Community Activism Pairs With Oaxacan Fare
Walk into the doors of 308 Willis Avenue and your senses will immediately shift from the loud police sirens and weathered brick walls of the no-longer-forgotten Mott Haven neighborhood to the equally dramatic stimulus of dinner plates clinking, grills sizzling and the brightly painted purple walls of La Morada.
Since 2009 this family-owned establishment has been leveraging delicious Mexican fare to build community, promote activism and secure the future of Bronx residents. At first glance, La Morada looks like any other food place in the ’hood with its no-frills approach to giving people great food at a decent price. However, at a closer look, one is intrigued by the lending library neatly tucked away in the back, as well as the mobilizing posters summoning resistance with their anti-globalization and pro-immigration slogans, as well as abstract paintings invoking the primal instincts of many a consumer.
“Many venture to La Morada for the mole,” I share with Yajaira Saavedra, daughter of the owners, tasked with the duty of helping me understand the flavors—metaphorical and literal—of La Morada, “but others are captivated by your stance on immigration and resistance. Why bring activism to the place where you eat?”
“The activism came first,” Yajaira—or Ya Ya for short—says with a slight chuckle.
“We just wanted to create a place of our own, a place where our people wouldn’t be exploited, where we could take ownership.”
The concept of La Morada came to Yajaira’s father, Antonio Saavedra, in a dream. “La Morada” translates to “house of rest” and also to the color purple, which explains the décor of freshly cut flowers that play off of the surrounding royal pigment. It was some years ago that her father was sleeping and dreamt of a place where all people, regardless of where they were born, would be able to take respite while nourishing mind and body.
La Morada has publicly declared itself a modern-day sanctuary for people from all walks of life—immigrant or Bronx native—to work and enjoy high-quality meals. This effort lives in the bones of the restaurant as a not-so-silent act against the often confusing and harsh immigration policies that have roiled American politics for quite some time now.
Every ingredient of every meal celebrates the ancient, breathtaking history of the Oaxaca people from which La Morada finds its roots. Highlighting their history has become an intelligible act of endurance in the battle to preserve Mexican and local Bronx culture. Even as adjacent neighborhoods or businesses cannot seem to fight with the same fervor, La Morada maintains the matters of sustainability, preservation and defiance at the epicenter of its existence.
“We think about every step when preparing our food,” says Yajaira. “We never forget our native roots, and we believe that by honoring our history, we are nurturing people—especially their spirits. Emotions are transferred onto food, you know.”
And she is right! Every component is thoughtfully cleansed, handled, chopped and cooked with the utmost care, and with most of the ingredients locally sourced, La Morada’s efforts to end the Bronx’s “food apartheid,” as Yajaira calls it, become more apparent.
The quiet matriarch, head chef and part-owner, Natalia Mendez, emits her presence to every corner of La Morada. Her spirit infuses every meal, with all of the employees following her lead, attempting to emulate her prominent grace in everything that they do.
Mendez and her husband migrated from Mexico in the early 1990s with their two eldest children. Her son, Marco Saavedra, is the restaurant’s host and resident poet, managing the variety of reading materials available in their lending library, and curates the virtual library found on their website. There you can find a list of books he recommends with a note to readers reminding them that sharing is encouraged. Marco is also a published poet with his book, Shadows then Light, proudly on display.
Marco’s spirit–not unlike the heart of La Morada—is also rooted in his work as an activist. He is a member of the Dream 9, a group of young, undocumented activists who journeyed back to Mexico and reentered the United States illegally in 2013. He documented this expedition on Tumblr, detailing every moment of the journey, providing an inside perspective to immigration and what it means to be undocumented in the United States.
The youngest of their adult children, Carolina, can be found close by her mother, cooking, cleaning and intuitively buttressing the commitment to exceptional, affordable cuisine and political consciousness in the Bronx.
The menu features a number of moles, the signature sauces of Oaxacan cuisine, varying in colors and aromas. The mole Oaxaqueño is the most distinguished for its deep cultural roots and the unforgettable combination of seven dried peppers, making it (when executed perfectly) a rarity in the New York food scene.
Some recommendations when you visit La Morada are the sopes, the mole pipian rojo con puerco (red pipian sauce on pork ribs) and something particularly fresh for this spring season: camarones en salsa verde y nopales (shrimp in green sauce and cactus).