By many accounts, Anthony Bourdain had a big heart. And he saved a special place in it for the invisible workforce made up of hundreds of thousands of immigrants powering the food industry.
In Bourdain, who died in an apparent suicide in France on Friday, Latinx workers had a relentless champion who used his status to advocate on their behalf. The death of the celebrity chef and author, who was 61, is a shocking loss to this voiceless group.
Bourdain began his famed career as a dishwasher in Provincetown. Perhaps it was his humble beginnings in the business that made him connect to the many struggles faced by immigrants. “. . . I walked into restaurants and the person always who’d been there the longest, who took the time to show me how it was done, was always Mexican or Central American,” he said. Bourdain often called immigrants “the backbone of the industry.”
For more than a decade, the late TV host spoke out loudly about the immeasurable contributions of immigrants and the need for immigration reform. Bourdain was among Trump’s fiercest critics when he launched his presidential campaign criminalizing Mexican immigrants. “If Mr. Trump deports 11 million people or whatever he’s talking about right now, every restaurant in America would shut down,” Bourdain said in 2015.
Indeed, about one-fifth of the country’s chefs, head cooks, and cooks are undocumented, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. Here in Boston, immigrants — both legal and unauthorized — constitute half of the workforce in restaurant and bars. It’s an open secret that immigrant labor from Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, and Brazil powers Boston’s booming food business.
When Trump was elected president, Bourdain had many pointed things to say. He announced he was boycotting a trendy sushi bar owned by a restaurateur who was planning to open an establishment in Trump’s hotel in Washington. Of Trump, he said: “I remember the Central Park Five, and what he said. I’ve seen how he’s treated employees. I saw what he did to Atlantic City. I saw what he did to the west side of this town. It’s [expletive] ugly,” he said.
But Bourdain also saved some of those harsh words for the food industry, its deification of celebrity culture, and its failure to recognize the dishwashers and line cooks from México and Central America. “I would like to see very much the people who are cooking and have been cooking in America and doing the large majority of the work in the service industry . . . If they got a James Beard Award, you know, if the James Beard people acknowledged that Mexicans exist, that would be nice!” he said.
His love for México and Mexican food was perhaps unparalleled. He said it was racist to expect Mexican food to be cheap here in the United States, and penned an essay a few years back on the “ridiculously hypocritical” relationship between the United States and México. Bourdain asked, almost rhetorically, why don’t we love México? “Our brother from another mother. A country, with whom, like it or not, we are inexorably, deeply involved, in a close but often uncomfortable embrace,” he firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @marcela_elisa.