TIJUANA — Erama Davilus, 36, makes the classic Haitian vegetable stew, legumes, the way her mother did in Haiti, simmering together cabbage, carrots, chayote and whatever other vegetables she can find.
Her customers at Labadee restaurant, near Tijuana’s downtown, appreciate her attention to seasonings and flavor. Like Davilus, many of her customers are from Haiti and the foods she cooks are a taste of home.
Since she opened her restaurant in 2021, it’s become popular with Haitian residents living in Tijuana. Some have made lives in Mexico’s busy border city while others plan to stay temporarily.
“A lot of our customers are only here until they can find a way into the United States,” she said. “They come around to eat but then they’re gone. We don’t know if they made it or if they were deported.”
In 2016, Davilus and her husband were among the tens of thousands of Haitians who made the treacherous journey, much of it on foot, from Brazil to Mexico in hopes of making an asylum bid and crossing the U.S. border. The trek took more than four months, crossed through five countries and included countless perilous moments.
“I was scared most of the time,” she said. “There was one time we had to sleep standing up near the edge of a cliff because it was raining all night.”
From 2014 to mid-2016, Davilus and her husband, Wikiel Cadet, had good lives in Porto Alegre, Brazil.
They both had jobs in a supermarket and were able to send money back home to Haiti. The couple’s three sons, ages 16, 14 and 12, are still in Haiti, living with Davilus’s sister. She hasn’t seen them since she left Haiti in search of work in 2014.
At the time, Brazil welcomed the influx of Haitian workers as the country prepared for the 2014 World Cup soccer games and the 2016 Summer Olympics. Between 2014 and early 2016, an estimated 54,000 Haitians, like Davilus, left their homes and families in hopes of making money in Brazil.
After the Olympics, everything changed. Brazil’s economy began to slow and the jobs evaporated.
“Our plan was to get to Mexico and cross the border into the United States. We hoped to get jobs and send for my sons,” Davilus said.
By the time they reached Mexico, the plan had changed.
“We heard that they weren’t letting Haitians into the United States, and if we got caught crossing the border illegally, we thought we might be deported back to Haiti, so we decided to stay in Mexico,” Davilus said.
The couple were among the tens of thousands of Haitians to settle in Tijuana, accepting a temporary residency visa that allowed them to legally live and work in Mexico.
They both found jobs, but in 2021, Davilus decided to open a restaurant. She took out a loan and rented a restaurant space on Benito Juarez, near Avenida Revolucion. She named the restaurant Labadee, after a well-known port in Haiti.
She focused the restaurant on her favorite foods from home, cooking up hearty chunks of griot (fried pork), goat and chicken as well as fish, plantains, rice and beans and other foods. Once a week, Davilus makes vyann kabrit, a thick and savory goat stew.
Everything is cooked much the way it would be in Haiti, in large pots over a gas flame. And the foods are liberally flavored with epis, a seasoning base made by blending peppers, garlic, herbs and other ingredients. Davilus makes epis once a week.
Often, when she’s in the kitchen cooking, Davilus thinks about her mother. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, her mother died and Davilus was not able to travel home to see her.
“That was very sad for me,” she said.
And although she has a steady customer base, including Tijuana residents and some who travel from San Diego and Arizona for authentic Haitian food, Davilus has had some challenges in running a restaurant in a country far from home.
Hiring staff can be a problem and sometimes, employees don’t show up for work, leaving Davilus to cook and wait on customers alone, although her husband helps when he can.
She is also struggling with paying taxes and managing expenses.
“I’m barely breaking even,” she said.
But she enjoys visiting with her customers. She smiles when they tell her that her food reminds them of home.
She hopes to eventually make it to the United States and is working to acquire the appropriate visa.
“My dream is to get my sons back and live a nice life with them in the United States,” she said. “But Haiti will always be home.”
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