Even as Erana Davilus laughed and schmoozed with Tijuana food fair customers — flashing a grin as she served up fried plantains and other authentic Haitian food — her heart ached for her young children still in Haiti.
Migrants from Guatemala, Honduras, Haiti, El Salvador, Colombia, Venezuela, Peru, India, Greece and Turkey gathered over two days last week to promote some of the signature dishes that represent their homelands. Tijuana city officials said it was the first international gastronomical fair to be held at City Hall.
“At times, I am very sad because my children are still not with me,” said Davilus, thinking of her youngest child who is 11 years old. Davilus spoke in Spanish, but said she wasn’t completely fluent in that language. She also speaks English, French and Haitian Creole.
“I’ve had to dedicate myself to work because it’s so hard to want to see your children and not have them with you. It’s very complicated to always have those thoughts, but I don’t despair; I work in this restaurant,” she said, referring to her bright-red shirt that boasted the name Labadee.
It’s a popular beach in Haiti and also the name of the small downtown restaurant that has become a culinary embassy for the Caribbean community on the border. Located on Second Street, between Negrete and Ocampo, the establishment has been a meeting place for the Haitian community in Tijuana since it opened in 2017.
The city is accustomed to sad or negative images of migrant camps, caravans, overcrowded shelters and deportations, said Enrique Lucero Vázquez, Tijuana’s director of migrant services. But the food fair is aimed at “showcasing the success of the migrant community in Tijuana and their contributions.”
He said there were 18 food stalls, representing at least 12 different countries.
“The idea is to support them because they are small entrepreneurs. They are not large restaurant chains,” said Lucero Vázquez. “They are small businesses, so this is also aimed at letting more people know them and for their business to grow.
“Because they also create jobs, pay taxes and give the city that gastronomic and cultural diversity” he added. “And at the end of the day they become their countries’ best ambassadors.” Cooks at the event sold 2,500 plates of food, attracting new diners to different types of cuisine.
“It’s also good for the Tijuaneses to see this variety of gastronomy because they are so used to tacos and seafood,” he joked.
Even though it was a kind gesture and a lively two-day event, Lucero Vázquez said he recognized there is still a lot of work to be done in the border community where migrants, and particularly Haitian migrants, often face discrimination and systemic racism.
The nonprofit Haitian Bridge Alliance, with offices in San Diego and Tijuana, helps cover the costs of funerals for deaths that might have been prevented but for the overlapping effects of U.S. border policies and systemic racism in Mexico.
Between December 2021 and June 2022, the organization had to cover the costs of 12 such funerals, according to information Vivianne Petit-frère told Union-Tribune in June. Petit-frère is a community liaison with the organization based south of the border. She herself is a migrant trying to reach the United States.
Lucero Vázquez said it is illegal for hospitals and medical clinics to turn away anyone seeking medical care, regardless of what migration documents they have or don’t have, but advocates say it often happens anyway.
The director of migrant services agreed more education is needed, and admitted Haitians and other migrants are denied services. He said it’s because the businesses are either ignorant of the laws against discrimination or ignoring them.
Guerline Jozef, executive director of Haitian Bridge Alliance, said she has been working to strengthen relationships between the city government and the Haitian community in Tijuana, and she was pleased with the event.
“It was really refreshing to see a new portrayal of the immigrant community and the migrant community in Baja California and Tijuana through this culinary exposition. It was also great to see Haitian cuisine was represented, but at the same time highlighting that there is still so much more work to be done to address anti-Black and anti-Haitian discrimination across Mexico,” said Jozef.
“As Mr. Lucero has said, the government does not discriminate, but the service providers do. That is why we’re looking forward to working with his office to ensure the service providers are following the laws and making sure Black and other migrants are not violated.”
While the feast went on downstairs, a small gathering of migrants waited upstairs in sweltering heat for migrant services for a variety of needs — from placement in a shelter to obtaining documents. A baby played with an empty jug of water set out for the group, while her father tried to get cell phone service to fill out a document.
The day after the food fair, a group of more than 80 migrants, including newborn babies and children, who had been displaced by violence from southern Mexico waited since dawn in hot weather for city officials to help them. They said they had spent the prior few nights on the streets because they could not find a place to stay.
Lucero Vázquez said his staff was able to find shelters for the group, which was divided and placed at three shelters: Centro Integrador Para el Migrantes Carmen Serdán; Oratorio Salesiano Don Bosco; and Desayunador del Padre Chava.