What It's Like: Stories From Hospitality
Chef Silvana on Standing Out and Standing Up For Her Community
June 20, 2023
How the Phoenix chef became an outspoken voice at a time when Arizona needed one most.
Chef Silvana Salcido Esparza has seen it all. Been called it all. And she doesn’t care one bit.
“I’m not angry — I’m experienced. I’m aware,” she tells us from near Barrio Café, one of the three restaurants she manages in Phoenix, AZ.
Though Chef Silvana was born into a culinary legacy, she has translated that legacy into one of the most decorated chef careers in the American West. A seven-time Beard semifinalist for Best Chef Southwest and a 2023 semifinalist for Outstanding Chef, Chef Silvana has been recognized by Latino and Esquire magazines; featured on Diners Drive-Ins and Dives and NBC's Today Show; and in 2004 was inducted in to the Arizona Culinary Hall of Fame.
And yet, Chef Silvana is known for much more than her creative Mexican cuisine. These days she is something closer to a freedom fighter.
The state of Arizona, in recent years, has found itself on the front lines of two major battles in the culture war: the fight for immigrant rights and the recent bout of anti-LGBTQIA+ activism. Both issues touch the core of Chef Silvana’s life and identity. In response, she has made herself into an outspoken champion for her communities.
Refusing to conform
Growing up as the child of two leaders of the Jehovah’s Witness congregation — and often finding herself the only Mexican child in a predominantly white neighborhood — Silvana Esparza’s childhood was characterized by the ever-present pressure to conform.
“I was forced to straighten my curly hair,” she remembers now. “My dark skin was kept out of the sun. I wore dresses, when I wanted to be a tomboy in pants.” The additional challenge of dyslexia, without proper support, intensified her feelings of marginalization. She tried to fit the norms her parents set out for her, even going so far as marrying a man — “a beautiful man,” she says now. But her life never felt right.
For some time, she'd been grappling with her queer identity and a lingering feeling of unfulfilled purpose. Years later, following her mother's passing, Chef Silvana consciously chose to liberate herself from her parents’ “deeply ingrained colonial mindset” and chart a new course in life.
Looking for a new path, Esparza tapped into what she describes as a lineal legacy. “I went to Miami in 1979, and I went into international banking and had a really good run. But I felt a void — an 800-year ancestral calling to cook.” Her father and grandfather were bakers. “I remember being in my father's bakery. Working the masa for the tortilla machine. My uncles are behind me, my brother's counting the tortillas, and my mother's on the cashier.”
Esparza found her way to Phoenix, where she opened Barrio Café in 2002 — a time when no chef would dare to come out, she says. Together with her partner, with whom she opened the restaurant, the couple became an object of fascination for the locals, who regarded them with excitement and curiosity. “I was funky. I had no hair. I wore combat boots and shorts. I'm tatted up from head to toe. There was a buzz: Oh, there's a new restaurant. There's a new chef. Have you seen her?”
Newspapers used elliptical words to describe the restaurant and staff: diverse; brazen; bold; androgynous. Esparza saw it all as a euphemism for queer and different. And she embraced it, the role of the in-your-face ambassador of her identity. She wanted to promote it, to celebrate it, to confront people with it. And when the need arose, she made clear she would defend it, too.
Taking steps towards activism
In 2023, anti-LGBTQIA+ legislation and anti-transgender rhetoric have been on the rise nationwide. On June 6th, the Human Right Campaign declared a national emergency for LGBTQIA+ Americans. In this year alone, more than 520 bills have been introduced across the country, with 220 explicitly affecting the rights of trans individuals, the highest number of bills to date.
Arizona has long leaned conservative on LGBTQIA+ issues, offering no statewide statutory protection against workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. But 2023 has been something different.
In one legislative session, the Arizona Senate passed seven anti-LGBTQIA+ bills. SB 1698 made it a felony for parents to bring their children to drag shows, with punishment including their registration as sex offenders. Another bill, SB 1028, outlawed drag performances in public spaces or any location where children might witness them, classifying them under the umbrella of adult cabaret. SB 1030 proposed categorizing drag shows as “adult-oriented performances,” subjecting them to regulations similar to those governing strip clubs. The list goes on.
All of these bills were vetoed by Democratic governor Katie Hobbs, but the message they sent was unmistakable. For Chef Silvana, it was one more intimidation tactic in a long line of them.
She remembers 2010 as a particularly pivotal moment in her political activation. Prompted by SB 1070, also known as the anti-immigrant “Show Me Your Papers” law, Chef Silvana felt the calling to stand up for her community. “That was the moment my ancestors slapped me in the face and said, You're an activist,” she recalls. Silvana distributed “an entire cart of paletas” at a pro-immigrant march and urged young people to register to vote.
Chef Silvana’s outspokenness caught the attention of a local newspaper, which promptly splashed her photo under the headline, “Barrio Café Chef Comes Out Against SB 1070.” She received ”an abundance of death threats from all over the country.” Undeterred, Silvana continued her advocacy, opposing 2014’s anti-queer bill SB 1062, and participated in the Day Without Immigrants in 2017 to highlight the importance of immigrants in society.
Chef Silvana speaking at the 2022 victory party for AZ Sen. Mark Kelly
Throughout her journey, Chef Silvana found unwavering support from the Barrio Café community. “My restaurant, after those protests and when I came out, we lost customers. In a conservative area, to come out as queer as a restaurant owner is not a good recipe for success.” Despite the negative consequences, she refused to compromise her authenticity.
Defying limits and unstoppable drag
With the events of this year in her state, politics have gotten even more personal for Chef Silvana. She’s standing up to them in typical fashion — and even breaking her own rules to do so.
“For the first time in more than 20 years of being in business, I am going to do an event on Cinco de Mayo,” she told us. Traditionally, Chef Silvana has stayed away from celebrating the holiday, which she views as a commercialized, fundamentally colonial caricature of Mexican heritage. This year, she saw an opportunity to make a stand.
Playing into her critiques of the holiday while sticking it to anyone who might oppose, Barrio Café staged Cinco de Drinko, an event centered around a drag brunch. It went off without a hitch. “It was fantastic, with singing and dancing — especially with unsuspecting customers, because they had to experience something they didn't purposely walk into. People were lip-syncing and singing along. There was laughter in the room. I was elated.”
Chef Silvana said there will be more.
“We’re on the front lines against hate. And I love this community in the restaurant. My purpose is to be queer and open and Mexican. That's the way I've been since day one — since I was given the platform of having a restaurant and being a chef. As long as hateful laws don’t stop, we're not stopping.”
Embracing your identities
Chef Silvana’s advocacy has earned her the support and attention of a number of political figures and organizations. She was mentioned by Joe Biden during his 2020 presidential campaign and visited by Senator Mark Kelly, who hosted his victory party at Barrio Café. In 2022, Arizona State University awarded Silvana the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Servant-Leadership award. But all of these establishment accolades matter far less to Chef Silvana than the support she’s able to provide for her community. And for that, she credits the evolution she went through herself: from a child forced to fit in to a proud leader who refuses to.
“You have to start from within. You cannot expect others to respect you if you don't have respect for yourself. You cannot expect others to love you if you do not love yourself — and that is really hard to ask because we’re taught, in these systems of power, that you're not good enough and have to act a certain way.”
Chef Silvana says she tries, in her life, to be like water: flowing forward with fluidity, unapologetically. She encourages those around her to stick up for what they believe in and protect their communities, as she does to this day, in and outside of her restaurant.
Keep up with Silvana Salcido Esparza at @chefsilvana and chefsilvana.com.
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