Before the pandemic, Va’La Hospitality’s 1,000-square-foot Los Angeles office served as a sleek creative headquarters for the bar consulting agency. The brick-lined room’s bar and lounge area were adorned with a midcentury modern hutch and glassware. Nowadays, it’s crammed with commercial refrigerators, hundreds of crates and thousands of pounds of beans and rice.
The space has become the hub for No Us Without You, a small nonprofit group that has been providing food security for nearly a year to a group of people forgotten amid the pandemic: undocumented restaurant workers. These laborers made up 10% of the U.S. restaurant and bar industry in 2014, according to the Pew Research Center.
Every week, No Us Without You is now feeding 1,500 L.A. families — a total of 7,500 people — with fresh produce and dry goods. The organization has evolved, implementing more programs to meet the needs of this vulnerable sector: diaper donations, coronavirus testing, student tutoring, rental assistance and a community fridge. They’ve also extended their food boxes to mariachi performers, day laborers and street vendors.
Va’La Hospitality co-owners Damián Diaz and Othón Nolasco founded No Us Without You in March, when Los Angeles first issued a COVID-19 “safer at home” order. Being consultants for some of the most popular bars and restaurants in the city, they knew that as undocumented back-of-the-house employees, some of their former colleagues would face massive job losses and receive little to no government assistance because of their status.
“Everyone thinks they get paid cash under the table; there might be a few mom-and-pop places that still do that, but it’s very rare to hear,” says Nolasco, 40. “The risk is just too high to not have people on payroll, especially if they get hurt with workman’s comp. These families are paying into a system that they are not eligible to benefit from and are getting taxed every paycheck for unemployment insurance … and not being able to get unemployment insurance.”
Of the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the country, many are cumulatively paying billions of dollars each year to state and local taxes, according to the nonpartisan Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy. Some file taxes under an individual taxpayer identification number in hopes that one day it will help their case in gaining legal status. Others apply for jobs through fake Social Security numbers, and their employers withhold payroll taxes.
No Us Without You is one of a few efforts around the country to help undocumented restaurant workers during the pandemic. At its start last year, the team behind Win Son and Win Son Bakery in Brooklyn launched a fundraiser for the community that by the end of March had brought in more than $30,000, according to Eater NY. Revolutionizing Asian American Immigrant Stories on the East Coast (RAISE) raised more than $90,000 to support nearly 500 undocumented restaurant workers in New York City.
In mid-March, Diaz and Nolasco reached out to the dishwashers and cooks they knew and explained that the pandemic was most likely going to last for a while.
“That really scared people because they’re like, ‘Well, what are we going to do? We don’t have money saved. How will we pay our rent?’ ” Nolasco says. “These are hardworking people, working two or three jobs just to really survive, and the little money that is left over, it gets sent back home to Central America or Mexico.”
The first day, the duo loaded up Nolasco’s 12-year-old truck with food they bought using $400 of their own money. Diaz calculated that it would cost $33 to feed a family of four for a week. They ended up helping 10 families.
As they connected with more people and word began to spread, their list of families ballooned. They built a social media presence and asked friends and family to donate money.
One of the first people Nolasco contacted was Cedric Ransburg, a 35-year-old bartender who had previously worked with Va’La Hospitality. He’s been volunteering with No Us Without You for five days a week since its beginnings and has seen firsthand how it’s grown. “The day I realized I didn’t have to use my Prius to carry things anymore, that’s how I knew that things were changing,” Ransburg recalls.
Corporate sponsors started lending a hand. Tecate bought them a refrigerated box truck. Sysco Corp. and PepsiCo gifted them refrigerators. The team began ordering boxes of food from Vesta Foodservice instead of packaging the items themselves.
They were learning as they went, something Nolasco admits they’re still doing. Worried that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement would show up to their office, they shifted to having recipients pick up food at locations that regularly change. To maintain social distancing, they’ve organized a contactless drive-through pickup. They also deliver to those who can’t get to them.
No Us Without You now turns out 150,000 pounds of food every week, with the help of nearly a dozen volunteers composed of bar industry folks. They have a queue of more than 100 families vetted by Diaz, who plans to add them to the program as it raises more funds through donations and grants.
Diaz spends nearly every day on the phone, checking in with each of the families the way a social worker would, listening to their worries and noting their needs.
“What I hear is fear, paranoia and, in some cases, helplessness,” says Diaz, 35. “I’ve had families reach out to me saying that they want to kill themselves and they can’t take this anymore because they are tired of seeing their two or three kids go to the refrigerator every day prior to our help to see an empty fridge.”
One of their first recipients was Jose Ventura, a 49-year-old undocumented restaurant worker hailing from Oaxaca, Mexico. Ventura had been working more than 50 hours a week to provide for his family back home, including paying for his three daughters’ higher education. But his work hours yo-yoed as the pandemic raged on.
Ventura first heard about No Us Without You through a mutual friend and has been receiving food boxes ever since.
“I feel strongly that the help I’m receiving from the organization is more than I could have expected from the government itself,” Ventura says in Spanish through a translator. He wonders when members of his community will get the coronavirus vaccine, saying that their lives matter because they add value to the U.S. economy.
Mercedes Cortes, a 59-year-old undocumented street vendor from Puebla, Mexico, first heard about the nonprofit on Telemundo before she was linked to them through a friend in May.
“To digest other people wanting to help this sector of the populace here was unfathomable,” Cortes says in Spanish, adding that she hates feeling like a criminal in this country.
Cortes, who is raising her 11-year-old granddaughter and sends money back home, says she’s thankful that the organization helps with her family’s basic needs. She came to the United States over 20 years ago in search of a better and safer life for her and her family.
“My family and I came to work in this country and be honorable humans,” Cortes says. “My husband and I both pay taxes, fees for street vending, and tickets we receive on the street when we forget to move our car.”
The organization is not planning on capping the number of people it serves. Diaz and Nolasco are thinking ahead and even recently leased some land to grow produce for their food boxes, with plans to create jobs through that.
While Nolasco finds his work with No Us Without You to be meaningful, he bristles at some of the backlash his team has received from people upset that the group is supporting undocumented workers.
“We’re happy to feed those that have fed us for years,” Nolasco says. “At the end of the day, if you take all politics aside, we are feeding families. We’re feeding mothers and children. If you have a problem with little kids and parents who are out of work getting food that has nothing to do with you politically, I just don’t know what to tell you.”