Over-the-border inhumanity

By SHAY STEWART-BOULEY  |  October 12, 2011

My heart sank when I heard that the Fuentes brothers, who own the Fajita Grill in Westbrook and the Cancun restaurants in Biddeford and Waterville, had been arrested, their restaurants raided by federal agents.

I don't know them personally — nor would I want to know them if the charges against them are true. It's just that in the years before the Fuentes brothers arrived in Maine, those of us who love Mexican food had to make do with various sorry Tex-Mex places that shall remain unnamed (and the fabulous Tu Casa in Portland which, while authentically ethnic and delicious, is Salvadoran rather than Mexican).

It turns out the tasty treats the Fuentes brothers served up had a dark side, according to federal authorities. Many of the nice, smiling faces that greeted you and served up a monster-sized glasses of margaritas may have been working in the United States illegally. But that doesn't bother me nearly as much as the allegations that the Fuentes brothers made the help work for tips only and live in the basement of their eateries — with access not to bathrooms but buckets instead. Gulp. I don't know about you, but the idea that the people serving me enchiladas may have been sleeping underneath the restaurant pretty much makes my appetite vanish.

If it seems that the bottom has fallen out for the Fuentes brothers, it's really taken a turn for the workers, who allegedly were treated like indentured servants. While the Fuentes brothers only spent one night in the slammer, and the Fajita Grill in Westbrook and Cancun I in Waterville are back in operation with tons of support from the community, the undocumented workers aren't so lucky.

I doubt the former workers sitting in the Cumberland County jail will be making bail anytime soon; they probably face deportation. While the Fuentes brothers are certainly looking at a pretty serious case, at least they are free to keep working to build a war chest for the defense they will need to mount.

The story has gotten a lot of play in the media here, which makes sense given how homogeneous a state this is. No one expects something involving illegal immigration issues with Mexicans. But in reporting the alleged crimes here, is it necessary to dehumanize people? Almost every report I saw referred to these workers as "illegal aliens," though immigration judges have yet to hear the cases.

Even if they are in this country without proper documentation, but I have to side with the folks who say no person is "illegal." The term "illegal aliens" is more appropriate to some no-gooder extraterrestrials here to take over, not fellow humans. Such language allows us to easily overlook the inhumanity of this case. When we see someone as a thief stealing "our" jobs (never mind that we wouldn't take those jobs under the same conditions) we can see the enemy as the abused workers — instead of those who employed them.

And then there are those who enjoy the food and drinks that the Fuentes brothers and their staff served — some of whom are so fired up there is a "Save Fajita Grill" campaign under way being mounted by those loyal to the place.

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