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After son’s death, Barbacoa chef to take over his restaurant

Cristina Martinez talks about closing South Philly Barbacoa to take over her late son's El Compadre.
Cristina Martinez and Benjamin Miller, founders of South Philly Barbacoa, are closing shop to take over Martinez's late son's restaurant El Compadre. (Provided)

Married restaurateurs and immigration rights activists Cristina Martinez and Benjamin Miller must love a challenge. Two years ago this month, the city – responding to a neighbor’s complaints – impounded the couple’s just-opened Barbacoa cart for illegal parking, causing the pair to move into a corner shop at 11th and Morris and open South Philly Barbacoa. They went on to gather acclaim from culinary magazines (Bon Appétit) and big-name awardees (James Beard Foundation).

But now, in response to the January death of her 23-year-old son, Isaias Berriozabal-Martinez, with whom she helped open El Compadre in October (a heralded tortas eatery in the Italian Market), Martinez and Miller will close Barbacoa and bring their trade to El Compadre with a spiritually driven ceremony on June 27. 

All this after Martinez – an undocumented worker – walked across a Mexican desert in 2009 to get to America and make money for her kids.

“I had to come to the U.S. to provide an education for my daughter [Karla],” Martinez said. “Selling barbacoa [in its purest form, butchering then slow-steaming beef, mutton or lamb over an open fire pit covered with maguey leaves or coals] in Capulhuac as a single mom, I wasn't earning enough to fulfill Karla's dreams of becoming an administrative nurse at a hospital and pursuing her education. I haven't seen Karla since 2009, and miss her terribly, which is why we’re hoping to change archaic immigration laws that prevent me from traveling to see her.”

Proud husband Miller formed the Popular Alliance for Undocumented Workers’ Rights organization and its #Right2Work initiative for that very fight.

“She’s brave,” Miller said of Martinez’s struggles doing business as an undocumented worker. Though he shies from calling themselves freedom fighters (“we aren't the frontline of activism”), the married couple knows well that they have a platform – a tasty one at that – because of the food. “We have the ability to share our story through the food. The corn we grow for the restaurant, named for Isaias, is part of the resistance as it comes from indigenous Zapatista communities in Chiapas. Our very existence as a restaurant with an undocumented owner is resistance. For us, there’s no going backward now.”

The pair had to be constant in their hard work, “doing business with wisdom and saving money,” Martinez said. “We’ve also had to take risks due to difficulty circumnavigating the system as an undocumented business leader.” The risks have paid off, but Martinez warns that neither they nor we can mistake the exception for the rule. "The systemic criminalization of the labor of immigrants creates an exploitative system. As chefs, we have a social platform and can address this injustice.”

The fight never stops. For now, however, they are dealing with Isaias' death the best way they know how: carrying on their work while “highlighting the character he had to open a restaurant at 23 without a grasp on English, how hard he worked and his passion for business,” Miller said.

“Isaias was very much a part of the soul of South Philly Barbacoa, so in a sense we also feel the need to re-invent ourselves,” Miller said of closing one shop and relocating to another.

The pair is now dutifully preparing for the ceremonial blessing and re-opening of the new space at El Compadre on Tuesday, with Cuban musicians performing a guiro ceremony. “The guiro is a bringing together of the community for strength during hard times and new beginnings for our family and those connected to the restaurant,” Miller said.

"When Isaias died, it was a big tragedy for a lot of people,” he added. “I realized that when I saw how many people showed up to visit during an intense grieving period – nine nights where the whole community did rosaries at the restaurant.”

That was a spiritual process Martinez and Miller lived through in a very public way, with their food – their way of showing love – coming through them as a show of spiritual idealism. “Cristina has a great attitude. It's infectious,” her husband said. “We want peace for the world and peace for our neighborhood, and to create a union of hearts. We do believe in a spiritual world and eternal life, and we put our work and intentions toward that, too, not just things of this material world.”

 The opening ceremony and blessings of El Compadre, 1149 S. 9th St., will commence at 6 p.m. on June 27. Martinez and Miller request the wearing of white.