Originally Published in The New York Times.
By Christina Goldbaum
Jan. 18, 2019
Offering traditional Mexican food and social justice conversations, La Morada in the South Bronx is equal parts restaurant and refuge. Run by an immigrant family from Oaxaca, it is home to both fresh tostadas and a community book exchange.
The purple walls are adorned with posters denouncing deportations and neighborhood children’s art projects. And one member of the family once spent two weeks in an Arizona immigration jail — by choice — as a form of political protest.
But on Friday, an altercation between one of La Morada’s owners and police officers turned the haven into a hostile flash point, fracturing an often strained relationship between police officers in the 40th Precinct and the community they serve in the South Bronx.
The interaction resulted in the arrest of Yajaira Saavedra, a daughter of Natalia Mendez and Antonio Saavedra, who opened the restaurant in 2009. Police also attempted to arrest her younger sister, Carolina, 25, but after Carolina started showing signs of a panic attack, police did not carry out the arrest, according to the Saavedra family.
A few hours later Ms. Saavedra, 30, was released and her arrest voided after police determined she had not committed a crime.
“As an undocumented immigrant, we are always on our toes when it comes to immigration raids and police raids, ” said Ms. Saavedra, who is a recipient of DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the Obama-era program that protects undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children. “They both create terror.”
Accounts of the incident depict an ill-fated encounter between police in the midst of a sting operation that ended with an officer’s safety in jeopardy and a community with deep-seated distrust of all police activity.
La Morada is situated in a part of New York City where homicides, fueled by entrenched poverty and rival criminal crews fighting over turf, stubbornly persist.
Whereas some police precincts in New York now regularly experience no killings in a given year, the 40th Precinct in the Bronx — made up of the Melrose, Mott Haven, and Port Morris neighborhoods — logged 14 in 2016, six in 2017, and eight last year.
To crack down on crime, officers in the 40th Precinct are active in the area but have tried to limit negative interactions with residents to maintain public trust, according to the police.Located on Willis Avenue in the Mott Haven neighborhood of the Bronx, the restaurant offers fresh tostadas, a community book exchange and a poet in residence.CreditDesiree Rios for The New York Times
“There has been a significant decrease in the number of interactions with the public while crime has continued to decrease,” according to Lt. John Grimpel, an NYPD spokesman. “We continue to correct conditions while at the same time using discretion and precision.”
After the community fallout from Ms. Saavedra’s arrest, the 40th Precinct’s Community Affairs Unit said they were doing outreach to explain what happened and hear community members’ concerns. But that outreach does not always attract the community buy-in the unit needs to change residents’ negative perception of the police.
“We put ourselves out there, we make ourselves available to the public, but we don’t receive the participation from the community we would like to see,” said Detective Claudia Mera of the Community Affairs Unit.
The unit holds a meeting once every three months and invites area residents to bring up concerns.
Still, there is no specific plan to address the incident at La Morada.
Members of the community believe the tactics they use have created a schism between law-abiding residents and police officers who treat all residents as a possible threat.
“I’ve been working in and with this community for two decades now and police brutality has always been an issue, relationships between the police department and the community have always been an issue,” said Alyshia Galvez, 45, a cultural anthropologist who works in the South Bronx. “The way Yajaira was disrespected is the same way other members of the community are disrespected on a daily basis.”
For the South Bronx’s immigrant community, a negative experience with the police is not just an issue of respect and trust. It also brings fears for their immigration status. For Ms. Saavedra, her arrest made that fear palpable.
“It doesn’t matter if I live in a sanctuary city,” she said. When the incident occurred, “I was just thinking that this could lead to my deportation.”
It all began around 4:30 p.m. last Friday when an undercover officer from the Bronx narcotics unit made a felony purchase of narcotics on the street outside the restaurant and the individual from whom she purchased the drugs began acting aggressive, according to a police spokesman.
Noticing what appeared to be an arrest happening outside the restaurant, Ms. Saavedra began filming the incident on her phone, mindful of the stories she hears often from friends and customers of what she describes as prejudiced police practices in the neighborhood.
The police do “not have a good relationship with the community,” Ms. Saavedra said. “We see them making unfair arrests, racially profiling us, so I started recording so if that happened it could be exposed.”From left, Carolina Saavedra, Natalia Mendez, and Marco Saavedra all participate in running La Morada. Ms. Mendez and her husband, Antonio Saavedra, opened the restaurant in 2009.CreditDesiree Rios for The New York Times
As the undercover officer entered La Morada for her own safety, another plainclothes officer approached Ms. Saavedra’s brother, Marco Saavedra, and asked him to momentarily close the restaurant to new customers. The siblings instead asked that the officers leave, explaining they did not want to be involved in any police activity.
“I could tell the officer was getting frustrated, and that’s when he said he would ‘flip the place upside down’ if we didn’t do what he told us to,” said Mr. Saavedra.
The police officers then left the restaurant, returning minutes later with additional officers and handcuffing Ms. Saavedra.
Ms. Saavedra was trembling as she described her encounter on Monday morning after community members filled the restaurant offering their support.
“La Morada is like the watering hole for this community, it’s our meeting point, and this family is an inspiration for us,” said Vanna Valdez, a 31-year-old resident who has lived in the neighborhood her entire life.
Ms. Saavedra’s parents opened La Morada in 2009, after living in the United States for 17 years. When they came in 1992 after crossing the Sonoran Desert, their plan was to stay only one year. But settling into Washington Heights, her mother, Natalia Mendez, was impressed by the schools and the neighborhood so she sent for her children to come join them and begin life anew.
When she and her husband, Antonio, opened the restaurant on Willis Avenue it became a neighborhood sensation. Longtime neighbors and resident artists became regulars. Mayor Bill de Blasio stopped by. The five moles Ms. Mendez prepared for her customers soon earned glowing reviews from critics who praised the family’s ability to bring both Oaxacan food and its sense of selfless reciprocity to the neighborhood.
But the critical need the restaurant filled — providing neighbors a safe, positive, community-oriented space — also underscored the dangers that surrounded it.
The attention Yajaira’s arrest garnered has made the incident a rallying cry for neighbors who have experienced similar interactions with the police and feel their voice is rarely heard.
On Friday residents arrived at the precinct to demand her release while others went to La Morada to comfort her family members, who were shocked by the way the officers treated Yajaira.
“This is the kind of thing I would see in Mexico not here in the United States, a country that respect laws,” said Antonio Saavedra, Ms. Saavedra’s father. “Where is the law? I don’t see it here right now.”