Mis Ángeles: For A Taquero Working In The Pacific Palisades, DACA Victory Means A Bigger Fight Looms

Rudy Barrientos (Erick Galindo and Chava Sanchez)

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Rudy Barrientos walked into the living room of his Koreatown home Thursday morning and heard his mother crying. He knew instantly that it was DACA-related.

For months now, Rudy and his family have kept a close eye on the news that could decide his future. If the Deferred Action For Childhood Arrivals program should end, Rudy had a back-up plan. He would work as much as he could and save up for what seemed like his inevitable deportation.

The 31-year-old taquero is one of about 650,000 DACA recipients, many of whom have been keeping a close eye on the Supreme Court's SCOTUSblog, where it was widely expected the court would announce that the Trump administration was within its rights in ending DACA — the only thing standing between them and removal from the only country they've ever known.

"She was watching the news and she was crying and I knew what it was," Rudy said. "I looked at [the] TV and there it was. They were announcing that the Supreme Court ruled against Trump's decision to stop DACA."

Rudy was stunned to find that his mom's tears were actually tears of joy, because the young immigrants who are known as "DREAMers" had won, for now. But that moment was very brief.

"Right away, I was thinking there's probably gonna be more fight against us from the other side now," he said, "because you know that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. So they're not gonna just be okay with it."

He's probably right.

The Trump administration rescinded DACA in 2017. The program, which dates to the Obama era, allows young immigrants who were brought here as kids by their parents and don't have legal status to stay and work in the U.S. legally, on a temporary basis. The lower courts blocked Trump's decision, and kept DACA going. So the administration appealed to the Supreme Court.

Now, the Supreme Court's ruling simply kicks DACA back down to the Department of Homeland Security for review. Although the court said the Trump administration acted in a "capricious and arbitrary" way in how it attempted to end DACA, it left wiggle room for another try. Indeed, Trump said Friday he would renew his fight.

Rudy thinks the battle must now shift to the presidential election and a fight for a legal path toward citizenship at the legislative level.

"I'm gonna continue to shed light on the topic and continue to support the costs in whatever way possible," he said. "I often give out food to organizations and people [involved in the fight for a path to citizenship] because that's what I know how to do. That's how I feel that I make a difference, by providing some nourishment."

AT THE TACO TRUCK

I met Rudy later Thursday morning outside his popular taco truck, Gracias Señor, on Sunset Boulevard in the Pacific Palisades. I was excited to spend the day with him. A few days earlier, when he agreed to let me hang out with him on the day of the decision, we both thought it would be a somber day.

Martin Luther King Jr.'s famous words about the moral arc of the universe bending toward justice echoed in my mind as I sat in my car for a second and watched Rudy and his staff set up. It was just before 11 a.m. and there was already a long line of customers waiting for Gracias Señor to open for business.

Right away I noticed a trend that would continue throughout the day: the clientele was an eclectic mix of men and women of all races and ethnicities. It's the kind of diversity seemingly every major U.S. company has said they are committing to since George Floyd's homicide and weeks of civil unrest. It's L.A.

It's also the kind of thing you may not expect to see in the Palisades, an affluent L.A. neighborhood that's nearly 90% White. I wondered how many of these people knew that Rudy is a DACA recipient, and that a few hours earlier he was standing in his Koreatown living room feeling a combination of shock and relief, watching his mom cry over a Supreme Court ruling that had a major impact on her son's life.

While Rudy was busy dealing with the morning rush, I talked to a customer named Taylor from Santa Monica. She works in a nearby coffee shop and has been coming to Gracias Señor for the past year.

"I usually get asada tacos or a quesadilla," she told me. "I change it up a lot." She said it's the only realistically affordable place to grab lunch that's also "really good" in the area. But she comes back because Rudy is "super nice."

She didn't know Rudy was a DACA recipient and didn't even really understand what DACA meant, but she had read the big news that morning. She seemed happy for Rudy.

I had conversations like that all day. A lot of the Latinos that I spoke with who were ordering from the truck said it was their first time there. Many were construction workers who told me they were remodeling a nearby mansion.

I also talked to a man named Alex who lives nearby. He has been buying tacos from Rudy for the past three years. "The surf and turf burrito is my favorite," Alex told me. He was wearing a mask but I could tell he was smiling.

Then I told him Rudy was DACA and Alex's posture stiffened a little and he looked away for a moment. I asked him if he knew, he said that he didn't. Then I asked him if that mattered, if it changed the taste of the food or his own desire to continue eating. Alex paused and gave me a "huh," an "ah," and a "I mean" before, "not really but ... it's still delicious food."

Alex didn't want to talk about his personal feelings on DACA because it wasn't "really [his] kind of area of expertise." But he did say he'd read about the big Supreme Court news that morning.

Working in the Palisades was intentional for Rudy. He set up Gracias Señor here about four years ago because he wanted to interact with folks who didn't often do so in meaningful ways with immigrants.

"A lot of my customers are probably conservative," Rudy told me in-between a rush of orders.

According to a report in the Palisadian-Post, the Palisades went heavily for Hilary Clinton in 2016, and a little over half its registered voters are Democrats. However, 29% of voters there are registered Republicans, a higher share than L.A. County as a whole, which is 19% registered Republican voters.

DACA has substantial bipartisan support, but it's not universal. A small percentage of even staunchly conservative Republicans remain in favor of ending DACA. A POLITICO/Morning Consult poll released earlier this week found that "68% of Republicans, 71% of conservatives and 64% of those who approve of the job Trump is doing" support DACA. "Even 69% of those who voted for Trump in 2016 — when he vowed to deport Dreamers — say they should be protected.

I asked Rudy what it was like to serve his delicious Baja California-style tacos to some people who perhaps wouldn't want him there, if they knew his status.

"I've never seen that as a negative," he said. "I see that as an opportunity for me to show them and remind them of the value that we bring."

Rudy said the reasons public opinion is with the DREAMers is because they have been able to show how successful the program is. In the eight years since it began, DACA holders have built rich, full lives. They are lawyers, grocery store clerks, reporters, dental assistants, business owners — anything really.

Even in this economic recession, 90% of DACA holders have jobs and 29,000 are healthcare professionals, working on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to NPR.

"You know, it's not hard work to convince someone that already has an inclination towards liking you to [support] your cause," Rudy said. "It's also more gratifying to inspire or help someone gain more knowledge and empathy for someone that they maybe didn't know their story, maybe they didn't understand the full picture."

The rush of customers was growing the entire time I was there. Around 2 p.m., I ordered to-go and had to wait a while for my food. I ran into a group of recent high school graduates. They were Black kids, Brown kids and White kids.

One of the young men was Milo Shama, who with the rest of the boys called himself Rudy's No. 1 fan. He even knew Rudy was DACA because he read about it, and Milo was happy the court upheld the law. "I'm really happy for him," Milo told me.

I asked Milo why he loved Rudy so much. He said: "He's like the most genuine nice guy. He's always treating us, giving us free burritos. He's just a super nice, wholesome person. He works his ass off. He had like three jobs before this. I just have so much respect for him."

Milo's order came up and the boys took off.

Rudy brought my order out. I asked him what he was thinking about now that he'd had a moment to live in this brief victory,

"You know, it's funny," he said. "My mom tries to protect me and she tells me not to expose my [DACA status] because it is dangerous. Despite that, I understand that it's important to fight and it's important to, to not be afraid because if we're all afraid, nothing is ever going to happen and nothing is ever going to change."

Rudy believes change is on the horizon, thanks in part to Black Lives Matter and the "amplification of voices of justice" happening in this moment. Thanks, perhaps, to the impact Rudy has made on young people such as Milo and his friends.

After that, I drove to the nearby coast and snuck my car into a private parking lot. I sat there overlooking the beach while I ate some Gracias Señor fish tacos. Sam Cooke's Bring It On Home to Me played, volume all the way up, and I wondered if the world would ever be as perfect as this song and these tacos.

Maybe for a brief second that morning, for Rudy and some 650,000 other DREAMers, it was.

About the Mis Ángeles column: Erick Galindo is chronicling life in Los Angeles for LAist. He took on this role after serving as our immigrant communities reporter. Erick came to us last year from LA Taco, where he was the managing editor of a James Beard award-winning staff.

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