My Abuela’s East San Jose Kitchen Fed Dozens of Undocumented Workers Every Week

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An elderly Latina woman grinds ingredients inside a stone molcajete.
During the '90s, the author's abuela, Mardonia Galeana, ran an informal restaurant out of her apartment. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

KQED's San Jose: The Bay Area's Great Immigrant Food City is a series of stories exploring San Jose's wonderfully diverse immigrant food scene. A new installment will post each weekday from Oct. 20–29. 


grew up on the corner of Story and Capitol, the heart of Eastside San Jose. Even back then, nearly three decades ago, San Jose had already developed a reputation as a booming hub of technology and innovation. It was already in the early stages of becoming one of the most expensive cities in the country. My family, undocumented, rented out our apartment’s two bedrooms while the three of us crowded into the living room—a common practice among the low-income families in the community. Everyone just did what they could to make rent. 

Most of the other residents in our apartment complex had the same immigration status. We’d migrated from places like Oaxaca, Puebla and Guerrero, in the southern part of Mexico. In our neighborhood, there was a common understanding that if you lived here, it was because of your legal status or your limited resources—probably both. It wasn’t a part of the city for people who had other options.

The early ’90s were particularly difficult for undocumented people in California. In 1994, then-governor Pete Wilson inundated our airwaves with ads for Proposition 187, legislation that prohibited undocumented people from accessing public services such as hospitals or schools. The law was eventually struck down by the courts, but we all heard the talk of how “illegals” should be forced to go back where they came from.

Regardless, with the little we had—and facing a hostile environment—the immigrants in my neighborhood created a community for ourselves. We shared tips on the different ways we were able to get by. We continued to build our lives in this country. 

Outstretched hands holding three small red chile peppers.
Abuela excelled at cooking dishes from her hometown in Guerrero, Mexico. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

It was around this time that my abuela took it upon herself to start her own informal business. In our neighborhood, this wasn’t an uncommon thing for people to do. For example, the lady in apartment 28 used to babysit kids. The lady in number 14 sold candies, and the one in number 11 sold bottles of soda. This underground economy was what kept our community afloat. Each dollar made a difference.


Abuela noticed that most of the migrants moving into our apartment building were men. Often, they’d left their families behind to work in the U.S., sending most of the money they made back home to Mexico. What these men needed, Abuela realized, was a cook. 

Gathering her pots and pans, Abuela began selling home-cooked meals, offering them at a reduced price. Before we knew it, her clientele grew. A few nights a week, the men filled up our small living room, drawn in by the telenovela blasting on the TV as they waited their turn. Others crowded around our kitchen table, gobbling up tortilla after tortilla. 

The men laughed and bullied each other. Often, they’d also share their hardships—wage theft, humiliation, getting hurt. As a high-maintenance preteen at the time, I didn’t understand what was happening around me. All I thought about being undocumented was how unlucky we were. Now, looking back, I think that for those men, the camaraderie of sitting around Abuela’s table helped make being in this country feel less lonely.

A woman toasts chile peppers in a cast iron pan.
Abuela would roast dozens of chiles to prepare for the meals she sold. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

To prepare for these dinners, Abuela would roast dozens of chiles, the fumes often forcing us to step outside of the apartment. She mixed and poured, never using actual measuring cups or tablespoons, just intuition. The huge pots created steam that would consume the entire apartment and cause the walls to sweat. At the time, the whole ordeal just intensified my annoyance with our living situation. 

But the food was delicious.

Abuela mostly cooked traditional dishes from our home state of Guerrero—picaditas and carne de puerco en chile verde. And because many of her customers were from other parts of Mexico such as Puebla and Oaxaca, Abuela decided to learn how to make traditional meals from those regions as well. She learned how to make mole poblano. She would steam Oaxacan tamales de frijol filled with puréed black beans. Her clients walked in and out of our apartment. Each brought in a story and left with a full stomach. 

Now, at 86, Abuela can no longer cook with the same fury. Severe glaucoma has taken the vision from her left eye, but her spirit is still unstoppable. We no longer live in the same apartment complex. But we are still undocumented; we’re still proud residents of the Eastside. And underground kitchens like my Abuela's remain very common in San Jose’s low-income neighborhoods today. 

An elderly woman with glasses looks off into the distance.
Mardonia Galeana poses for a portrait at her home in San Jose. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

These days, when nostalgia hits Abuela with a longing to return home, I know precisely the place where she wants to go. On weekends, Doña Estela transforms her Eastside living room into a makeshift restaurant just like Abuela used to do. She folds out tables, assembles a colorful table layout and welcomes her patrons. Her house is adorned with a Virgen de Guadalupe altar, and she attributes her underground success to her devotion. When you pay her, she takes the money y se persina—she makes the sign of the cross.

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Doña Estela is known for her tacos sudados, which she steams until the tortillas and the meat tucked inside are perfectly tender. They’re magnificent. While Abuela eats, she sits and sparks conversations with the other customers. They hold a reverence for her: In her old age, Abuela resembles the mothers that these migrants left behind, or their own abuelas they could not bury.

"Cuidala," they implore me. “Look after her.”

Abuela talks to these strangers about the places and the people they left behind. Then, bite after bite, they envision their return.

An elderly Latina woman and her grandson post for a portrait outdoors in their tree-lined backyard.
The author (right) and his grandmother, now 86, still live in Eastside San Jose. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)


Yosimar Reyes is a nationally acclaimed poet and public speaker. Born in Guerrero, Mexico, and raised in Eastside San Jose, Reyes explores the themes of migration and sexuality in his work.