An Immigration Story: Neftalí Duran Didn’t Set Out to Stay in U.S., Now Champions Food Justice

MassLive, July 19th, 2016, by Daniel Desrochers, Karly Dunn and Kelsey Kenny. Unlike some of his friends from his native state of Oaxaca, in southern Mexico, Neftalí Duran never imagined himself emigrating to the United States, or even just taking on a seasonal job there.

“There wasn’t a tradition of my family coming to the U.S., like there are traditions of other families coming to the U.S. and working in the fields, then going back. That wasn’t our family,” Duran explains.

And yet, in 1997, at the age of 18, he found himself walking over the border from the city of Tijuana.

“I was very lucky,” he says of his coming over without the proper documentation. “But you’re also taking about ’97, when it was still easier to come to the U.S. as opposed to now when [the border] is militarized and extremely expensive to cross.”

His change of mind process began three years earlier, when he was still in school. The trade liberalization policies the Mexican government undertook in the late ’80s and early ’90s, the Chiapas uprising, and the country’s dependence on capricious foreign capital conspired to produce what is now known as “The 1994 Mexican Peso Crisis.” Many people, especially farmers, lost all of their savings.

“So you go from these communities who make a living off the agriculture, basically a culture of sustenance, to not being able to make a living. I was young and going to school, but I couldn’t make ends meet,” Duran says. “Some of my friends came on their own [to the U.S.] when we were like 14, 15, and so I knew it was possible. So I used this as a reason, like, ‘OK, I’m going to do it, I’m going to make it happen.’ My idea, and I think this happens often with a lot of migrants, was that I will come for a year or two and go to school, then come back and carry on with my life. That’s easier said than done. Nineteen, 20 years later, I’m still here. And obviously a lot of things have happened in between, but that was the idea: Come, save some money, and go back to school. Obviously, that didn’t happen,” Duran says.

A Job and an Education

A former owner of El Jardin Bakery in South Deerfield and presently a chef, a teacher, and a food justice advocate, Duran got his start in the food business the hard way: by working in the back of restaurants.

“I landed in ’97, in LA, west LA to be specific. Big Oaxacan community, and with some connections, kids that I grew up with. Most of them were already working in restaurants and going to high school because we were young, and that’s how I started working in restaurants. Because it was out of necessity. It wasn’t because I thought, ‘Oh, I want to be a cook,’ but because I had to. It’s only so long you can crash with someone and not pay rent,” Duran says.

He cleaned dishes, and he pressure-washed kitchens of fast food joints in the middle of the night. And then one day, a friend of his convinced him to try his luck at a better-paid job.

“So we went walking down the street stopping into many different restaurants and he coached me to say, ‘I want a job, I’m looking for a place to work.’ And nine [out] of 10 places said that they aren’t hiring, but I was lucky to come into Van Gogh’s Ear. It was a 24-hour café, a really funky place,” Duran recounts.

“One of the owners happened to be there and he happened to be Mexican-American, and he hired me the same day. So I worked for him and his partner for three years. So that was my crash course in cooking and running a kitchen right there. But they were very kind to me,” Duran says.

He told his employer that he wanted to learn English. And the same combination of friendship and great timing that had helped him get across the Mexico-U.S. border years earlier worked anew.

“[The employer] took me to a high school in the area and convinced them to let me in. You know, I didn’t have much documentation, and he basically said, ‘I’m the legal guardian,’ and he convinced them to let me into high school. That was like the first step to learn in English, but to start assimilating as well,” Duran says.

He never did finish high school.

“I met a girl at the restaurant,” he said. “She was a young theater geek and we got pregnant in ’98. My son was born in ’99. He’s 16 now. So I had to drop out of school, and just work more.”

Eventually, Duran earned his GED and even took come college classes.

It was through his wife at the time that Duran was able to change his status from undocumented immigrant to American citizen.

“She said, ‘Regardless of if we stay together or not, I need you to stay legal to take care of our son’,” Duran said. “So she was smart enough and civil enough to help me. She said, ‘Now you can help raise our son and be around for him’.”

His wife was also the reason why Duran ended up in Western Massachusetts.

“She went and got accepted to Mount Holyoke [College], so I came to Massachusetts to be able to be close to my son and help out. And obviously, even at that point, even if we were young, something that both of us knew was important was education,” he says. “I guess we always knew education was one of the ways you could become financially more stable and successful, besides the value of education.”

Back to The Roots

His first job in Massachusetts was with Nuestras Raíces (“Our Roots”), a Holyoke-based outfit that describes itself as “a grassroots urban agriculture organization.”

Duran worked for them for a year. Then he bought El Jardin Bakery, a business Nuestras Raíces had helped start, and managed it for 13 years. Last year, Duran returned to Nuestras Raíces, this time as a staff member working on a project called Nuestra Comida (“Our Food”).

Duran explains why this initiative held a special appeal for him.

“I’m really passionate about food justice and food access, and we teach classes here. We teach the youth food justice and food cooking classes. We live in a beautiful valley, but people are still hungry,” Duran explains. “We live in a period where TV chefs are super popular, but there’s not a lot of people that look like me on TV. The experts on ‘ethnic food’ are white people. There’s reasons why that happens, whether it’s economic, financial access, connections, education, but there’s also no reason why we shouldn’t be working in different communities. Not only myself, but the younger people, they can be the face of their community, they can be the experts on their culture and their food.”

His native region of Oaxaca, Mexico, provides him with everything he needs: history, ingredients, recipes, and the personal connection.

“Mesoamerica, including Oaxaca, is where most of the agricultural innovations come from. You think about some of the major crops that have fed the world: corn, chilies, beans, squash. Those are the four basics. And that’s just a small snippet of everything else,” Duran says. “Imagine a world where there’s no corn in the world, or no chilies. Imagine a world with no chilies in Asian food, or tomatoes in Italian food. So that was one of things I really learned and really got me interested. Because that’s culture, that’s identity. Especially indigenous people. Those are agricultural innovations, the gastronomical and agricultural innovations that they have contributed to the world forever, for thousands of years.

“The innovations of growing those things is what fed people for a long time. This is permaculture before there was a word for it,” Duran says. “This is indigenous knowledge. To know that if you plant corn and you plant a bean around the corn, and if you plant squash, too, that will keep away the bugs, that’s like a three-sister method of growing food – that’s innovation. Corn is not digestible for humans, so you have to nixtamalize it. [Nixtamalization is the process of preparing maize by soaking it in alkaline solution]. To make it digestible you take limestone, you take water, you boil it, you put the corn in, and you let it sit overnight, and then you grind it, and then you make a tortilla. That’s something essential that we take for granted that someone had to figure out. So those are things that really made me start thinking, start searching for my cultural identity. So that’s why I started to mostly cook and talk and educate about that part of the region. Because it’s a beautiful story of innovation and resiliency.”