Somewhere in the Georgia countryside, a man we’ll call Diego owns a small restaurant where he cooks pollo a la brasa — chickens roasted in the style of his native Peru. Diego’s birds are stunningly delicious. They attract eaters from miles around. But Diego has a problem: He is an undocumented immigrant. His mastery of the rotisserie has given him a business that looks like the classic American Dream story. Will that dream be snatched away?
Story and Photographs by Andre Gallant
Editorial Illustrations and Design by GENTLEMAN
During a busy late summer lunch rush at a restaurant in a working class enclave 10 miles outside the nearest Georgia city, a lone server leans on a Formica counter, writing orders on a slim pad, when the owner and cook, Diego, interrupts. His help never remembers to ask about the rice.
"Green or yellow?" Diego, a 52-year-old native of Peru, shouts in Spanish. Herbs or saffron?
The server halts his scribble. Diego moves around the kitchen with the clash and boom of Andean tremors. The quakes pause when he looks over the server's shoulder. A cap sits back on his head like a cleric's zuchetto. Khaki pants sag below a stout belly, around which he wraps a black apron, long like a cassock. As if greeting a son-in-law for the first time, his stare pressures the customer. Choose now.
Diego lurches back into motion. With a nod, he disappears behind a kitchen corner, where the clang of mixing bowl against aluminum sink rings out. He returns to smack a frying pan against the stove's iron eye, his back to the counter.
Beside him, a rotisserie oven glows. It's five-foot-tall and small dents mar its stainless steel exterior. Behind a tempered glass door, whole chickens rotate. Eight in all, four to a spit. An electric flare darkens their skin in a scale of intensifying hues, from pink to beige, lemon to tawny, rouge to blistering brown.
Diego plunges a long fork into the oven. His burly fingers, thick like pan pipes, guide a finished hen from the box to a cutting board where it quarters under the pressure of his knife. Soon after, he presents a plate of pintos and rice anchored by a quarter chicken. The charred skin glistens like a mountain lake lit by supergiants.
Food delivered, Diego snoops from his prep table. He watches hungry Latinos carve into a progression of flavors: the scratchy veneer of crushed cumin and black pepper, the interplay of white wine, cider vinegar, and lime, and the underlying current of brine.
A wide-screen TV perched on the counter blares Univision Deportes. As other channels broadcast political rallies where a certain Republican presidential nominee foments anti-immigrant sentiment, sports and telenovelas distract Diego’s diners. They fork into breast meat, knowing politics are walled off at the door. Diego and many of his customers are undocumented — as a result, in this story, we do not refer to them by their real names. During the contentious 2016 election, these immigrants’ lives are political pawns, and there's little they can do but wait and see who wins. So, Diego muffles the political bluster and keeps the TV tuned elsewhere.
His dining room becomes a shelter where only good bird matters. Diego cannot solve immigrants' problems, but his pollo a la brasa pleases them, if only briefly. This prowess has been hard-won.
In the early 2000s, Diego plied his rotisserie skills at his own restaurant in the city. Funded by a car dealer, he paired foods from his homeland of Peru with dishes from Colombia and Mexico. When his pan-American attempt shuttered after a year, he stored the rotisserie oven in a corner of his living room and found work as a line cook at Olive Garden, an overnight baker, a Mexican restaurant kitchen manager, and a produce delivery driver. No matter the job, he cooked chicken on the side, out of his apartment.
Barred from traditional capital by his immigration status, he roasted chicken in solitude for eight years, honing his craft for a small but growing group of superfans. In 2015, he found an unloved kitchen in the back of a gas station, flanked by lottery machines and beer coolers, and rolled in his rotisserie oven. It wasn't perfect, but he felt official. He felt American.
On neon poster board, Diego wrote up specials in thick marker. Postres: alfajores, pionono, torta helada. Tacos Mexicano: Muy pronto! Tortillas a mano. He taped up the bright signs to cover logos from the kitchen's original role as a franchise in the long-defunct Sunday Skillet fried chicken chain. Diners sit at folding tables in folding chairs and rub elbows with Cash 3 professionals.
While a number of U.S. polleria franchises are gaining ground as a fast-casual option, Diego's is a throwback to the roots of pollo a la brasa. Introduced in the 1950s by a Swiss chicken farmer in Lima looking for a way to profit from a glut of broilers, chicken roasted in bulk on a spit and sold cheap on roadsides became a way for blue-collar Peruvians to enjoy the convenience of eating outside the home. Eaters who flock to Diego, who labored as a mechanic in his youth before switching greasy coveralls for greasy aprons, are decidedly working class. Open four days a week, his dining room fills with landscapers and house framers. On weekends, workers return with spouses and children. A devotee of Diego's, I join those families whenever possible.
Diego's hours aren't regular. To pay the bills, he works part-time at a supermercado; he couldn't spend a shift butchering meat in its carniceria and fire up the rotisserie in the same day. On top of pulling double duty, the gas station owners refuse to let him stay open late. As soon as the scratch-off rush dies out around dusk, they push him to close up.
I must find sweet spots in my schedule to visit. Balancing my own set of jobs and responsibilities, a lunch break that requires a 15-minute commute before placing an order proves tricky to book. So, when hot rotisserie and my free time intersect, I rush to Diego's. There's always an empty chair by a stack of Bud Light cases. Sexy Bandamax videos on TV. The ring-a-ling of video lottery machines. The out-of-order sign on a working bathroom. The steam of aguadito de pollo buoyed by herb and ginger hunk flotsam and jetsam. The lilt of accents originating from Chile, up the Pacific coast through Central America, and, every now and then, a drawl.
Diego often emerges from his kitchen for a moment to watch us eat and make sure we know the quality of his rotisserie is unparalleled. He sees sheens of satisfaction in the form of chicken grease on cheeks and chins. A few people catch Diego's gaze, flushed with pride, and he nods at each who smile back. He has been courting Latinos for years. They depend on him as much as he depends on them. He calls them his people. Yet their loyalty isn't enough to satisfy Diego. He wants more.
On the way to where Diego lives and works, city water switches to well. Spates of water oaks in setbacks become pine copses, thickets grow denser and taller. Yards widen to become pastures. Streets pegged by manufactured homes and trailer parks encircle a small commercial corridor. Trees, meadows, and chickens outnumber people and their dwellings. The structures here date back to the late 1970s and early ’80s. Originally developed by white Southerners, some of whom still live nearby, entrepreneurial migrants from India and Pakistan now own the deeds to most of these buildings, defined by a muffler shop, a liquor store, a car wash, and the gas station where Diego found safe haven.
During the Reagan, Bush, and Clinton eras, blue collar African-American families forged new enclaves of escape from the constricting housing stock of the city or the scant offerings of pure country. Towards the end of this exodus, new neighbors began moving in. Black and white residents soon lived alongside families from places like Michoacán or Guerrero, El Salvador or Guatemala, Chile or Perú.
Demographic data tallied over the past 20 years showed that recent migrants from Central and South America had been settling in different locations than previous generations. Border towns and big cities no longer lured migrants with the promise of jobs and a community of countrymen. The prosperity of the 1990s constricted in the new millennium. Work was scarce in Texas, Arizona, and New Jersey, as well as in late 20th century boomtowns like Atlanta and Charlotte. For recent Hispanic immigrants to the U.S., who were likely undocumented, small towns and rural spaces promised the best hope for a slot on a landscaping crew, a cheap apartment, farm work, or maybe an entrepreneurial opportunity. Border states and big city exurbs no longer served as telling petri dishes. To explore current migration trends, a seat in Diego's dining room offered the range of a watchtower.
The drift of migrants from urban to rural settlements explained, at least in part, this neighborhood's revitalization. Latino immigrants had established themselves, and now grocery stores, ice cream shops, and restaurants opened to meet their needs. This trend didn't fully account for the emergence of Diego's rotisserie micronation. Demographic shifts alone couldn't explain him.
Like so many undocumented Latino immigrants, Diego's origin story includes a journey by foot, car, and train through Central America and across the border. Like many economic migrants, he sends remittances to family back in Peru. He balances a longing to return home with a need to support loved ones. Yet workaday jobs aren't enough for him. He's a grizzled, serial entrepreneur, a hustler troubled by bureaucrats and rats. Not real rodents, but walking and talking tattletails.
To complicate the story more, Diego's path to his current location seemed linked to how gentrification was treating everyone in his chosen city. As commercial rents skyrocketed, filling the city center with chain restaurants and retailers, Mom-and-Pops were forced to close or flee. Unable to afford much at all, Diego got creative, just like so many immigrants before him.
On a warm August evening in 2016, Diego and I arranged to meet after work. Both of our shifts — his butchering and my bartending — ended late, so we met not far from Diego's gas station, at a McDonald's. This night, cops on break and home-bound second shifters kept it humming. Although fast food options had tripled in the past four years, in this part of the county the McDonald's was the best known public landmark, which is why Diego chose it for an interview. He ordered only a Coke.
Futzing with the straw of his soda, Diego recalled his hometown, Cañete, Peru. In younger days he had been a car mechanic, and taught the trade to middle school-aged students. He had bought a house for his mother and a brother with down syndrome — but realized he might not have the money to make regular payments on it. So, he took out another loan that paid for an overland trip through Panama, Nicaragua, through Mexico and into the U.S. He left thinking he had become rich. He didn't. He made good money, and sent plenty home to his mom, but his life in the U.S. was meager compared to his imagination.
He settled in 1988 in New Jersey. Winters up north in garages, fingers freezing on steel ratchets, forced Diego to reconsider the automotive arts. Too cold. Kitchens, though, provided warmth, and the jobs were abundant. A string of gigs in restaurants followed. Eventually, he ran his own place, El Bacano. He boasted of its enormous menu — 195 items long, he swore. Can't do that out of a gas station.
He left teenagers and ex-lovers behind in New Jersey when he accepted a job offer at a Cuban/Peruvian restaurant in Georgia in 2005. He hated it. They wouldn't pay him overtime when he deep cleaned the kitchen and dining room late at night. He quit after a few weeks.
With help, he opened his own place on a stretch of road known to kill restaurants, a deadzone for business, a boulevard of broken dreams. Nothing there stayed open for long. Diego's cooking wowed those who ate there, but good food couldn't beat the jinx. One night, the owner threw a salsa party that shook and boomed well past last call. The police came, and the liquor license disappeared soon after. The doors closed, and Diego launched himself into a long stretch of job juggling.
Diego collected spare moments like pocket change on a night stand and used the stored time to fire up his roaster out of his apartment. Diego set up the rotisserie, nearly as tall as him, in his tiny kitchen. He wired the oven to run off a 30 amp washer/dryer outlet. He would prep the chicken, crank up the oven, and scan his cellphone rolodex. Whenever he met one of his people — Peruvians, Mexicans, Guatemalans — he told them he cooked rotisserie. Give me your number, he offered, and I'll call you when it's ready.
He zipped through the names, barking pick-up times and directions into the receiver. He secured better full-time work, delivering produce by truck for a Hispanic grocer, which made apartment catering days more regular. It became routine: prep, call, cook. But it wouldn't last.
On a cook day, after making the calls, Diego heard a knock on his apartment door. It was the health department, tipped off to his illegal business, ordering him to cease and desist. A fink had infiltrated his list. He didn't know who ratted him out, not yet, but he would find them.
Diego went dark. He moved apartments, tried roasting again, but the same rat and the same knock trailed him. He thought he would be safe in a complex outside the city where newly arrived undocumented immigrants gathered. An informal economy had sprung up there. People sold tamales and tacos from breezeways. One family ran a corner market through a window. Pictures of the day's availability — fresh chickens, tortillas, canned goods, cheese — taped on exterior brick served as a menu. For the complex's migrant residents, extra car trips to buy supplies carried risk: a traffic violation or a car accident could set off a deportation. It happened with haunting regularity. A hot meal and groceries close to home reduced exposure to authorities, lessened the danger of never returning home from a milk run.
Diego joined this underground exchange. He could hide here and live out his rotisserie fantasies. Again, the snitch tipped off the health department. Diego devised another plan. He would rent a house out in the country. Out of town, but near where plenty of his people lived. He picked a ranch on almost two acres. Outside, goats munched grass and chickens pecked for bugs. It looked like a farm, Diego thought, and no way the inspectors would suspect a farm.
But they did, with a tip from the same rat. Frustrated, Diego went for a walk. In a quarter mile, he stood in front of the gas station, a nameless, brandless, fill-her-up depot. He knew there was a kitchen inside and that it was empty. He could do it, make the decision right there and then, to become a real restaurateur again. The Sunday Skillet didn't cost much at all. The list of his people had ballooned past 300 names. It wouldn't take much to get started. Diego, confident as always, marched inside and brokered a deal. A few weeks later, Diego picked up his phone to send a text message. The first lunch rush at Diego's restaurant would start soon, but Diego allotted himself a second to gloat. He had figured out who had blabbed. He didn't hold a grudge, no time for that, but he wanted to toss back a little mud. Nothing you can do now, Diego texted la rata. Watch me. Watch how successful I am.
The jobs, the relocations, the drama — he honored its absurdity. What could he do? That was his life. Diego appeared confident that his bad luck streak had come to an end, but I sensed residual fragility. Diego lived like a beat-up race car rattling toward the finish line, unaware of a cracking axle. It wasn't hard to imagine that if he had remained in Peru, he still would have lived as if in fast forward. As fidgety as a wind-up bird with infinite crank.
Was it worth it? Why continue at this pace? His mother had bone cancer, he said. For months she had been bedridden. Between doctors and constant nurse needs, the bills mounted. It was up to him to pay them, which he did with pleasure. Going home was out of the question. His mother, eventually, would die and he would miss the funeral. If he returned to Peru, he would have to say goodbye to life in the U.S. He wagered that coming back, with or without papers, was unlikely. One last glimpse of his mother's face would risk everything he had built. Besides, he wasn't finished.
Diego envisioned a buffet, a revival of the 100-plus-item menu of El Bacano. He pulled out his smartphone and flipped through photographs of Peruvian dishes he was capable of preparing, pics of his recipe tests — braised lamb, escabeche, soups with fish tails and chicken bones poking out. He had scoped out potential spaces. One in particular might do nicely, but he wasn't making any moves on it yet. Perhaps the years of shadow commerce, and triple and quadruple kitchen duty, had finally delivered wisdom. He was waiting until he was good and ready, and he couldn't do it alone. He needed a partner, someone to handle the numbers, the counter, to talk to people. Someone to relieve him so he could just cook. Someone with money to fund his ambitions.
This person couldn't be found among his people. While loyal, we lacked deep pockets. Many of us had followed Diego's peppercorn trail from secret kitchen to secret kitchen between bust-ups. When he opened his latest restaurant, we felt as if he'd finally secured permanent residency. Diego knew better than to settle in. He already saw himself moving out. In preparation, he'd begun to look outside the group.
He asked if I knew anyone interested in helping him. He was trustworthy, he swore to me. He didn't drink or smoke. The question did not betray weakness, it arose from an interest to be indiscriminate in his search. He wagered that I knew people he didn't. He was crowdsourcing investment in himself. Given his circumstances, banks weren't an option. A would-be patron and collaborator was out there somewhere, Diego figured, but their name wasn't on his list.
He was eager to free himself of the gas station yoke, but was not yet despondent. The rat chase left him raw, for a time, but he'd gained plenty in being hunted. He'd been a target: Immigrants like him who played fast and loose with health codes, who cooked out of laundry rooms, who sold food without permits, were the enemies of regulators. It was a wonder an inspector signed off on Diego's place, given the subterfuge he employed to roast chicken in secret for so many years.
Diego had won by surviving, but he was still restless. He hoped his schemes would soon outgrow his rural present. He envisioned a future: A busy city intersection in the middle of town, fortified by his storefront, with all kinds of people, not just Latinos, lined down the sidewalk in wait.
For now, Diego could only plan and dream. He exited the McDonald's and walked toward his compact car. Overhead, moths buzzed the lot lights. He opened the trunk, filled with clothes for mid-day wardrobe changes folded in trash bags. He switched ball caps, tossing in his butchering hat for a clean replacement.
Diego spent hours on his feet that day sawing pork chops from a hog side, and with the coming morning the polleria work week began. Rest, as usual, was sparse. After a few hours sleep, his mission beckoned him awake like a crooning rooster.
Obedient tasks awaited him: Pack the rotisserie full of bird, please the people who believe in him. Prepare for a busy lunch as if the fear of deportation or health code violations could be cooked out like wine in a poultry brine. In uncertain times, Diego could exercise one power: When blistering heat ruckled chicken skin, anything seemed possible.
Pollo a la brasa is a loyal meal: It comforts in fair weather and freezes, good times and downturns. The day after President Donald Trump signed his immigration crackdown executive order, "Enhancing Public Safety in the Interior of the United States," January winds blew cold and hard. I sought the warmth of Diego's cooking, accompanied this time by my longtime friend, Beto Mendoza.
Beto and I are part of a small coalition that advocates on behalf of immigrant families in Georgia. This work has never been easy: In 2011, the Georgia state legislature instituted anti-immigrant policies with HB 87; under President Barack Obama's order, immigration agents raided Latino neighborhoods around the state, as they did elsewhere, looking for so-called criminal immigrants; fathers, arrested for driving without a license, were deported, leaving families behind to fend for themselves. There were small victories: Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals helped under-documented high school students, barred from Georgia's top universities, pursue their dreams of higher education.
Since November 8, 2016, immigrant rights activism has been especially fraught. Nobody knew what to expect come January 20. Would President Trump actually follow through on what he said at those rallies? Beto, myself, and our colleagues sorted through news reports and legal assessments, trying to figure out what was in store for immigrant communities. Trump's executive order — a flawed document that further demonized people rather than offering hope of an immigration overhaul — only added to the confusion. It was tempting to advise migrants to prepare for the worst.
There had to be an upside. Beto and I found a reprieve from the troubles at Diego's. We counted on his cooking to fuel new plans, and he was happy to see us. A slow Thursday freed Diego to flex his talents.
In his kitchen, Diego arranged a broad palette. Pots of yuca and chayote bubbled on the stove. Tallarines verdes, a creamy Peruvian pesto, warmed in a wok. The rotisserie was chockablock with chicken. Soon, we stared down more fried rice, green spaghetti, beans, and bird than we could reasonably handle.
Diego steeled us, and his people, for the fight ahead. He said his regulars felt anxious over a Trump presidency, and that he felt sad greeting fearful patrons at his restaurant. He could tell folks needed support, but he required none himself. When Beto asked if he felt threatened under stricter immigration policies, Diego replied firmly: No.
Trump can't do what he thinks he can, Diego said. There are too many good people in government, in this country, who would stop him if he tried to kick out all the immigrants.
I'm no lawyer. Beto's not a politician. But we knew this was too rosy a view. Still, we were thankful and bellyful and willing to be hopeful. It felt safe to trust Diego, no matter how wrong he might be.