Editor’s Note: This interview with Ivan Castillo was conducted by Tulane student, Alex Dubin as a part of the Southern Food & Beverage Museum’s New Orleans con Sabor Latino exhibit. This exhibit was the result of a joint effort by Tulane University, SoFaB, and community partners.
In Dr. Sarah Fouts’ interdisplinary seminar, Food, Migration, & Culture, Tulane students worked with Latino members of the New Orleans food industry to create a series of oral histories exploring the role of Latin culture in our city’s restaurant scene. With stories ranging from famous restauranteurs to line cooks, New Orleans con Sabor Latino demonstrates the diversity of experience within this community, as well as their vital contributions to the Big Easy.
In this documentary, Ivan Castillo talks about his experience overcoming undocumented status to become an activist for marginalized communities in the city.
Castillo is a cook and supervisor at Zoe’s Kitchen in Metairie and Felipe’s Taqueria in Mid-City. Both restaurants are chains, Felipe’s specializing in Mexican food and Zoe’s Kitchen hosting Mediterranean fare. Castillo is also a community organizer who regularly hosts local events for the Gay Latin community such as “Miss New Orleans Latina Gay” and “La Señorita de Independencia.”
Ivan Castillo, oral history full text below
“My name is Ivan Castillo, Ivan Cortes Castillo, but everyone calls me Ivan Castillo. I’m a cook…When I came here to New Orleans, I was looking for jobs in various restaurants, right? And the everyone said, okay, can you cook? Well, Mexican cuisine. And it would be a no…no they didn’t need me. Because here the people wanted Honduran food. [laughs]
Well, then I learned how to cook some Honduran food and everything. And now they ask me, what do you know how to cook? No, I cook Mexican, Honduran, Salvadoran… [big laugh] And well, no, this, as an immigrant, was one of my tools to be able to learn…for me, cooking is a very important theme, you understand?
And on my free days, I make decorations. And we have dates where we put on events. In November we have ‘Miss New Orleans Latina Gay’ and in September we have ‘La Señorita de Independencia’ One of my goals, and one of my ideas, is to get to know all of those organizations that, in one way or another, contribute to what is the Latino community.
For me, arriving to this country was a little difficult. First because I didn’t have papers. The first thing was documentation. I didn’t know how to ask for a job, I didn’t know anything. And the second was the language. I was living in Alabama for four years, four years where in truth I can’t complain, it went well for me, but it went well because I knew how to do certain things.
Thank God, I had always learned how to make decorations for parties, I make food, I cut hair. So those four years that I was in Alabama, I was surviving on what I knew how to do, with my talent you could say. With my talent. So you see when one thing didn’t work out, another thing did. But I’ve always been proactive. I emigrated from Alabama to Louisiana. Louisiana, thank God, is the state that has helped me the most. And no, I don’t let anything stop me.
So, for all those Latinos that say ‘Oh it’s that I’m undocumented can’t, I don’t have papers,’ no, you need to take that out of your mind, you understand? Because in this country, with or without papers, we all have rights. We all have rights. For that there lawyers that, as their job, they work for us, you understand? And everything is here. We all can achieve.”
Special thanks to the Tulane University Stone Center for Latin American Studies, the New Orleans Center for the Gulf South, and the Tulane University Center for Public Service for their assistance and support of this project.