Among them was 26-year-old Juan Ek, an affable Mayan who made it to San Francisco in 2007 at the age of 16.
“I got him when he was a non-English-speaking teenager and saw his life change before my eyes,” said Joe Hargrave, the restaurateur who hired him.
Working 11-hour shifts, Mr. Ek managed to pay for food and rent as well as send money to his Mayan village to support his parents. He also gave money to each of his two older brothers, Luis and Carlos, so that they could pay a coyote, or smuggler, to ferry them across the Mexico-U.S. border a few years later.
Soon, all three were working at Tacolicious.
About 80% of Mr. Hargrave’s kitchen staff hail from the Yucatán Peninsula, known abroad for its hippie-chic beach town of Tulúm and family-friendly Playa del Carmen.
“They’re the soul of this town’s restaurants,” said Mr. Hargrave, who in 2011 visited the bucolic, off-the-grid village of Tekit with his wife,Sara Deseran, to meet Mr. Ek’s extended family a few years ago. “Gentle, steady, kind” is how he describes them.
But the exodus has dried up in recent years, mirroring a broader slowdown in Mexican immigration to the U.S.
Part of the change is demographics. Mexican families are far smaller now. Juan Ek is one of nine siblings; three of them migrated to the U.S. Their mother had 12 siblings; many of them live in the U.S., too. But Mr. Ek and his two brothers each have only two children.
At a local high school, state official Angel Basto recently lectured to 12-year-old students in a small classroom. The high cost charged by smugglers forces migrants into debt for years, he explained.
“If you get there alive, employers will pay you less if you´re undocumented. Many [migrants] need two full-time jobs to pay their bills and support their families back home,” he said. “Some people haven´t seen their relatives for decades; others never return,” he added.
Mr. Ek was among those who did return, to be with relatives and help his ailing mother in Tekit. Since settling there, he has married and started a family.
Still, he remains in touch with his former boss in San Francisco. Mr. Hargrave, who plans to open a Tacolicious in Oakland in 2017, hopes to visit the U.S. consulate in the state capital of Mérida early next year to ask about sponsoring Mr. Ek for a work visa.
“It’s surreal when you lose an employee like that,” he says.