For more than 15 years, Ofelia Barajas has sold her homemade tamales on the streets of the Mission District and in Oakland, and through her food, she has been able to establish relationships with the people in her neighborhoods.
Now, she and her daughter, Reyna Maldonado, are in the process of opening La Guerrera’s Kitchen in Oakland’s Fruitvale neighborhood.
Ofelia began selling her tamales and posole in her neighborhood, after immigrating from Guerrero, Mexico in 1996. She soon began to become a recognizable figure in the neighborhood. As the years went on, Ofelia’s family became more and more concerned about her safety because of her undocumented status. Her family was worried about her getting harrassed by law enforcement or health inspectors.
“It was one of our biggest fears,” Reyna recalled. “She only speaks Spanish, and serving in the streets, she was always getting harassed by police.”
Eventually Reyna felt it was necessary for her mother to have her own space where she could be safe and serve the food her community had grown to love.
The whole process was new to them though, leaving them with no idea where to even begin. What they did know was that as undocumented immigrants, their options were going to be limited.
“We didn’t know the process of how to formalize our business,” Reyna said. “But we knew that building credit and getting approved for loans was going to be very limited for us.”
Looking for guidance, they reached out to, La Cocina, a Mission-based organization that helps migrant food vendors, specifically women, realize their entrepreneurial potential. With the help of La Cocina, Reyna and her mother were able to better understand the necessary tasks involved in running a business, such as applying for loans, permits and even deciding how much they should be paid for their work.
In the past, Reyna worked with various organizations that dealt with immigration and migrant rights. As undocumented immigrants themselves, Reyna and her mother felt these were issues that they wanted to continue to advocate for and feel it was necessary to use their newfound platform to do so.
“I think our political work is a part of our food,” Reyna said, “It’s a part of our story and [our] memory that comes with us being undocumented.”
The two have opted to keep their menu simple and welcoming. They are continuing to serve the tamales and posole that gained them a following, as well a daily special—all freshly made and organic. La Guerrera’s Kitchen, which is located at 954 Fruitvale Ave., debuted its traditional homestyle dishes with a soft opening on May 1. Since then, the community has enthusiastically welcomed the restaurant.
“It’s been really beautiful,” Reyna said. “We’re just really excited for people to come check out the space and share our dishes.”
The menu has mostly been finalized, but they have continued to work on the layout and interior of the restaurant while they prepare for the grand opening on June 1.
Though previously based in the Mission, the outpouring of support from the Oakland community has left Reyna and her mother extremely hopeful for the future they’re building in the growing Fruitvale neighborhood.
“Honestly, we’ve just been blessed” said Reyna. “[Fruitvale] really represents a community we’re proud to be apart of and want to continue to build with.”
Story by: Hector Aguilar