The family behind critically acclaimed Oaxacan restaurant La Morada in Mott Haven, Bronx alleges that the NYPD wrongfully arrested and detained one of the restaurant’s owners — claiming that her status as an undocumented immigrant activist made her a target.
Yajaira Saavedra, an owner and the daughter of La Morada’s chef-owner Natalia Mendez, was taken into police custody on Friday, January 11th, which the family called an act of “injustice” in a statement.
The family believes police went into the restaurant because of their activism, they say: Saveedra and Mendez, who are open about their status as undocumented, have been vocal about rights for undocumented immigrants and about gentrification in the neighborhood, leading the New Yorker to call La Morada a “crucible for resistance” in the South Bronx.
But an NYPD spokesperson says in a statement to Eater that an officer entered the restaurant after making an undercover narcotics purchase from an individual “who became aggressive and began to follow her.” The officer went into La Morada “to seek refuge and avoid a physical altercation,” the statement says.
When the undercover cop identified herself as a police officer, staffers asked her to leave and began to film, the statement says. According to the NYPD, this “created a safety concern for the officer,” and that during the incident, “a female was taken into custody and released a short time later.”
Eater has also reached out to the Bronx District Attorney’s office.
Rose Weber, a civil rights attorney who has been hired by Saavedra, calls the NYPD’s version of events “a complete fabrication.”
“Anyone who knows Yajaira and her family knows that if a woman came into the restaurant in distress — no matter who that woman was — they would sit her down and comfort her and give her a cup of coffee to calm her down,” Weber says.
Saavedra tells Eater that two, not one, undercover cops came into the restaurant around 4:30 p.m. on January 11 and demanded that the restaurant be shut down due to an investigation, she alleges, though she did not get a clear answer on the purpose of it.
The officers left the restaurant when she asked them to, she alleges, but shortly after, one of them returned with about 10 other officers and arrested her. Saavedra claims they did not present her with a warrant or probable cause, and that they did not say her rights. She was taken to the 40th precinct in a van and was never told the reason for her arrest, she claims.
Saveedra’s siblings livestreamed the incident; a video of the arrest remains on the restaurant’s Facebook page and shows her being restrained by several plainclothes cops as Saveedra says that she has not been told why she is being arrested. In the video, she is led out of the restaurant, and an officer instructs the person filming to not to follow.
By 6:34 p.m., she was released without charges, but Saveedra maintains that she was never told why she had been initially arrested even while at the precinct. Weber plans to file a federal civil rights lawsuit, she says, calling it “absolutely” a civil rights issue.
“I feel like mass policing is a side effect of the gentrification that’s going on in the South Bronx,” Saveedra says, “and I think we were selectively targeted by the NYPD due to our political involvement in Black Lives Matter, as well as pro-immigration efforts and abolishing ICE.”
Though she was not charged, Saavedra reiterates that any arrest by the NYPD “is not a good thing for undocumented folks.” She believes the arrest could have led to her deportation.
While NYC is a sanctuary city, undocumented residents are still at risk for detention and deportation. And while the NYPD does not typically hand detainees to ICE, according to Times, arrest information is sometimes sent to the state and then to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which ICE can then access. Since President Donald Trump took office, New York immigration-related arrests of residents without criminal records have reportedly more than tripled.
Mendez and her husband Antonio Saavedra opened La Morada in 2009. It received positive reviews since then, including from Eater’s critic Robert Sietsema and from the Times’ Hungry City column in 2015. The restaurant has reopened.