Papalote Chef Miguel Escobedo is Organizing Standing Rock Donations and Here’s How You Can Help

Photo by Liz Hafalia / SF Chronicle

“I felt a connection to the people at Standing Rock because I have indigenous blood,” said Miguel Escobedo, the man behind the Mission’s wildly successful restaurant, Papalote Mexican Grill. “Being Mexican, I feel I am an equal to Native Americans. My blood is of the American continent.”

Escobedo is a Bay Area mover and shaker on several fronts. Aside from his role as a chef and entrepreneur  – Miguel and his brother have opened two Papalote restaurants in San Francisco, garnering critical acclaim and inspiring retailers to clamor for their renowned salsa recipe – Escobedo has also made a name for himself as a DJ under alias Mr. E.

But, perhaps what he’ll most fondly be remembered for – and what we should all strive to be remembered for – is how he responded to political turmoil, inequality, and institutional racism.

In solidarity with the activists fighting against the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline on Standing Rock Sioux land, Escobedo felt compelled to travel to Standing Rock when he caught wind that his friend Jacob was making the trek to North Dakota to deliver winter supplies in person.

He takes a breath, as if the trip to the Dakotas was years ago. After nearly a sixty hour roundtrip, who can blame him.

“I wanted to do more than just send stuff. I felt like it was a good way to mobilize, to get involved in action and lead by example. I am not extraordinary, but I wanted to do what is necessary, and I thought it would be poignant to deliver that message at a moment when the world desperately needs it.”

Using their sizable social networks, the friends were able to gather a considerable amount of food, clothing and supplies. Packed into a Uhaul, Miguel left the Bay Area and set off for North Dakota just as the election results were streaming in.

“The morning we left, I woke up and went to vote. We hit the road around 11 AM and after a few hours I saw the first couple of states going red just as we’re driving into the eye of the Trump storm.”

He laughs nervously as he recounts those sobering moments.

“I got shook a little bit not knowing what the climate was going to be with me being Mexican, you know? With a beard and tattoos.”

What he feared most was the wave of emboldened racists who view Trump’s election as confirmation that bigotry is the national platform and that violence is the best means of letting that platform be heard. As we’ve seen in the days since Trump’s election, his fears were based in fact, as evidenced by the attacks against every group Trump’s campaign set in their sights in the year in the year and a half since he announced his candidacy.

As the results became clearer and clearer, Miguel was traveling through the most scarlet sections of the US electoral map, through desolate plains in the darkness of night. What surprised him, however, is what gives him hope going forward.

“Everywhere we stopped, everybody was helpful and I remembered, the media survives on hate and drama. That’s what makes news, the news is run by corporations and we can’t always roll by that.”

Even with some renewed faith, what awaited Escobedo at Standing Rock was a clash of our national conscience, a clash between corporate greed and the only people in this nation with a right to decry “illegal” immigrants.

“After driving for 26 hours straight – those last four felt like the longest of my life – we rode over a hill, and the next thing we saw was the Standing Rock campsite and, just past it, the ongoing construction of the pipeline. It was a strong thing to witness in person – all of the art, all of the unity and positivity in the signage.”

He describes the drive into the camp. “The entrance is lined with flags, everyone was very welcoming and very communal. There is a main camp and then smaller camps within the camps. There is no socializing there, no one is there to chill. Everyone was busy doing something, assisting, being productive.”

Once settled in, Miguel and Jacob met with an old friend from the Bay Area, Marty (aka DJ Willie Maze), an activist who has been on the front lines for weeks.

“We found him quickly, hard at work building carpentry, reinforcing the living quarters, the sleeping area and the kitchen area. Because we were pressed for time, we only met some of Marty’s colleagues, a few strong women who were leaders within that camp. We got straight to sorting through the things that were donated and they picked out what they needed and showed us where to take things for everyone’s general use.”

Miguel stayed for a few hours, noting how cold the camp was after the sun went down.

“At night it got down to twenty or thirty degrees – there are elders – and they really need winter supplies, winter clothing.”

In a few hours’ time, Miguel was on his way back to San Francisco, where his responsibilities as a father and businessman awaited him.

“Going to North Dakota felt right from the beginning and it feels right now. My friend Santero is going on the 22nd, so on the 20th we’ll be taking donations at the restaurant to give to him for his journey. Now we know what they need at the campsite, we have a better idea of how to help.”

Moving forward, a combination of large movements, like the protest at Standing Rock, and smaller gestures, like Miguel’s trip to the Dakotas and his continued efforts, will be necessary to fight back against the growing tide of corporate influence and institutional racism. Big money is pushing through with their pipeline plans and a dangerous businessman is set to move into the White House in January.

As Miguel puts it, “It’s their land, and their water. It’s David and Goliath, it’s standing up to Big Money, it’s the police defending wealth and not the citizens, not the land. It’s backwards.”

For afflicted communities like the Standing Rock Sioux, like the indigenous people on the American continent, like the legions of undocumented immigrants at risk of deportation, direct action and solidarity across community are the first lines of defense against that dangerous tide of greed and injustice.