Today, in cities across the country, thousands are joining in a strike they’re calling “A Day Without Immigrants.” A reaction to President Donald Trump’s calls to build a wall to seal the U.S. border with Mexico, and his recent travel ban on citizens of seven majority-Muslim countries, the strike is designed to recognize the contributions of America’s thousands of immigrants and what the country looks like without them. And in support of the protest many businesses, including restaurants throughout the country, are closed today.
In Charleston? Not so much. We couldn’t find any in the city closed in support of A Day Without Immigrants, however, in our Winter Dish 2015 issue, we interviewed a woman who embodies the spirit of so many people who move to this country hoping for better opportunities and find them in the restaurant business.
Republished from the story “Unsung Heroes,” meet Lucy Becerra.
[image-1]The last time FIG prep team member Lucy Becerra saw her parents was 19 years ago. Poor and under-educated, Becerra left her small town in the state of Guanajuato, Mexico to move to the United States. She was 26.
The tale, like that of so many immigrants who come to this country looking for better opportunities, sounds familiar.
“I came to help my parents a little bit, so they could live better,” she explains through translator and City Paper staff writer Paul Bowers.
And yet her boss Mike Lata, co-owner of FIG and chef of The Ordinary, will be the first to tell you that in fact, Becerra’s story is different.
“Lucy,” Lata says, “is unique.”
When the petite 4’11 woman was hired at FIG 10 years ago, she only had a little F&B experience — two years at a North Charleston Mexican restaurant. But the job wasn’t the right fit and she was hoping to find something else.
“My sister worked in a Mexican store,” Becerra recalls. “Two people came in looking for people. My sister talked to them and to me, and told them ‘My sister is looking for work.'” The two people were from a contract company FIG hired to find unskilled labor — dishwashers, janitors, etc. Becerra got the job and soon began handling a variety of duties at FIG from mopping the floors to breaking down produce boxes.
“About nine months after she started, she came to me one day,” Lata recalls. “She said, ‘I need some time off.’ I said, ‘Sure. Why?’ And Lucy said, ‘Because I’m going to have a baby.'”
Lata was stunned. “We had no idea she was pregnant,” he says. “She didn’t have this massive belly. Literally, we didn’t know she was pregnant until three weeks before she had her baby.”
But that’s just how Becerra operates. “She rarely ever asks us for anything,” says Lata. “In this business there are a whole host of people who are so incredibily high maintenance that ask for so much — the very privileged prototypical college student who comes in the door. But she doesn’t complain at all.”
One possible explanation for Becerra’s low-key attitude: when one finds themselves working in a Mexican clothing factory at age 15, any job thereafter seems “no es difícil” as Becerra puts it.
Perhaps that’s why Becerra is the second longest standing employee at arguably one of Charleston’s most esteemed restaurants. “Day in and day out, thick and thin, she’s been steady and great and gracious and happy and sweet,” says Lata.
Like many unknown support staff who quietly serve in Charleston kitchens, Becerra has been one of the key factors in helping make the restaurant a success.
“She’s so ingrained in the system, we think of her as like a manager,” explains Executive Chef Jason Stanhope. “It’s like asking a rock star to perform 365 days a year. It’s crazy what Lucy can get done.”
Take an average Friday. Lucy steps into the kitchen at 9 a.m There she’s one of the first people to greet the various purveyors who grace FIG’s backdoor.
“We receive vegetables from a ton of different people,” Stanhope says. “We only get produce straight from the source — dirty and unfabricated.” And because of that, it’s Becerra’s job to not only sort the various carrots and cucumbers, but to make sure they’re washed, cleaned, and broken down properly. Sounds simple enough. But don’t forget this is FIG, where freshly picked beets are treated with the same care typically reserved for newborn babes.
Together with Stanhope, Becerra and the prep team taste and decide how each vegetable should be treated for that day. “Say we get baby radishes, she helps me decide if we should leave the tops on them or if the greens are tender enough to leave the stem on or whether we should use them for a raw application,” Stanhope explains. The choices are not taken lightly. And Stanhope says it’s Becerra’s thoughtful dedication to her role, just as much as his own cooking talent, that helps keep FIG’s menu so consistent. Meanwhile her sweet disposition buoys the kitchen staff.
“Lucy is just a beacon of how the day is going to go,” explains Stanhope. “The cooks walk in and she’s the first person they see. She sets the tone for the whole day.”
That’s right, Becerra, a single mother of two who speaks little English, never went to school, and travels by bus to work sets the tone for FIG every day.
“It’s like when Tom Petty comes on and everyone starts smiling, that’s what it’s like when Lucy comes in,” says Stanhope.
And the staff agrees, her smile and positive attitude are omnipresent, even in tough times.
When Becerra mentions that her father passed away a few years ago, Bowers translates, “Did you go home for the funeral?” Lucy says no. “I have two kids,” she explains. “I have to work very hard for them. My daughter needs a lot of help in school. She takes a lot of pills because she’s very hyperactive.”
But even though Becerra’s father is gone, she still sends money home to her 85-year-old mother. She’s their only child who can afford to do so.
“When I got here, I prayed, ‘Dear Lord help me provide for my parents,'” she says. “This job has always provided that.”
But there must be some hard parts? The mopping? The dishwashing? The high-pressure atmosphere of a restaurant named one of the nation’s best year in and year out.
Becerra just shakes her head no and gives an unassuming shrug. “No he encontrado nada difícil todavía,” she says meaning. “I haven’t found anything hard yet.”
It appears many people’s idea of hard work — this writer’s included — is just, well, work to Becerra. And that’s even more apparent when Stanhope describes her actions on a light prep day. When there aren’t boxes of veggies to chop or dishes to organize, the chef says he’ll often find the tiny woman crouched behind the dish pit scrubbing the pipes. “I don’t have to ask her,” he says. “She just does it.”
Looking at this petite woman — who, if you’d walked into FIG on any other morning could easily be dismissed as just another cog in the restaurant’s wheel — I’m reminded of a quote from FDR: “Remember, remember always, that all of us, you and I especially, are descended from immigrants and revolutionists.”
Becerra is a good reminder.
Stanhope sums it up best. “There are leaders and followers,” he says. “Lucy is a great follower, but because of her silent and humble demeanor she’s such a good leader.”
We close by asking Becerra one final question, something that I’m sure all immigrants must ponder when they weigh the life they’ve made abroad against the life they’ve left behind. Bowers translates, “Lucy, have the opportunities at FIG been what you were looking for in America?”
Becerra smiles, “Sí.” Stay cool. Support City Paper.
Stay cool. Support City Paper.