Ashland Restaurant Is The 'Glue' For A Latino Community Hard-Hit By Wildfires
Days after the Almeda fire swept through Southern Oregon, the family-owned restaurant El Tapatio in Ashland became a hub of resources for those affected -- and it’s doubling as a gathering space for the area’s Latino community.
Behind the Mexican restaurant El Tapatio, there’s a field that runs along Highway 99. Right now, it’s filled with tables, tents, and dozens of volunteers. Overflowing piles of clothes and shoes are organized by size and gender, next to mounds of canned foods and toiletries.
Yahaira Padilla is answering questions and giving directions. There’s a line of people four deep waiting to talk to her.
More than 2,300 homes were burned in Talent and Phoenix, and low income folks were among those hit the hardest. Many people who lost their jobs and homes are migrant farmworkers from Mexico. And El Tapatio has been a fixture in the Rogue Valley’s Latino community for almost thirty years.
Yahaira Padilla’s parents own the restaurant. Now, she and her family find themselves running an impromptu resource and recovery center for people whose lives have been upended by the wildfire.
“It was a lot of the Latinos in this community that were affected," says Padilla. "And at the end of the day it’s very intimidating to have to go into any place and ask for anything. We’re very proud people. We’re very loving people, but we’re very proud and it’s hard for us to ask for help.”
Sometimes, immigrants with limited English language skills are uncomfortable trying to access official sources of help. The Padilla family, though, has long standing connections and relationships in the community. Many people know them through church or through the restaurant.
“My father has always had a business and his energy is just a big light.”
The Padilla family put out the word that they were accepting donations at the restaurant. Now, Yahaira spends long days organizing volunteers and donations.
"People that you thought you didn’t know come in and they help you out. A lot of the people that I talked to that lost everything, when I call them I’m like, what do you need? How can I help? And they’re like, everybody has given something.”
Ignacio Michel has been living in Southern Oregon for almost twenty years. Like many of the visitors, he knows Yahaira’s father Ramiro from church. Michel’s home in Talent burned in the fire, as well as the taqueria that their family owned.
Michel has come to the restaurant for clothes, food, and bedding. He and his wife have preexisting medical conditions and are staying at their daughter's house in White City. Michel is currently out of work but trying to stay optimistic.
“It seems like if the people help us, it’s going to get a little better," says Michel. "I needed medication and they already gave it to me. We needed money for gas. The money in my house burned. I only had a little bit of money and now it’s gone.”
Michel has also been visiting the shelter at the Jackson County Expo Center, where some of his friends have been staying. Some of them don’t have social security numbers, which prevents them from being eligible for federal aid.
"It’s amazing to just be able to be that glue right now between the Latino community and everybody else really that’s trying to help.”
Joannie Jimenez lives in Talent and has started a list of GoFundMe campaigns specifically for immigrants and migrant farmworkers who have been impacted by the Almeda Fire and aren’t eligible for government assistance. The farm where she worked burned in the fires and while her home was spared, many of her neighbors lost theirs.
“So many people are looking for that better life, and a lot of people are in that process of getting their social security and all their documents burned," says Jimenez. "So like, what do you do with that? Who do you call? A lot of people were just kind of lost on who they get in contact with.”
Jimenez says that El Tapatio, along with a few other locations, have been so important in the aftermath of the fires for the support survivors can offer each other. These community gathering spaces act as a safe space to remind victims that they’re not alone.
“I have to say, in moments like this, everybody comes together," says Jimenez. "People that you thought you didn’t know come in and they help you out. A lot of the people that I talked to that lost everything, when I call them I’m like, what do you need? How can I help? And they’re like, everybody has given something.”
Yahaira Padilla says her family’s been overwhelmed with the amount of help and donations people have been offering.
At the end of the day, many of these people still don’t have places to live. A pertinent challenge is getting victims a space that will fit the whole family.
Yahaira says that many people are staying in their cars and need gas money. They don’t have any financial resources to fall back on.
"It’s a very vulnerable situation for my people who are undocumented," says Padilla. "But those people, my hard workers, my amazing beautiful souls, are the ones that aren’t getting anything right now. Those are the ones we’re talking to. Those are the ones we’re helping and those are the ones I’m personally making sure we connect with and we help them at least every day.”
Yahaira and other volunteers take down the contact information of visitors when they come for help. They then call and follow up with families to check in and see how they’re doing. Yahaira doesn't want to help people for just one day.
Sometimes, they just need a little food or money for gas.
“It’s a poor community," says Padilla. "We’re not wealthy people, we’re hardworking people. You know, we get minimum wage. And so it’s amazing to just be able to be that glue right now between the Latino community and everybody else really that’s trying to help.”
The donation site at El Tapatio is slated to be open until at least the end of the month. Yahaira says her family plans to start a nonprofit to help families who are struggling to get financial help.