At 7 a.m. Monday, Victor Guzman had already been on the road for about an hour, steering his popular East Bay-based taco truck, La Santa Torta, down 101 toward Gonzales, in California’s Central Coast region — an area that, like wide swaths of Northern California, has been threatened by wildfires that have ripped through the area this past week.
For La Santa Torta co-owners Guzman and Leo Oblea, today won’t be business as usual. They’ve scrapped the truck’s usual itinerary and will instead spend the day giving away free meals to some of the region’s most vulnerable people: its undocumented farmworkers, many of whom are still out working in the fields this week, picking berries and other produce despite the dangerously polluted air.
For today’s effort, La Santa Torta has coordinated with three farms in the area — in Gonzales, Salinas, and Watsonville. At each farm, the truck will stop for about an hour to pass out food, offering the farmworkers a choice of chicken, pork, or birria, scooped over a plate of rice and beans. All told, La Santa Torta expects to give away somewhere between 130 to 150 free meals today. According to Guzman, the hope is that it’ll be the first of many such efforts in the coming weeks.
“They’re the ones out there on the front lines, picking the strawberries and the vegetables,” Guzman says of the farmworkers. “Without them, I wouldn’t even be able to be in food service. It’s just a way of giving back.”
Best known for its Jalisco-style birria tacos, La Santa Torta is no stranger to feeding those in need. Even as the food truck has struggled to stay afloat during the COVID-19 crisis, it has made giving free food to anyone who needs it — especially the sizable homeless population in Oakland’s Jack London Square area, where one of the La Santa Torta trucks is usually stationed — a core part of its business identity. (When placing an order through its website, customers always have the option to make a donation to help support these efforts.)
But the situation with undocumented farmworkers hits especially close to home, Guzman says. Both he and Oblea are former DACA recipients whose work permits expired during the Trump administration’s efforts to repeal the program — that was, in fact, the impetus to start La Santa Torta to begin with, as both co-founders lost their previous jobs.
“We may not be out there picking berries,” Guzman says. “But we know what it is to not be able to count on that help that the government is giving.”
Guzman explains that because so many of California’s farmworkers are undocumented migrant workers, they don’t qualify for any of the federal relief money that’s been given out during the coronavirus pandemic — and don’t really have any choice but to continue to work through wildfire season, even though the conditions are really dangerous. Many have been forced to evacuate from their homes, and likely don’t have any kind of permanent housing to begin with.
“A warm meal would go a long way,” Guzman says.
What Guzman hopes is that these efforts, and those of like-minded Bay Area food businesses, will inspire others to contribute to the cause as well. In fact, La Santa Torta has already joined forces with another popular Bay Area taco truck, Al Pastor Papi, to make a financial contribution to fire relief efforts geared toward undocumented farmworkers. For the next two weeks — through Thursday, September 3 — both food trucks will donate 10 percent of their sales to support Bay Area farmworkers and other undocumented community members.
Al Pastor Papi chef-owner Miguel Escobedo, whose truck specializes in Mexico City-style al pastor, says he’s been involved in supporting immigrant farmworkers throughout his cooking career, even serving on the board of the United Farm Workers union for a time. He explains that immigrant farmworkers were already especially vulnerable during this time because of COVID-19 — up in Napa and Sonoma, many of them had been living at campsites to avoid dangerously cramped housing facilities during this time of social distancing.
To support those farmworkers, Al Pastor Papi is doing a supply drive this Tuesday and Wednesday at the truck, which will be stationed at the Spark Social food truck park in San Francisco’s Mission Bay both nights, 5 to 9 p.m. Escobedo is mostly looking to collect camping equipment — flashlights, sleeping bags, blankets, and tents — which he’ll then pass on to Corazon Healdsburg, a local nonprofit that’s distributing the supplies to farmworkers. He suggests that those who’d like to make direct donations consider giving to UndocuFund, a Sonoma County nonprofit that supports undocumented individuals.
Escobedo, too, says the challenges that immigrant farmworkers are facing right now resonate with him personally. “I’m an immigrant. My grandparents and uncles worked on the fields when they came. They gave our family a better future,” he says. “We want to help and assist as much as we can. “