Neither ICE Nor Storms of Controversy Stops South Philly's Le Virtu From Fighting for Immigrants

"Being in this city that is such a diverse place with all its problems, on balance I love it here. We have a diverse clientele that has not turned on us," Philadelphia restaurateur Francis Cratil-Cretarola says. (Photo: Richard Rutter/Flickr/cc)

Neither ICE Nor Storms of Controversy Stops South Philly's Le Virtu From Fighting for Immigrants

"The investigation was, almost certainly, a result of our activism on behalf of immigrants."

Whether anyone ever told the late Alfonso Cretarola to "go back to where he came from" -- that would be the Abruzzo region of Italy, from which he emigrated to the United States in 1909 -- is a question we'll never be able to answer. But his grandson says the Italian immigrant was definitely ordered once to get out of town -- in Pennsylvania coal country, where he was trying to work as a laborer in the 1920s.

"Things were not easy," Francis Cratil-Cretarola says of his grandfather, who eventually found home in a small Italian-American enclave in Reading, changed his name to Francis Cratil and became a naturalized American citizen in 1943. "Our last name isn't Cratil because he was someone who was wanted from the get-go."

The notion of what it means to be an American hangs thick in the air these days, but for Cratil-Cretalona -- an owner and founder of South Philadelphia's Le Virtu restaurant -- that question is in his blood and on the pages of every major chapter of his life.

Celebrating his heritage by changing his name back to Cretarola. His marriage and partnership with Catherine Lee, whose parents immigrated to the United States from China in the 1950s. Their decision -- after living in Abruzzo for a time -- to return to South Philadelphia and showcase the region's rich cuisine at Le Virtu.

And over the last three years, raising his profile as an advocate for immigrant rights within the city's' restaurant community, a cause to which he was inexorably drawn not just because of his own story but because of the new Americans -- first from Italy and later mainly from Mexico -- who shaped his kitchen.

But passion and visibility have a price. The latest reminder came last week when agents from U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement, or ICE, knocked unexpectedly on the door of his restaurant in the heart of East Passyunk Avenue's booming restaurant row to say that the federal agency had begun an "I-9 inspection" -- giving Le Virtu a month to show the employment paperwork of its employees is in order.

The visit was not a raid -- no employees were confronted or questioned. But in a time of increased anxiety -- in which President Trump has been touting planned arrests by ICE of people with deportation orders in a number of large U.S. cities -- there was enough chatter in the Philadelphia restaurant community that Le Virtu and Cratil-Cretarola felt compelled to issue a public statement about what happened.

That said, Cratil-Cretarola isn't eager to make a big deal of the ICE encounter, either, and one can't blame him. In both the statement and our conversation, he asserted with confidence that "[o]ur people have documentation and pay taxes." He had no reason to believe that the visit was initiated by federal officials. In the statement, he wrote: "The investigation was, almost certainly, a result of our activism on behalf of immigrants, and most likely based on an anonymous tip. We have, we know, incurred the ire of those who have taken a stance against immigrants."

ICE didn't comment on any specifics relating to Le Virtu, sending a statement that the agency's Homeland Security Investigations unit "routinely conducts audits of companies' hiring records to ensure businesses are complying with the laws."

Meanwhile, Cratil-Cretarola didn't need to mention that one of those ire-incurred folks is also one of Philadelphia's two main November candidates for the mayoralty -- Republican distant longshot Billy Ciancaglini, who took to Facebook this spring to blast Le Virtu on Facebook, writing "this is now one place I'll never eat at again." Around that same time, anonymous posters showed up to give transparently bogus (many mentioned "illegals") reviews that had to be scrubbed from the internet. The restaurant's alleged transgression, in the critics' eyes, was holding a fund-raiser to benefit two local families who'd been seeking asylum and despite constant contact with immigration officials were forced to take shelter in a Germantown church.

This week, Cratil-Cretarola called what happened earlier this year "waves of orchestrated stupidity" and said that while high-profile activism on the immigration front may have cost a few customers, any losses have been washed out by the support and love from Philadelphians who agree with the restaurant's unapologetic support of immigrants. "Being in this city that is such a diverse place with all its problems, on balance I love it here," he told me. "We have a diverse clientele that has not turned on us."

Things that Cratil-Cretarola would rather talk about than his naysayers include the tangled history of immigration in America -- such as the fact that Italians and other southern Europeans who arrived here after new immigration laws in 1924 were given a form of amnesty that's denied to today's undocumented -- and how new arrivals brought South Philadelphia back to life after a generation of so-called "white flight."

"When we moved to the (East Passyunk) neighborhood in 1996, we loved the neighborhood but a lot of businesses were on their last leg, and people were retiring," he said. What he saw bring South Philadelphia back to life over the next two decades was an influx of new Americans from places like Vietnam or the Mexican state of Puebla. "The serendipity," he called it, "of people from different cultures meeting became a catalyst for creating cool events and a cool culture."

That cool culture made the once-comatose East Passyunk strip one of the hottest neighborhoods in Philly -- right when the foul crosscurrents of political change began to blow. The 12 years that Le Virtu has been in business has coincided with increasingly negative national tone on immigration. Cratil-Cretarola said that when Trump launched his presidential bid in 2015 by calling Mexican migrants "drug dealers" and "rapists' and calling for a Muslim ban, it freed up people in Philly to make the same kind of "go back!" comments to his employees that his grandfather had heard a century ago.

"We can't just sit there," he said. "These people are now family." And so just sit there he has not. The work by Cratil-Cretarola, Lee, their family and coworkers at Le Virtu to raise awareness and money for pro-migrant causes -- through events such as a "Sanctuary Supper" fund-raiser held at the restaurant in February or selling a Jamaican-American woman's bread pudding recipe to support her efforts to stay here -- is well documented. Now, too, is an ugly backlash.

In this brutal summer of 2019, the immigration fight in America is at a crossroads -- and so is the struggle for the nation's soul. At the same time that Le Virtu was releasing its statement about its close encounter with ICE, the Trump administration was dropping new policies meant to redefine who can stay in America and -- for his increasingly rabid movement, anyway -- what it means to be an American. That includes a proposed halt on accepting new refugees that defiles the words etched on the Statue of Liberty, and new extrajudicial rules for whom ICE can pick up and deport that echo the worst "papers please" regimes of yesteryear. It's a time many might feel cowed.

But Cratil-Cretarola and his extended family at Le Virtu have a lot more work to do, and they are not stopping. In the coming weeks, the restaurant plans a dinner to raise legal fees for a family from the Democratic Republic of Congo that's fighting to stay here, and later in the year he wants to support the city's new deportation defense fund initiative with the Vera Institute for Justice. It's not so much what he wants to do as what he feels he has to do at this fraught moment.

"We'd like nothing better than being able to concentrate most of the week on bringing Abruzzese culture and food to the place we love," he said, evoking the kind of normalcy that seems so distant yet that so many of us are praying for.

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