Elsa Ceja’s parents came from Mexico and opened La Cabaña restaurant in the city of Redding 22 years ago.
When the fires broke out last week, Elsa and her whole family were in Mexico on vacation. They landed in Sacramento last Saturday, July 28, when the blaze was at its height. Flames were consuming parts of the city.
“Everyone was scared,” Elsa says. “And I’m like no, we gotta go back. We gotta see what’s going on. We have to go home and see and help. We can’t just take off. We have to be there for our community. They’ve been there for us so many years. It’s time for us to be there.”
Elsa and her family rushed home. They posted on Facebook that they would give free food to first responders and firefighters, and 20 percent discounts to evacuees. They started distributing breakfast burritos at a nearby evacuation center.
For more help, Elsa called her sister, Alma Fragoso, in Sacramento, about 2½ hours away. Alma contacted her local priest to get donations -- water, clothes, hygiene products and toys. They piled it all into a truck and drove it up to Redding.
On Monday night, when the truckload of donations arrives, Jesus Manzo, Elsa’s brother, comes out of the restaurant. He’s a cook and is covered in sweat. It's almost 100 degrees out and he's been in the kitchen all day. He takes one look at the pile of donations in the truck and breaks into a big smile. "Awesome," is all he says.
Jesus tells me he's been hearing reports that some shops have been jacking up the price on essential goods ever since the fires broke out. Price gouging. “It’s ridiculous,” Jesus says. “It’s time to help. We’re here to help.”
Latinos like Jesus and his sister are in the minority in Redding. It’s a city of almost 92,000 people and 85 percent white. In 2016, the city and nearby region voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump.
This year, Shasta County voted to become a non-sanctuary zone for undocumented immigrants. There have been reports this year of racism at schools and in town. With the fires, there's a worry that some Latinos on the missing persons list haven’t identified themselves to law enforcement for fear of deportation.
Right now the Manzo family is just focused on the fires and their effect on the community. After Jesus finishes unloading the truck, he ties his apron back on and heads into the kitchen. It’s dinnertime and the restaurant has gotten busy.
A new group of evacuees from a nearby shelter just came in, and they are hungry for some Mexican food.