Apr 4, 2019
by Christopher Kerosky, Kerosky, Purves & Bogue, LLP, Sonoma County Human Rights Commissioner
It was an American Catholic priest and missionary who helped start Silver Canul on his American journey – by helping him cross the border illegally.
Silver was an altar boy for the priest, Fr. Tom, who was serving the impoverished community of Peto in the Mayan region of Yucatan, Mexico. The missionary took the young Silver under his wing and when the boy couldn’t find work after graduating from high school, Fr. Tom lent Silver money for a coyote (smuggler) to help him across the border. The good priest even helped the young Canul find work in Mendocino County.
30 years later, Silver Canul owns two award-winning restaurants, employing almost 100 people in Fort Bragg. Silver married his high school sweetheart from Peto, Laura Alcocer, and they raised four daughters here. The girls were taught to be strong and independent—and value education. Three graduated from Sonoma State and the last is working on her degree. All have professional careers: Faviola is a Lead Teller at a bank; Claudia is the North Bay Region Placement Manager for a service agency for the disabled and elderly; Ariana is a business tax auditor for the state of California; and Melissa is a Development Associate for California Human Development.
Over a thousand years ago, the Mayan people developed a civilization that rivaled Europe and Asia for its mathematical, scientific and cultural achievements. Like all of Mexico, the Yucatan was later colonized by the Spanish, and much of its wealth and status plundered by their conquerors.
Silver grew up in a poor family there and his first language was Mayan. He only learned Spanish in school. Laura, the daughter of a respected teacher in Peto, married Silver after high school, but he could not find work. So Canul decided to make the journey north —a migration many from poor regions of Mexico and many other countries of the world have made since the 19th century.
Laura left her job at a bank in Peto to follow her husband to the U.S. in his pursuit of the American dream.
To get to the U.S., the couple had to cross the desert, where they were caught once by la migra. But in those days illegal entry to the U.S. wasn’t treated so seriously by our government. According to many Mexican immigrants I’ve met, the Border Patrol would often tell migrants they caught entering illegally: “Sorry I have to send you back. Maybe you’ll have better luck tomorrow.” The encounter with border police was similar for the Canuls: the agents shared laughs with the couple, wishing them luck when they parted company in Tijuana. A few days later, Laura and Silver crossed over successfully.
Fr. Tom brought the pair to his native Mendocino County. It was not an easy transition, as Silver did not speak English; the only word he knew was “Yes”, and that was reflected in his can-do attitude toward work.
His first job was picking peas and beans, and milking cows for rancher friends of Fr. Tom. After some time, he got a job filleting fish for 8 hours a day; in the evening, he would work another 8 hours as a dishwasher. Laura was a housekeeper. The plan was to save money to take back to the Yucatan, where he and Laura would raise their family.
So, after eight years of being abroad, Silver returned to Peto, where he managed to build a house with the $20,000, he’d saved in the U.S. But the economy in the Yucatan was in crisis and the only job Silver found in Peto was as a watchman at a supermarket. He had to work fifteen days to earn what in just a few hours he got in California. Silver and Laura reluctantly came to the conclusion that the only way to give their family a good life was to leave the Mayan home they loved and seek their fortune in California.
Three of their kids were born in the U.S. but daughter Claudia and her two parents had to navigate the immigration system. Silver managed to get status through Ronald Reagan’s legalization program of the 1980s and then sponsored his wife and daughter through family unity laws, now under attack as “chain migration”.
The Mayan’s have a proverb: “Do not hide your good food from visitors or it will go to the worms.” Silver has followed that advice, working his way up the ladder in the restaurant industry. When the restaurant where he worked got a new French chef, who thought Silver’s skills were not adequate for his Avant Garde menu, Silver asked for a chance to prove himself. “It stung my pride that my boss told me I did not know enough to be a chef. So, I asked him to teach me and offered to return to dishwashing if he was not satisfied with my cooking”. The boss was impressed by his pluck and gave Silver a chance. Canul never looked back.
Silver would later be trained formally as an Executive Chef in Napa Valley, ultimately becoming a renowned chef and restauranteur. He saved enough money to buy his own restaurant and then a second one. His face has appeared on magazine covers and he has become a respected pillar of the North Coast community. Now Canul is now one of the biggest employers in Ft. Bragg.
The family still honors its roots– with huge family gatherings on a regular basis. The Canul children have been raised as proud Yucatecos, celebrating their traditions and culture. All four daughters speak fluent English, Spanish and a few words of Mayan.
Silver has added many distinct Mayan touches to the menus at his restaurants. Canul even worked with a local creamery, Cowlicks, to import Mayan chocolate from the Yucatan and produce a chocolate ice cream with that unique flavor he serves in his restaurants. It’s a dessert I had the good fortune to try — at one of his Ft. Bragg restaurants — aptly named“Mayan Fusion”. http://www.mayanfusionftbragg.com/
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