THE TACO CART is so small I have to hunch down to keep my head from hitting the ceiling, just so I can stand next to Juana Soto as she flips—with her bare hands—chicken tacos in hot, spitting oil.
Soto's little food cart is the newest addition to Portland's day labor hire site, which immigrant rights group VOZ opened in 2008 with some controversy and $200,000 in seed money from the city ["A Tale of Two Workers," Feature, June 26, 2008]. Now the $200,000 has been spent but the economy is still in the dumps, so VOZ is digging around for ways to keep the center funded until Portland's demand for workers picks back up.
With dozens of day laborers—jornaleros in Spanish—hanging around the site every day, waiting for work in a temporary classroom rather than on street corners around industrial Southeast, the idea for a taco truck to drum up money was natural. In September, the center found a good deal on a used food cart, and Tacos el Jornalero was born.
On a recent Friday, the canary yellow cart sticks out amid a frigid downpour. The rain makes for a slow day, both for the jornaleros lingering outside looking for work and for Soto in the cramped kitchen, dishing up $1.25 tacos.
Soto picks three tacos dorados out of a frying pan, drops them on a paper plate, adds a scoop of rice, beans, shredded lettuce, and a small lake of her homemade chiles de arból salsa and hands it through the cart's window to a rain-soaked customer.
Soto learned cooking in her mother's kitchen in Michoacán, Mexico. She cooks her mom's favorite recipes, "except less spicy," she says, in Spanish. Soto and her husband came to the United States 12 years ago. She showed up at the day labor hire site looking for work at the end of this summer, she says, and found herself recruited to be the cart cook. Though the recipes were originally her mother's, Soto honed her professional cooking skills in the back of Mexican restaurants in Sacramento. Her favorite food on the six-item menu are the sopes—fried dishes of dough topped with shredded chicken, salsa, and sour cream.
A pair of Portland State University professors show up and ask for three beef tacos and a sope in Spanish, the preferred language of ordering, before talking among themselves in English and switching back into Spanish to ask Soto through the window if she would be able to cater a PSU staff meeting soon. She quickly says yes before whipping up their steaming meal (total bill: $5).
The hire site workers have plenty of time to savor a taco or three from Soto's kitchen. Last year, the site was often hiring out only four or five jobs a day, with about 70 guys showing up looking for work—about 20 percent of them white, native English speakers whom people don't normally associate with a center for jornaleros ["Cornered," News, March 12, 2009]. The job market has been a little better in 2010, with the center hiring out around 40 workers a day in the summer, but only 15 now that the rain has set in, says VOZ Executive Director Romeo Sosa. "We see on the news that the economy is picking up. We see it get a little bit better, but not like on the news," says Sosa. "We need to find different ways to keep the center open."
I sit down at a picnic table underneath a white tent to eat my pollo sope—which, despite being soaked in oil, is light and hot and crispy, and I wolf it down while the wind drives rain into my face. A good day to be in the kitchen, not on the corner.