the kids say, ‘gracias señor.’ This is the new normal for a lot of people right now and we have to lead by example.”

Diaz informs L.A. Taco that he’s had to turn down a few folks who don’t fall within their demographic. “It sucks to feel like the bad guy," he says, "but we’re just trying to help the ones who need it the most.” 

Photo by Mel Castro @melhummel

One of the issues that No Us Without You have overcome is the initial sense of reluctance from undocumented workers to accept the help in the first place. Melendrez specifies, “The work ethic in immigrant homes teaches many to not take handouts, but Diaz has done a great job in communicating with the families in Spanish and reminding people: ‘We are here for you. We want to offer you a support system. This is not a handout. You deserve to eat during these times, too.’” 

“It takes a lot of trust,” Melendrez adds.

That trust and willingness to treat everyone with dignity have led to many of the families returning every week and being OK with receiving food.

Photo by Mel Castro @melhummel

While the State government is just today starting to address the dire need to provide invaluable resources for California’s undocumented, No Us Without You is about to hit the one-month mark of its service to the undisputed backbone of the nation’s hospitality industry.     

There has been an outpouring of support for their efforts, which Melendrez, Nolasco, and Diaz have welcomed. But still, as Melendrez points out, “It’s a double-edged sword because we are living through a pandemic after all, and we want to take every single measure of security and safety for everyone involved before anything.”

As for the health and wellbeing of the Va’La men themselves, they conclude: “We’re taking it day by day, too.”  

“We’re treating this as a full-time job because as far as we know right now, it is our full-time job,” says Nolasco.

They have applied to become a certified nonprofit organization, he reports to L.A.Taco. Despite the potential complex legalities of being affiliated as a support group for the undocumented by the government, Nolasco continues: “We are down to go to jail for this cause if need be.”

If you would like to support No Us Without You and their cause to serve L.A.’s undocumented back-of-house hospitality workers, visit their website

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