Marcela E. García

Bilingual Journalist

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Regular contributor to the Boston Globe editorial and op-ed pages, and frequent guest commentator at Boston NPR station WGBH Radio 89.7 FM. Formerly at WNEU Telemundo Boston, the Boston Business Journal, and El Planeta.

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Welcome the immigrant driver

Give undocumented immigrants the right to drive legally

My latest Boston Globe column, in which once again I make the case for granting a form of driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants.

(ILLO BY DANIEL HERTZBERG FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE)

Welcome the immigrant driver
Licenses for undocumented workers would benefit all

By Marcela García | FEBRUARY 05, 2014

MOST MASSACHUSETTS residents don’t seem to know what to think of the undocumented immigrant population. And yet, this demographic is categorically an economic fact of life in the Commonwealth. These workers often are part of the silent backdrops in our everyday lives as they labor in the underbelly of the local economy — the janitors, house cleaners, restaurant kitchen workers, and the field hands for suburban landscapers.

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Haitians without a nation

A ruling in the Dominican Republic divides immigrants in Boston

My latest op-ed for the Boston Globe —and the last one for 2013!— explores the recent citizenship ruling in the Dominican Republic, and how it’s playing locally in Boston.

Louissien Pierra, 25, who was born in the Dominican Republic, held his 2-year-old daughter in November as they waited to board a bus to a Haitian town where they have family. Departures from the Dominican Republic to Haiti followed violence that erupted after a court ruling that could potentially revoke citizenship for residents of the Dominican Republic of Haitian descent.

OPINION | MARCELA GARCÍA
Haitians without a nation
A ruling in the Dominican Republic divides immigrants in Boston

By Marcela García | DECEMBER 30, 2013

A COUNTRY’S highest court issues a ruling to strip away citizenship from certain longtime residents, some with families that have been there for several generations.

It sounds like fiction, something from a futuristic political novel. But it is the bizarre and disturbing reality in the Dominican Republic, a situation that is roiling the country but is only echoing faintly in the United States.

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Friction in an immigrant town: On Brazilians in Framingham

Little Brazil is how the town of Framingham is pretty much known in Massachusetts. The way Brazilians have revitalized this western MA town is fascinating, yet it is also very sad how there’s still people who reject the vibrancy immigrants often bring to the area. An op-ed I wrote in mid-December for the Boston Globe addresses how this town is often divided along those lines. As usual, the comments on the piece are as acerbic as they are ignorant…

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OPINION | MARCELA GARCÍA
Friction in an immigrant town
By Marcela García | DECEMBER 16, 2013

THE GREEN and yellow Brazilian flag adorns many downtown shops in Framingham, reflecting the pride of the town’s dominant immigrant group. But as much as the waves of Brazilian immigrants have transformed Framingham over the past 30 years, the town has been a melting pot for generations — only slightly more than half of its immigrants are from Brazil. One in four Framinghamites is foreign born.

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Massachusetts Immigrants need licenses, not detention

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(Picture by none other than the Boston Herald, from an immigration rally in Boston a couple of months ago.)

With federal immigration reform seemingly going nowhere, states across the country are taking action. In my latest column for the Boston Globe, I write about two proposed bills in the Massachusetts legislation that would positively impact immigrant communities in the commonwealth.

As usual when writing about immigrants, I was bracing myself for the typical wave of nasty online commentary. But the posts this column generated were brutal. The deep hatred some people have for immigrants never ceases to amaze me. It’s sad and frustrating at best, downright terrifying at worst. A sample:

Immigrants need licenses, not detention? Illegal immigrants need deportation.

Message to MA elected officials: You were elected by your LEGAL MA CITIZENS to represent us…not illegals. So remember that before voting to either repeal Secure Communities or give driver’s licenses to illegals…because MA citizens do NOT support either initiative. And we WILL then vote you OUT of office.

Utter nonsense Marcela. Go away. (Now deleted)

Message to all illegal aliens: Get in the back of the line after all the immigrants who are following US immigration law by adhering to the correct application procedures, green card authorizations, etc. You do NOT deserve to cut in front of the line. (What line!? There is no line!)

Thinking of writing a column precisely about those comments…

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OPINION | MARCELA GARCÍA
Immigrants need licenses, not detention
By Marcela García | DECEMBER 01, 2013

IMMIGRATION REFORM is dead — or maybe not, depending on whom you talk to.

Yet, in a refreshing response to Washington political sclerosis, some Massachusetts lawmakers are following the lead of a handful of states that have recently implemented measures to fill the void left by the ghost of immigration reform.

Two very different bills are in play at the State House, but both draw on the fundamental, yet controversial, premise that undocumented immigrants are a fact of life and require sensible policies, rather than purely exclusionary or hostile treatment. This is the same notion that animated the recent nationwide immigration debate — the growing awareness that longstanding denial about undocumented immigrants is getting the country nowhere.

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Under the Radar, 89.7 WGBH

Callie Crossley

Originally broadcast on Sunday 11/17/13

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My latest appearance on WGBH, Boston’s NPR station. I’m on "Under the Radar" with fabulous host Callie Crossley and the awesome Julio Ricardo Varela, digital producer at Al Jazeera America and founder of Latino Rebels. We had tons of fun talking: Lantigua’s Recount in Lawrence, MA; Casinos in East Boston/Revere; and Immigration Reform Reaching a Dead End.

Cubriendo a Alejandro Sanz en Berklee College of Music que le entrega Doctorado Honoris Causa hoy en Boston. Corazón Partio!!!

Scars in East Boston

In my latest column for the Boston Globe, I argue that the casino vote has caused deep divisions in the East Boston Latino community, and that the effects will be felt long beyond tomorrow and regardless of whether a casino is approved or not. 

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OPINION | MARCELA GARCÍA

Scars in East Boston

The casino vote has caused deep divisions in the Latino community

By Marcela García | NOVEMBER 04, 2013

THE EAST Boston casino campaign will be a benchmark in the emergence of Boston’s Latino community. But as the race nears the finish line, the casualties and accusations are piling up. Opponents are ripping down each others’ campaign signs with abandon while each side tries to catch the other on video doing it; a casino supporter suffered a broken nose at a contentious rally, and pro- and anti-casino advocates regularly malign each other in Spanish on Facebook.

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…this is our “effing city too” and maybe, just maybe, under the new ownership of the Globe it will be reflected every time we celebrate the positive.

Writes the great José Massó, Boston Latino legend who by now has been awarded every single recognition and award there is for Latinos in Massachusetts. His letter to the Globe preaches the truth, and even made it to Universal Hub. Not for nothing, YOU ROCK!!

Check me out on WGBH’s Greater Boston talking with host Emily Rooney and Boston Globe reporter Wesley Lowery about how the Mayor’s race is playing out in communities of color. 

The clock is ticking down to the Boston mayoral election. In just five days, voters will choose between John Connolly and Marty Walsh. And while they’ve worked overtime to differentiate themselves, there’s no getting around the fact that both candidates are white men of Irish descent.

Oct 5 | My latest Boston Globe column: On the Mayoral prelim election and what happened to the Latino vote


Low turnout a lost opportunity for Latinos

OPINION | MARCELA GARCÍA

IT’S BEEN almost two full weeks since the very crowded and historic preliminary mayoral race in Boston, and Hector Piña is still bummed out. He calls it a “morale hangover” after a disappointing result for Latinos — both in the ballot and in turnout numbers.

A longtime community activist, heavily engaged in local politics, Piña, originally from the Dominican Republic, owns the well-known Merengue Restaurant in Roxbury, and the popular Vejigantes in the South End. Both of his Latino restaurants are magnets for Boston Hispanic community leaders, activists, and Latino personalities in general (Mariano Rivera ate at Vejigantes a couple of weeks ago; David Ortiz and Junot Diaz are both regulars).

“It is our own people who end up discouraging Latino candidates from running,” said Piña. “How can they run if our own people don’t stand behind them?”

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It’s an open secret, something generally understood but rarely talked about publicly in the local food industry.

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Really thrilled to have seen my latest column in today’s Boston Globe. I’ve been talking about this topic for years: how the Boston area restaurant industry is disproportionally supported by immigrant workers. While I was at El Planeta, we covered this topic often —with our limited resources, we did it as best as we could— but it would always puzzle me the way this latent story was out there for anyone to really develop (with the exception of the Upper Crust Pizzeria saga and a handful of other very specific cases, there is barely any significant report on this reality. Please someone correct me if I’m wrong!)

It doesn’t help that there is practically no research on this industry and its practices. In the process of reporting my column, I came across a fantastic national non profit: the Restaurant Opportunities Center has done some excellent and recent research on restaurant workers’ exploitation in different urban areas (not Boston, tho.)

I feel very lucky to have been able to tell the story of these two amazing characters who are truly representative of the daily dichotomy in Boston’s kitchens. The stories of people like Simon Restrepo that follow the same direction than that of Monica Marulanda —Simon, under the leadership of her mentor Chef Lydia Shire, rose through the ranks to become the executive chef at Scampo, a celebrated restaurant in Boston— are the exception and not the rule. People like Marcos Che bear the weight of the industry on their shoulders. Like Monica Marulanda said to me: “Yes, we are who we are and we have what we have thanks to them (restaurateurs and celebrity chefs), sure. But they are who they are thanks to us. We have given them all of that.”

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OPINION | MARCELA GARCÍA

Feast or famine

 By Marcela García | SEPTEMBER 29, 2013

MONICA MARULANDA regularly arrives to work at 5:30 a.m. at the renowned No. 9 Park, where she prepares the award-winning pasta. Originally from Colombia, she got a foot in the door at the restaurant and, through the guidance and support of her mentor Barbara Lynch, has risen as a prized contributor to the local culinary scene.

Across town, Marcos Che Cucul bikes from his rented apartment in Allston to his job as prep cook in a restaurant on Boylston Street. He also washes dishes at a Commonwealth Avenue restaurant near Boston University. The immigrant from Guatemala works about 12 hours a day, six days a week for barely the minimum wage, making about $550 weekly. He only takes Saturdays off.

Every so often at a fancy restaurant in Boston the kitchen door swings open as you walk by. If you catch a glimpse inside, chances are many of the kitchen workers, pivoting in the hot and tight clutter seemingly a world away from the elegant dining room, are Latinos.

It’s an open secret, something generally understood but rarely talked about publicly in the local food industry. Immigrant labor from Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, and Brazil is the engine behind much of Boston’s booming dining scene, great and not-so-great restaurants alike. The entrepreneur, or the chef, gets the credit. But it’s Latinos and other immigrants doing most of the work.

And it is tough work, to say the least. Latinos take the kitchen jobs because it’s often the best work they can get. There’s little to none of the glamour that’s often associated with running a restaurant. And, given that they are the low men and women on the totem pole, it’s common for restaurant owners to take advantage of them.

The financial exploitation is rampant. That’s because immigrants often aren’t aware of the labor rules and often feel they don’t have the leverage to defend their rights even when they know they are being cheated. All the same, there’s a growing backlash and a litany of cases brought against a broad swath of restaurants in greater Boston by the US Department of Labor. A year ago, the department reached a settlement with Marc Kadish, who owns a trio of Boston restaurants, including the Sunset Grill, for $675,000 in back wages and liquidated damages for wage law violations, including failing to pay overtime.

But with so much potential talent circulating in Boston’s growing number of restaurant kitchens, occasionally an immigrant worker finds a champion, a smart owner or manager who puts an employee on the path to culinary success, as in the case of Monica Marulanda, who started at the bottom. But Monica is an outlier, lucky that the business-savvy Lynch had the instincts to recognize her potential. A disproportionate percentage are overworked and underpaid. So, one fair question for the restaurant industry is: Does it have to be feast or famine for its workforce?

Marcos Che Cucul and Monica Marulanda immigrated to Boston from Guatemala and Colombia, respectively. Both work long hours in restaurants, with vastly different career paths.

The closest thing to a champion Marcos Che Cucul has found in Boston is a nonprofit agency that has helped try to recover thousands in lost wages when the restaurant he was working at a food preparer stopped paying him. Che Cucul, 36, came to Boston six years ago and found work at Mumbai Chopstix on Newbury Street in 2010.

He said he was getting paid a salary of $375 a week — in cash — working 12 hours per day, six days a week. “Then, after about three months, the problems started,” he told me. “They just didn’t pay us. They’d say mañana, mañana, mañana. I kept working. What else could I do? We didn’t have any other jobs.”

What could he do? Eventually, after a few starts and stops with Mumbai Chopstix, which went out of business last year, and failed attempts to get his back pay, he learned about Centro Presente, a community organizing group for immigrants. Last October, Che Cucul and six other workers filed a federal lawsuit, which was still pending as of Thursday, to recover what they claimed were $183,500 in unpaid wages, minimum wages, and overtime at restaurants part of One World Cuisine, a group owned by Amrik S. Pabla of Lexington.

“I haven’t thought of what I’ll do with the money if they pay me. I think they’ll pay. We have been fighting for this money for a while. They have to pay us,” Che Cucul tells me while looking away, almost to convince himself that they will in fact pay and justice will be served.

Pabla, after I reached him by phone, denied One World Cuisine has done anything wrong. “We’re immigrants … we are a family business and have been for more than 40 years,” Pabla told me. “We have all the proper documents, we have not done anything wrong, and we will prove that in court.” He then referred all questions to his lawyer, John Lewis, who added: “There is litigation pending and if we agreed on things, we wouldn’t be having a lawsuit. Our company complies to every applicable law.”

During the summer, Centro Presente staged a protest outside the home of Pabla in Lexington. Patricia Montes, executive director of Centro Presente, said her group distributed flyers to the neighbors “so that they know who these people are.” Pabla’s home, she said, is valued at about $2 million. One World’s current holdings include Bukhara Restaurant in Jamaica Plain, Diva Indian Bistro in Somerville’s Davis Square, and Dosa Factory in Cambridge. Montes said Centro Presente already had settled a smaller case with One World before they were made aware of Che Cucul’s.

Meanwhile, Che Cucul is back working in the kitchen and though he says he is undocumented, he is fighting the system all the same. After being asked if he’s lost the fear of getting deported if he fights for his rights, of speaking up, of giving Spanish-language TV interviews, he says, chuckling: “Not at all. I am still afraid of speaking up, even though I’ve spoken up and stood up for myself a lot during this campaign.”

There was a time when Monica Marulanda would have been hard pressed to speak up for herself, as she was also undocumented in her early years on the Boston restaurant scene. Marulanda, 42, came to Boston 21 years ago from Colombia. Her first job was at Weylu’s on Route 1 in Saugus.

“Back then, pretty much all of us working at Weylu’s were Latinos — Colombians. We started working in restaurants because it was an easy job to get, we would get hired easily,” she says. “It wasn’t a lot of money but that kind of job opened the doors and it was a start.”

She added: “I was also working at a factory. I always had two jobs. In the morning from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. in the shoe factory and then starting at 5 p.m. in Weylu’s until midnight or 1 a.m.”

After a few restaurants jobs, including working as a busgirl at Figs and Olives for Todd English, she learned that Barbara Lynch was about to open her first restaurant, No. 9 Park on Beacon Hill. Marulanda had become intrigued with food prep, and Lynch brought her on and eventually taught her how to make pasta.

“We were so busy when it started. Everything Barbara told me, I would write it down,” Marulanda said. “I still have that notebook. Because my English wasn’t that good, she would repeat things to me. But I would get involved and do everything she’d say. She says that what she saw in me, outside of being a hard worker, was my attitude and that I had potential. She would say, ‘I want to explore that potential.’ That’s when she started teaching me the pasta stuff.”

Marulanda does not hedge when she talks about Lynch’s role in her life: “I am what I am because of Barbara. She is my mentor. She taught me so much, she has helped me so much. I have my green card because of her. She sponsored me. When she realized they were about to give me my green card she said, I have a present for you. It was tickets to go to Paris; she flew me there in 2004.”

About sponsoring Marulanda, Lynch said: “I didn’t second-guess it, I didn’t second-question it. I had the potential to know lawyers who could help her. Any right-minded person who has great employees would look at that. I try to do that with all my employees. It’s not about me, it’s about growing them.”

Marulanda eventually was offered a great job at the Four Seasons. She currently maintains the two positions: pasta chef at No. 9 Park — where she daily prepares its prune-stuffed gnocchi, named one of the five all-time-best-dishes in the city by The Boston Globe in 2009 — and at the Bristol Lounge in the Four Seasons. Marulanda has also helped Lynch launch the other restaurants in her group, often training other chefs how to make pasta.

About the simmering Latino potential in Boston’s kitchen, Marulanda said: “We are all undercover. Some Latinos are focused on just making money and return to their home countries; they have another mentality. There are a lot of dishwashers that are excellent, have good presence, and are hard workers — why can’t they progress more? Many because of the language, many because of their lack of papers, many lack the vision to stay here and make a career. They want to go back.”

Still, there is room for fairer treatment of workers in the kitchen. “I think I was able to give Monica self-esteem, pride, dignity. If you can give a person dignity, and show them that you care, they’re going to work for you no matter what,” said Lynch. “A lot of restaurants aren’t like mine,” said Lynch. “I’m not a flash in the pan. I have to make a living out of this. If I’m going to work 110 hours, I want to work with the people I want to work with. And I want them to be treated just like I want to be treated.”

Marcela García is a special correspondent at Telemundo Boston and a contributor to the Boston Business Journal.

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