F&W Game Changers: No Us Without You

Meet the bar consultants who organized to support L.A.’s undocumented workforce.

Damian Diaz (left) and Othón Nolasco (right)
Photo: Mel Castro

It doesn't matter what kind of restaurant you are eating at in Los Angeles: From Northern Thai in Hollywood to Nobu in Malibu, undocumented workers from Mexico and Central America are the backbone of the city's highly celebrated dining scene. While there is no official count, experts estimate that there are up to 250,000 undocumented workers in L.A.'s labor force of 5,103,400. But when the pandemic hit, the restaurant industry that many undocumented workers had dedicated their lives to turned its back on them. Even worse, despite many paying taxes under an ITIN (an untraceable, individual taxpayer identification number), they did not qualify for unemployment benefits.

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The moment was a call to action for bar consultants and co-owners of consulting group Va'La Hospitality Damian Diaz and Othón Nolasco, who looked for a way to help out the barbacks, dishwashers, and runners they'd long worked with shoulder to shoulder to shoulder in any way they could. "We needed to let them know that we have their backs," Diaz says. "They are not in the shadows. They are seen, heard, and respected."

In the early days of COVID-19, looking out for their fellow workers meant making sure they did not go hungry. On March 19, 2020, Diaz and Nolasco founded No Us Without You, which started as a small nonprofit with a modest goal of feeding 30 undocumented hospitality families. Since then, No Us Without You has become one of the city's most important food distribution centers, with food provided through Vesta Foodservice's Chefs to End Hunger program. No Us Without You provides culturally meaningful staple foods to more than 1,600 families per week in L.A.'s informal economy-restaurant workers, but also street food vendors, day laborers, house cleaners, and mariachi musicians-including the original 10 families that joined the program.

"The restaurant I worked at for years still hasn't called me back," says Mario Fabían. He is a back-of-house worker from Sierra Juárez, Oaxaca, who has worked as a baker and line cook at Italian restaurants since he first moved to Los Angeles from Mexico 20 years ago. "My second job is at a hotel, and the few hours they kept me is barely enough for rent, but not food, so this has helped feed my household of five. We eat every single thing."

No Us Without You has inspired a small army of bartenders and chefs, who help every week. Despite going through their own financial hardships, these volunteers see the bigger picture in getting up in the morning to break down the walls that can exist between restaurants' back- and front-of-house. Ally DeVellis, a former bartender from Massachusetts who has lived in L.A. for six years, summed it up best: "We're all human, and we're all suffering through this, and the fact that some of our colleagues haven't been any government assistance or any relief? I'm going to try to do everything I can to help."

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