A Border Tax? To Mexican Restaurants, It’s Just One More Challenge


As one way to pay for the wall he wants to build all across America’s southern border, President Trump has floated the idea of a 20% tax on goods flowing from Mexico.  It’s an idea that would affect lots of Americans, including those who work in New York City’s Mexican restaurants.

What do owners and workers at such places think of the idea?  Judging from a few interviews by NY City Lens, not much. But they have larger concerns.

For one thing, they point out, Mexican produces like avocados are not just for Mexican food. “You have avocados in French restaurants and Italian restaurants,” said Rafael Merlin, the owner of El Porton Mexican Bar and Restaurant, in Harlem.  “You have peppers from Mexico. This affects the whole country.”

Merlin had been fixing an air conditioner near a photo of Emiliano Zapata, one of the leaders of the Mexican Revolution, overlooking a busy dining area. He is skeptical that taxes and regulations will have a greater effect than other factors in the restaurant business.  “The markets don’t care. The markets don’t respect regulation,” said Merlin.  For example, he said restaurant owners frequently adjust to shifting prices. “We are not scared because a box of limes cost us $15 before and then it went up to $110,” said Merlin.

“We would definitely be affected,” he said, but “We might have different things on the menu.”  For the restaurant business, he added, “The rents are a bigger problem than Donald Trump.”

Maggie Dominguez, manager of the Bronx-based Mexican restaurant, Montezuma, said “Our main distributors are here in the U.S.” But Montezuma gets its tequila from Southern Wine and Spirits, which gets it from Mexico, the only country that can export tequila.

While Dominguez, is “very worried,” she said that similar policies directed toward other foreign markets would be more significant. “A lot of goods that the U.S. distributors use come from other countries, not just from Mexico,” she said.  Changes that Montezuma would make “would be from changes with other countries as well.”

The staff at La Morada Restaurant in the South Bronx has similar concerns beyond the Trump Administration’s policies, but is nonetheless aware of economic ramifications of the proposed tax.  Nestled on Willis Avenue, with a small library in the back consisting of atlases of Mexico, and the works of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Zora Neale Hurston, among others, La Morada has ripe avocados sitting alongside one of its counters.

“We don’t have loans…gentrification is happening. These other corporations around us have tax cuts,” says Yajaira Saavedra, an assistant manager and waitress at La Morada.  “We don’t have help from the government.” Saavedra is also an artist, and is partly responsible for decorating the wall adjacent to the door with posters in solidarity with undocumented workers, the Lakota tribe protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline, and Black Lives Matter.

“It goes deeper than free trade,” said Saavedra of the problems Trump might represent.  “This is nothing new.”

But Saavedra conceded that the new border tax policy would indeed have repercussions if implemented. La Morada is a staple in the South Bronx, focusing on being accessible to its residents.  “Hunts Point is the biggest source of food, and South Bronx is food dessert,” she said.

Giovanni Amata, the manager of Xochimilco Restaurant  in the Bronx, is also thinking about the possibilities for coping with President Trump’s trade policies.  “About half is of our product is from the U.S. and the other comes from Mexico,”  said Amata. “We can’t raise prices out here.  For guacamole, you were making profit off of $2-$3,” he said.

But if the tax is implemented, he said, you would have to raise the price to make a profit, “and people are not going to buy it. We will just have to make do with whatever we have around here.”