Why the Co-Owner of One of Philly’s Favorite Taquerias Was in Jail Yesterday

Vourvoulias: Lluli Pilar of Los Taquitos de Puebla was among four Philadelphians who blocked traffic to protest deportations — and unleash hope.

Demonstrators yesterday (left); demonstrator Lluli Pilar's daughter, Fernanda, with her father, Juan Carlos Romero, as Pilar was arrested. Photos | Sabrina Vourvoulias

Demonstrators yesterday (left); Lluli Pilar’s daughter, Fernanda, with her father, Juan Carlos Romero, as Pilar was arrested. Photos | Sabrina Vourvoulias

The simple story is this: Yesterday, for about an hour or so, the I-676 ramp at Vine street was blocked by a 13-year-old boy, a college student, a minister and the co-proprietor of a popular taquería (which won “Best of Philadelphia” accolades in 2011 and 2012), all of them literally and figuratively united in their call for a freeze on deportations.

On the sidelines (streets, median and sidewalks) supporters from Juntos, Make the Road PA, Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition and just ordinary folks gathered to chant in English and Spanish; media scrambled to get close enough to take photos of the protestors linked arm-to-arm by reinforced tubing; and law enforcement personnel from a number of different units, including a counter-terrorism squad, figured out what to do (and how to block the sight of what was happening from all those without the privilege of press credentials). 

After issuing three warnings in English and Spanish, police cut through each connector tube with a Dremel saw, cuffed the protestors one-by-one, loaded them into a police van and took them to the 9th Police District where they were cited for obstruction and released three hours later.

When Lluli (pronounced Yoo-lee) Pilar — the co-proprietor of the original award-winning Taquitos de Puebla on 9th Street which was shuttered two months ago — was cuffed and loaded into the police van, her 6-year-old daughter Fernanda burst into tears. It was impossible to watch the inconsolable child and not realize that this was heartbreakingly similar to scenes repeated everyday — when ICE agents cuff and remove undocumented immigrant mothers and fathers in front of their U.S. citizen children — and was exactly what the four people blocking the street were protesting.

Pilar’s husband, Juan Carlos Romero, struggled with tears himself as he comforted his daughter. He is incredibly proud of his wife, he told me. He is very proud of the way she was standing up for a community that, despite struggles and setbacks like last week’s Supreme Court deadlock on DAPA, still harbors hope that people like them — parents of a citizen child, longtime members of the Philadelphia community, people who invested in creating a business in a section of the city that was blighted before their effort — may one day be valued for who they are, not scorned for their documentation status.

Romero’s and Pilar’s story is one characterized by hope and struggle. Romero came to Philadelphia 14 years ago, and 10 years ago he and Lluli opened Taquitos de Puebla in what was then a vacant storefront. Romero and a business partner rented the space and invested all they had into fitting it with the equipment necessary to run a restaurant. Taquitos de Puebla was one of the first of the Mexican restaurants on 9th Street to take part in the Night Markets, to participate in the Italian Market Festival and to be an active part of the Italian Market merchant’s association. Romero and Pilar have also been part of the Farmer’s Market at 2nd and Pine for the past eight years, and as Romero describes it, they’ve put down deep, unassailable roots in the city that is their daughter’s hometown.

But the rapidly escalating rents in the Italian Market area — joined with the fact that without proper documentation they cannot get business loans or purchase the building that housed their restaurant for a decade — heavily impacted them. Two months ago, after falling two months behind on the rent, Romero showed up to work to find the owner of the building had changed the locks, and claimed all of the equipment the couple had put into the restaurant.

But like the community they rallied with yesterday, Romero and Pilar are tenaciously hopeful. They are working with the owners of the former Breezy’s Cafe on 2011 Reed Street in Point Breeze and in three weeks will be holding the grand opening for their next restaurant, Philly Tacos, which will be open Mondays through Fridays from 3 p.m. to 11 p.m., and Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m., It will offer the authentic signature tacos that won them such a following at Taquitos de Puebla. (The “Taquitos de Puebla II” open currently on 9th Street is not their restaurant, but one that capitalizes on their great reputation.)

And Romero, amid the emotional stresses of the protest and seeing his wife arrested yesterday, tells me this commitment to staying and working hard to be an integral part of the city is one of the things that he thinks will change people’s opinion about the folks who seek to regularize their documentation status.

Just hours after being released from the 9th Police District, Pilar was with Romero, at work at Breezy’s, readying for their restaurant’s opening.

Romero believes their young daughter is learning how to be a community leader through her mother’s example; that it is important that Fernanda is witness not only to her parents’ hard work and struggle, but also that they are willing to put themselves on the line to advocate for the greater good of the community, and for the dream that is America (to use President Obama’s beautiful turn of phrase). 

Rev. Adán Mairena, the pastor of West Kensington Ministry in Norris Square, who was one of the four protesters cited for obstruction along with Pilar, said it was “a humbling experience.”

“On my left I was shackled to a mother (Pilar) who is literally fighting to keep her family together although she is a business owner and has lived here for a long time and has had a child here,” Mairena said. “On my right was a 13-year-old boy (Erick Perez-Hernandez) who was born here, both his parents have lived here for over 15 years. As a Christian, I felt there was no other place I’d rather be, and if Jesus were physically here he would’ve been right there with us.”

“My heart was broken when I saw the little girl cry as she saw her mother sitting there,” he added, “but yet I gained courage when I heard (Pilar) answer reporters’ questions with ‘I’m fighting for my daughter, and for a lot of mothers out there who live in fear.’”

The four who were arrested (which in addition to Pilar, Mairena and Perez-Hernandez, included college student Adrianna Berring) sat on the asphalt for a long time in the sweltering heat. It was clear to me that the arm-to-arm connectors were heavy, the ground hard, the limitation on their movements unforgiving. The cops kept waiting for the four to pick the easier way to end the protest — to give up, to get up and unlink themselves from one another voluntarily — but they did not.

“We weren’t tired,” Mairena said. “We were ready to go at least 72 hours … When we look at the giants before us — Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr., César Chavez — they lived longer than three hours in a holding cell. That’s what I’m living to do.”

Amid chants of “Adán (Lluli, Erick, Adrianna) — aguanta, el pueblo se levanta” (“Adán (et al) hold fast, the people will rise up”), the four protesters were forcibly cut apart, cuffed and taken away in a police van (something none of us can think about these days without remembering Freddie Gray). Their supporters stayed behind, but didn’t stand down.

Even as the media left and the law enforcement personnel dispersed, they raised their ragged voices, wiped away tears, hugged each other (and those of us who were still there) and vowed to continue fighting to keep hope — and the promise of America — alive.

Sabrina Vourvoulias is an award-winning columnist with bylines at The Guardian USCity & State, Tor.com and Strange Horizons. Her novel, Ink, was named one of Latinidad’s Best Books of 2012. Follow her on Twitter @followthelede.