Flor Martinez Zaragoza frequently supports Latino-owned businesses in her city, such as Tostadas, which serves items such as their original "birria burger." (Jordan Hayes)
¡Hella Hungry! is a column about Bay Area foodmakers, exploring the region's culinary cultures through the mouth of a first-generation local.
When most people think of Silicon Valley, they tend to think of the white-collar aspects — the self-driving Teslas, search engine startups and mega-billionaire corporations. But who is in those office buildings after hours, wiping down desks and taking out the trash? Who is cooking meals for campuses filled with six- and seven-figure earning employees? Who is tending the nearby fields and orchards? And why is the gap here between the affluent and working class, particularly in Spanish-speaking households, among the worst in the nation?
Flor Martinez Zaragoza, a 27-year-old activist, influencer and community advocate — probably best known for her Instagram account, @flowerinspanish, where she has 128,000 followers — has long been acutely aware of those discrepancies. She grew up in San Martin, a small town 25 miles south of San Jose that felt worlds apart from the ritzy tech campuses of Apple, Facebook and Google.
“Living outside of the city, there’s a crazy cultural difference driving around [Highway] 101,” she says. “It’s all farmworkers from Gilroy towards Salinas. Then you get to San Jose, Oakland, SF and it’s more industrial.”
As an undocumented immigrant with Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) status, Martinez Zaragoza picked grapes for wineries during her summers as a teenager, along with her family. Throughout her life, she has had to toggle between being an undocumented Mexicana with deep Bay Area roots and just trying to make ends meet in one of the world’s most expensive places to live.
For immigrants like her, it can feel impossible to voice any concerns, as they’re largely overshadowed by the larger forces of Silicon Valley and being undocumented. But Martinez Zaragoza is no longer keeping quiet about her community's needs. In 2020 — as wildfires swept across Northern California, putting thousands of mostly undocumented farm workers in harm's way — she began using social media as a tool to educate others about the hardships of a workforce population that is, and has been, aggressively exploited. It’s where she comes from.
Since then, she has used her rising platform to spotlight farm workers, undocumented business owners and independent, immigrant-owned restaurants around Northern and Central California. Her goal is to change California laws and improve pathways for thousands like her. I hung out with Flor at a few of her favorite restaurants around San Jo to learn more about her work and mission.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The bill, AB 2183, is for farm workers to vote for union representation freely and fairly without fear of intimidation or threat from employers. Many of them are undocumented. They’ve been able to unionize before, but [in the past] they’ve been fearful about it. Many leaders who work in the field would be dismissed or fired [for their involvement]. They didn’t have much protection: They had to vote on site, in the field. But now this bill allows farm workers to vote from home and use their voice without being targeted. They’re the most vulnerable workforce in the nation. That bill passed right before they were about to go on strike.
How did you get involved in this work?
I migrated to the U.S. [from Jalisco, México] when I was three, but I’ve lived in the Bay Area for most of my life. I’ve mostly lived in Gilroy and San Martin, near Morgan Hill, and I moved to San Jose six years ago. I used to be a farm worker when I was 14 years old. I worked in Gilroy, Watsonville and Santa Cruz, picking wine grapes with my parents and sister. I did it for a couple summers and then I had to focus on high school and stopped working in the fields. My grandpa was a bracero, too. He worked in Lodi, where we [recently] marched through. My grandpa broke his rib when he was working, and they sent him back to México. No compensation. They’re still treated like that today. If a worker gets hurt on the job, they don’t have work insurance. They’re so undervalued — sprayed with pesticides, without representation. They don’t have the money to get health care. There are lots of Mexicanos and Central Americans in the fields. They’re undocumented. There’s no hazard pay.
What’s your inspiration?
I was probably about 12 years old when I started advocating for immigration reform. My mom has always been a big advocate for educational rights for marginalized students. I would go to district meetings and events and use my English to speak for the women who only spoke in Spanish. I was their voice, and it introduced me to public speaking and advocating for others at an early age. Seeing my mom speaking broken English for women who spoke no English … that inspired me. They fought for charter schools to support students who didn’t know English — they would just get put into special ed, and it impacted their futures. A group of Latina moms fought for smaller classes with more attention and resources. And they won. I was a part of that. They sent me to Nashville and I was part of a leadership convention summit. I was the youngest one there with other leaders around the country. I learned how to be a voice and help my people. I’ve just been non-stop ever since.
How has social media helped you to share your messages and experiences with others?
It’s a tool that previous generations didn’t have. The bill that just passed for farmworkers was largely due to social media. The United Farm Workers introduced the bill, and the farmworkers supported it. Many people told me they learned about what was happening because of the content being put out on social media.
If some of us didn’t go hard on social media, lots of people wouldn’t be aware. TikTok platforms allow younger generations to listen and tell their story and others can be more active. I’ve seen the immense difference in how this younger generation stands up and makes videos. It’s about the education of people and spreading the message as influencers on [social media].
You’re vocal about supporting local businesses like Tostadas and its sister restaurants, the coffeeshop Con Azúcar Cafe and the newly opened Tostadas Prime. What do you like about these restaurants?
These locations are Latino-owned. When we put money back into our communities instead of corporations, that’s a resource. Our communities don’t always have much of it. These places provide jobs for people, and they outsource their ingredients responsibly. Having a Latino coffee shop [like Con Azúcar] is important. There are thousands of Starbucks in San Jose. But you can go around the corner and keep the money in your community. These places are doing it responsibly and giving back. For example, they support my nonprofit, Celebration Nation Inc. We have had multiple times when they let me borrow equipment for my toy drive. We help each other, repost our stuff, anything we need from each other. The owners have DACA like me.
Tostadas is one of my favorite places. They’ve been around for a while. They have vegan options, and it’s very cultural. The pandemic took a hit on them, but they’re still around. Tostadas Prime] is more luxury. If people order a certain dish, a percentage will go to a nonprofit and help farm workers.
These restaurants employ around 200 people. It’s important to put money back into our community. When we shop for food, it’s usually corporate. It’s a business and there are lots of chains. It takes a toll on our bodies and health. They’re mass producing on demand and introducing pesticides and poison. I’m vocal about eating organic. It helps us and the farm workers. Big corporations profit from us. We need to go back to how our ancestors were eating, harvesting whatever they could and sharing it with their neighbors, keeping it local and small batch. If San Jose had its own food system, that would be massive.
You mentioned your nonprofit. Tell us more about it.
I started a nonprofit [Celebration Nation] to support farm workers. We have a food bank program for them. We serve about 10,000 workers every month, across six towns in California. It’s volunteer-run. It’s basically to fill the gap around food insecurity with farm workers. There’s no reason those who feed us should be hungry. They’re the lowest paid workforce in the nation. Their families suffer. [They usually get served] food that lacks nutrition, which leads to health issues in the future.
We serve different languages, including Triqui and Mixtec. We have translators to prevent language barriers for accessing food banks. There are lots of reasons that farm workers get excluded from assistance. Having worked in the field helps me to get trust and know what’s going on. I went viral in 2020 during the fires, smoke, heat waves, pandemic. I expressed my frustration during the conditions, and I was telling people to pick their own vegetables. I used to be a worker so I have insight into the details.
Our next project is creating an educational program accessible on Web.3 and we will be utilizing blockchain technology to educate marginalized youth.
You currently have DACA. How has that impacted your life?
It has honestly helped me so much. It allowed me to get a driver’s license and a Social Security number. It shielded me from deportation. It lets me go about my day more comfortably. I have to renew it every two years. Having [Social Security] literally allows me to do business, to apply for loans, to apply for government grants. During the pandemic my event company was able to get a government grant because of my social. Also, I was able to get a stimulus check, unlike many farm workers who are undocumented. It definitely changed my life, and it sucks that it’s not available for more people.
DACA stopped accepting new applicants about two years ago. Trump was pushing the issue, trying to get rid of it every year. He left a lasting impact on the status of DACA, and a Texas judge ended applications. DACA doesn’t exist for the new generation. This month we’re waiting to see what happens — they’re supposed to share new information. There is so much uncertainty, it sucks. We work for our communities, we're contributing to the economy, doing our part for San Jose, providing jobs. This is people’s livelihoods. It’s about making an impact on the city, state, nation. We're dreamers but we don’t sleep.
What are you currently working on, and what’s on your mind?
I have a food company that’s coming soon. I haven’t announced it officially yet, but we’re going to sell chiles secos, spices, nuts and cultura from México. It’ll have its roots in México.
At the end of the day I have DACA. I have to create my own path and be in control of my future. I have to make choices that help me and my community. DACA and immigration reform are important. Immigration reform could help 11 to 12 million people, including our parents and the next generation. I organize rallies in San Jose and collaborate with other social justice groups like PACT [People Acting in Community Together]. They’ve always included me and my mom. She’s in Mexico now and can’t come back. But when she was here she had a community with PACT and had an outlet to advocate as an immigrant mom.
I try to provide that for women in my nonprofit. We’re run by moms and volunteers. They have a community and they throw their own parties. I like to lead the way when I can and step up. I wouldn’t change it.
Flor’s work can be seen online and at her nonprofit, Celebration Nation (3031 Tisch Way, 110 Plaza West, San Jose). Con Azúcar Cafe is open M–F from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Sat.–Sun. 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. (101 E Santa Clara St., San Jose). Tostadas has two locations in San Jose and a newly opened Tostadas Prime in Santa Clara. Check their page for updates. Special thanks to Jordan Hayes for his photography and videography.
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