Yessica Ochoa made headlines in 2014 when her 9-year-old daughter, Ligsdenis, became the first child to show up in Charlotte as part of a surge of unaccompanied Central American children who walked by the thousands across the nation’s southern border.
Nearly 70,000 made the trek that year, seeking asylum from gang and cartel violence, and hoping for reunification with parents who had left them behind to establish better lives in the U.S.
Ligsdenis is now a fourth-grader at Merry Oaks Academy and soon to be a legal resident of the country, thanks to aid from Charlotte attorneys at Central Law Group. She’ll be 11 next month.
As for her mother, there’s good news and bad news.
A Charlotte couple who read about Ligsdenis in a July 2014 Observer story decided to anonymously donate enough cash to jump-start their future in the United States. The money has become the basis for a successful food-truck business Ochoa started eight months ago.
But Ochoa, 34, is also undocumented and can’t help but worry as the U.S. Supreme Court debates the legality of an immigrant-protection program proposed by President Barack Obama.
The rising popularity of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump frightens her even more, with his talk of deporting entire families.
Now she is the one who could be deported back to Honduras, while her newly arrived daughter is here to stay.
‘My American dream’
It’s 11:30 a.m. on a Thursday and the Runaway Food Truck is parked next to a construction site on the south side of uptown.
Ochoa stands at the center of a circle of dust-covered construction workers, dishing out the kind of food she was raised on in Honduras: pupusas, baleadas, rice, special sauces and tortillas cooked on a grill an hour earlier.
English is not spoken. Like Ochoa, the men are Hispanic, were raised low income and prefer their food home cooked. One by one, they take plastic plates to the curb, eating under a tree as traffic rushes by on College Street.
Within 20 minutes, three hours’ worth of cooking is gone.
“Yes, this is my American dream,” Ochoa says through interpreter Jessica Ramirez, 26, another single mother who shares duties on the food truck.
“I want to buy a house and put my children through college. I want them to be professionals. Those are my dreams and I will work as hard as I must to make them real. It’s why I came to the United States.”
It’s a career befitting a woman who has spent most of her life taking risks. The world of construction site food trucks is the Wild West of Charlotte’s business frontier, with owners sometimes fist-fighting over turf. This includes some who operate illegally, without approval of the Mecklenburg County Health Department.
Ochoa has seen fights and been in arguments herself, including being shoved by a construction foreman who demanded she leave his site. “There have been days I couldn’t find a place to sell,” she says. “It’s not an easy job.”
Susan Cole of Mecklenburg County’s food and facilities program says the county has nearly 160 permitted food trucks, an all-time high, and the number is growing. Cole says many of the entrepreneurs are Hispanics like Ochoa, working construction sites.
Citizenship and legal status are not required for permits.
Ochoa initially operated out of a van without a permit, selling food that she cooked in her kitchen. She got caught.
Now she’s in compliance with the law, including regular inspections and an agreement to cook her food in a Health Department-approved kitchen at the Villa San Carlos Restaurante on Albemarle Road.
The owners, Jorge and Ruth Espinal, say Ochoa simply walked in the front door one day and asked if she could use their kitchen five days a week. “She’s fearless,” says Ruth Espinal.
Fearing Donald Trump
Women like Ochoa are not top priorities for deportation by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Undocumented immigrants who are a threat to public safety and national security are No. 1, followed by those convicted of at least three crimes in the country (other than traffic violations).
But there is growing anxiety among undocumented immigrants, who see the rise of Donald Trump as symbolic of a backlash in the making.
Ochoa has never been convicted of a crime and two of her four children were born here. That makes her one of the 5 million undocumented adults President Barack Obama had in mind when he unveiled an immigrant protection program in 2014 called the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans.
But the legality of the plan is being debated by the Supreme Court, having been challenged by 26 states in 2015, including North Carolina. It’s believed 250,000 people in North Carolina would be impacted if DAPA is made law.
Héctor Vaca, of the immigrant advocacy group Action NC, says the nation is losing out on the millions of dollars to be made when undocumented immigrants come out of the shadows to shop, eat at restaurants, go to movies and take a more active role in the community.
“Those are things they don’t do now, out of fear of leaving their homes,” said Vaca, who is not optimistic that the Supreme Court will rule in favor of DAPA. He is also concerned about the rise of Trump as a front-runner for the Republican Party presidential nomination.
Trump has gained notoriety for fiery rhetoric about people living illegally in the country, including suggesting some were sent here by governments eager to rid their countries of criminals.
“I’m a U.S. citizen and Trump worries me,” Vaca said. “The way he talks, I feel like I would have to carry a card of some kind to prove I’m supposed to be here. My fears are shared by many in the Latin American and Middle Eastern communities.”
‘Americans are wonderful’
Ochoa says she is willing to risk being arrested and deported for the sake of her four children (ages 2, 8, 10 and 16). She is a single mom and says she was recently diagnosed with diabetes. That has given her a sense of urgency in establishing greater stability for the family, which also includes her mother.
The idea for a food truck came after Ochoa did work as a roofer, painter and factory worker. She learned to cook from her grandmother, who she says stepped in to help after Ochoa was abandoned by her father.
Guillermo Garcia is a safety coordinator at the construction site Ochoa visits, and he says such trucks supply a little bit of home to men who are often living in Charlotte without families. It’s common, he says, for construction workers to travel from other states and stay for weeks at a time in hotels.
Ochoa is already making a profit and she recently purchased a second truck.
All this is due to the kindness of Charlotte donors she’ll never meet, she says. The anonymous couple arranged the gift through a Charlotte attorney.
“I want to thank them, whoever they are, for helping my family,” Ochoa says. “Americans are wonderful.”
In the four years before Ligsdenis came to Charlotte, Ochoa says she was forced to pay money to gang members in Honduras to ensure her daughter didn’t get hurt or worse.
That’s the world she fears being deported back to, and the reason she is grateful even to live in Charlotte’s shadows.