TABLE OF CONTENTS
1. A Toast to Woman-knowledge in Oaxaca2.My Harold's Was No. 623. Better Living Through Juice at TROPICS4. What We Really Mean When We Say "Woke"5. Beyonce's 'Lemonade' Is The Epitome of Black Girl Magic6. On Race & Inclusion in Photography
My Harold's Was No. 62Published in Bon Appetit, Summer 2018
In a deeply segregated city, Harold's Chicken brings together Chicagoans of all stripes.
"My" Harold's was No. 62. Harold's Chicken is one of Chicago's most beloved food chains, known for its fried melt-in-your-mouth chicken. And my loyalty was to No. 62, at Wasbash and East Harrison, a brief walk from my classes at Columbia College Chicago. I frequented it so often, my usual (six piece, all drumettes, extra white bread, sharp and vinegary mild sauce on errythang) would be started a few minutes after I walked in.In a deeply segregated city, Harold's brings Chicagoans of all stripes together.They ordered at bulletproof glass encased counters and feast in the no-aesthetic aesthetic of white subway tiles punctuated by red paneled walls.
I came to discover everyone had "their" Harold's: an ex-partner would eat only at No. 14, convinced they changed the grease more often thus providing a superior fry and taste. She refused to eat at No. 62 while we dated, even though it was closer than driving to Hyde Park for the same chicken, prepared the same way, in the same fat.
When summer finally arrived after the brutal Chicago winter, I'd celebrate by taking the bus to 12th Street Beach and nom on a six-piece. Fingers sticky with the fluorescent-red tangy sauce, looking out over Lake Michigan, blissed out.
That is, until I hear a "damn girl, you ain't gonna share?" from one of the nearby security guards, and we both laugh, knowing when she's off her shift, she's going straight to Harold's
Better Living Through Juice at TROPICSPublished in TASTE Magazine on October 2, 2017
How a pack of L.A. skateboarders bettered their neighborhood through the power of juice. Really good juice.
In Los Angeles, juice comes with a sort of a stigma, along with seasonal salads and $20 avocados mashed on bread. But in communities that lack fresh and healthful food options, having juice can be revolutionary. At least, that’s what a group of five young black skateboarding vegetarians, who call themselves Tropics, thinks. They’re trying to answer an important question: How can they introduce their underserved community to the benefits of fresh, healthful foods in an accessible way? Their answer? A pop-up juice bar in their Los Angeles neighborhood of Baldwin Hills. Better known as the Jungle, Baldwin Hills has been plagued by gang violence. In the predominantly black neighborhood—where most households make $20,000 or less a year—it can be easier to find a fast-food chain than a grocery store with fresh vegetables.
This past spring, the founders raised $60,000 on Kickstarter to open a juice bar at the Underground Museum. Founded by the late painter Noah Davis, it’s a haven for a community with little or no access to artistic programs, co-working spaces, or trendy coffee bars. Since July, the group has been selling fresh juices, cold-brew coffee, and acai bowls—crafted with enticing names and fresh, familiar ingredients. My signature acai bowl came with coconut flakes, banana and strawberry slices, and a very generous drizzle of honey. Many of the juices are named after seasons or feelings, like the Childhood juice—which was inspired by eating watermelon on a hot L.A. day. The Emerald juice is a vivid jewel-green blend of apples, cucumbers, celery, parsley, and lemon with a kick of heat from juiced jalapeño. The juices are as beautiful as they are refreshing—enticing to customers who might not have even been in the market for juice.
So how exactly did five young black skateboarders barely out of their teens, growing up in a food desert, become vegetarians? Skateboarding initially brought the group together, although a few of the members knew each other just from growing up around the Jungle. The group’s members—Thomas James, Preston Summers, Ryan Satram, Willford “Willy” Neal, Jair McKay, and Jorge Robles—range in age from 21 to 23 and are all faithful skateboarders. “We all skated around the neighborhood, but when the skate park was built, it brought us all together,” Neal recalls. He adds that skateboarding was a way to escape the perils of gang activity and harassment, as well as the limitations that can come with being a black boy from the hood.
When James decided to pursue a vegetarian lifestyle, his friends supported him by also adopting vegetarianism. This support, enthusiasm, and we’re-all-in-this-together mentality remains the foundation of the collective. Four years ago, the group of friends crashed a Fourth of July party thrown by Daniel Desure, a thirtysomething creative director of a design firm called Commonwealth Projects, whose office was just across from their skate park. They became fast friends. (Desure introduced the Tropics crew to the design world; they provided him with a richer understanding of his new neighborhood and, in turn, their lives growing up in the Jungle.)
“This whole process in a way has been a sharing of experiences and cultures,” Desure explains. And over lunches at their regular Korean spot and mindfulness sessions at Commonwealth Projects, the idea for Tropics was born. One sunny afternoon in June, we stop by on the final Tropics training day to sample the Childhood juice, a refreshing summer blend of sweet watermelon punctuated by tart lime and a hint of heat from juiced ginger. Tropics develops their juices through a mix of their favorite childhood memories and visits to the farmers’ market to discover new fruits and sample familiar fruits in season. Back at their test kitchen at Commonwealth Projects, the group workshops ideas and pitches in thoughts on flavor, texture, and color. Once the group agrees on a juice, it goes up on the menu for the public. Along with these seasonal juices, Tropics also sells a potent cold-brewed iced coffee sourced from a local coffee roaster as well as acai bowls with toppings including cacao nibs, shaved coconut, and fresh tropical fruits. Each juice comes with ingredient and nutritional information, so customers can learn about the foods they consume and how those foods can affect them so they can make empowering choices when they head to the grocery store or the farmers’ market.
“How do you get people to eat better?” James asks rhetorically: “You come to them.”
Tropics is actively taking the idea of empowering others to make something—the “something” being a healthier, food-engaged, and educated community—by setting the example that engaged community members can change an underserved community using the resources, resourcefulness, and energy of the neighborhood. The pop-up runs through this month, and the group hopes the three-month project will help set the tone to expand across the United States in places like Baltimore and Detroit. They’re even considering an international expansion with the favelas of Brazil in mind. But first they’re focusing on their home: They’re working toward a brick-and-mortar to bring their juices to communities in Los Angeles where fresh-pressed juice made by a group of young black skateboarders is just a glimpse of the food revolution to come.
What We Really Mean When We Say "Woke"Published in Complex on June 28, 2016
From the head nod to the dap, from regional vernaculars to the English Creole once known as Ebonics, black folks share in (and create) an ever-evolving, living English that is at once coded and complicated, simple and straight-forward. The manipulation of language is black folks' birthright: a vital part of our culture as former Africans and, now, as black Americans—we got it honest. Our words strengthen our ties to each other, establishing familial love across the boundaries of blood relation, across state lines and city boundaries, from hoods to projects to suburbs, and even beyond oceans. Our speech gives meaning to the shared complication of navigating American society in a black body—the dual consciousness of being black and being American, but never seen as both, in spite of our contributions to the creation of this country, in spite of our humanity. In this way, African American Vernacular English, or AAVE, is nothing short of living innovation.
When we talk to each other, we bend and stretch English outside of its confines, freeing the possibilities of speaking an English so plain and so simple, we are able to hide the content of our conversations in plain sight. This is purposeful and powerful, a by-product of the way our ancestors found ways to alchemize language into sacred, hidden code that their white slave masters would never be able to crack. What sounded like gibberish ended up being these masters' demise when successful slave revolts were plotted right in front of their faces (see: The Haitian Revolution, Nat Turner’s Rebellion). Furthermore, slaves used the creation of Creole to foster a universal speech that allowed displaced, enslaved West Africans to speak amongst themselves despite being forbidden to speak their native languages and numerous dialects.
According to Nielsen’sThe State of the African American Consumer report, Twitter is the most popular social networking site amongst black folk. Twitter is now where a majority of our once-private conversation take place, so a distinct thing is happening to black folks and our language in the age of social media: Everyone is listening to us.
I spoke with Dianna Harris, creator of BLK Proverbs—which collects user-generated content documenting black proverbs, idioms, and sayings across the diaspora—to ask for a definition of one of social media's most used and misused words: woke. Harris defines woke as “a way to explain that black people are no longer subscribing to the hegemonic ideas about how we should live. Growing up you just accept things as they are, but as you get older and learn more about how systems operate, it’s harder for you to digest everyday life and they way it’s been given to us. It’s hard living in a society where you as a black person have to accept that you’re starting like twenty miles behind everyone else. It’s hard to exist in that reality.”
Woke is a coming of age, and to be woke is a specific sort of awareness, inextricably tied to the challenge of navigating America in a black body. Woke can also be a specific moment: when you are denied a job or loan because of your "black-sounding” name, when your white partner introduces you as "a friend" or doesn’t introduce you at all, or maybe when a police offer kills another black person in cold blood and you watch society defend the death of someone who could have been you, your mother, your father, your brother, your sister. Woke happens when one becomes conscious of these frameworks and works toward sustaining that consciousness over a lifetime.
What the general public now knows as woke, was once referred to as "conscious," and it's existed in the collective black psyche for a very long time. The term and the system of survival it was created in is new only to interlopers. There were "conscious" rappers, "conscious" poets, the "conscious" black person — see Ankh and African necklaces, dashikis and a chosen vegan lifestyle as popular "conscious" archetypes.
Erykah Badu is probably the most mainstream example of a conscious black person. In her requiem, A.D. 2000, written for Amadou Diallo, a Guinean immigrant who was extrajudicially executed by NYPD in 1999, Badu sings “This world done changed/Since I’ve been conscious.” Eight years later, Badu expands on her journey to consciousness in Master Teacher, singing “I stay woke,” in reference to the innocence of her daughter who will eventually come to her own awakening of the world; the actual ignorance of religious zealots and extremists; the distractions of romantic love and material things. Badu is ever vigilant, as we should be.
#StayWoke is a call for vigilance at modern history's height of horror—after the continual murders of unarmed black people and public stoking of overt racism, we are reminding each other of our reality: this country—our home—is still a hostile and dangerous place to navigate.
“The way they treat our experience as novelty is really irritating. Nobody considers what it is to be a black person living in this body … Every day, we have to fix ourselves to be jubilant because you don’t know what we have to survive, literally,” Harris explains. "There is no way to police who uses the content that is created during conversations, especially on social media platforms like Twitter, but white folks and non-black people of color alike, would do good to actively listen to what is being said instead of listening for the purpose of pilfering the creative speech of black people to seem ‘cool’ or ‘relevant’ or ‘hip.’"
Much of what mainstream media writes off as trendy "millennial" speech is actually black vernacular that's often been disregarded as "slang" or "Ebonics" so as not to be taken seriously...that is, until it starts trending or completely bleached of its actual meaning and usage. I’m still not quite sure what Time was attempting to do in alerting us that Frank Ocean’s album might be in on its way. Anyone with two eyes and brain knows we ain’t gettin’ that album for at least another 5 to 10 years, but I do know Time wanted to prove to us just how down they were by misusing AAVE to reference an album by a black artist. There are levels to this. Illustrator Richie Pope defines down as "someone who accepts that white supremacy and all of its offshoots, all of its effects, exists and are willing to put their proximity to white privilege on the line for people’s freedom.”
In this way, woke has and always will be an integral part of black liberation, so you can’t have that, but you can be down—Down with us. Down with the struggle—but please keep your struggle speech to yourself.
Beyonce's 'Lemonade' Is The Epitome of Black Girl MagicPublished in The Establishment on April 28, 2016
I remember my mother in her mourning room with her head wrapped in white, on her knees as she worked the psalms — for prosperity, for abundance, for forgiveness. My grandmother sang hymns toBondye (almighty God) as she swept — starting from the very back of her house and working her way toward the front door, carefully banishing dust and ill-fortune. She attempted to sweep away the generational curse of abuse out of her home, once and for all.
This ritual of banishing and working the psalms was passed down from my grandmother’s mother to her, and from her to my mother. My great-grandmother was rumored to have worked in service of the lwa, or Haitian Vodou deities. She rejected the notion that her salvation would come from the petition of an untouchable, male God.
I come from this lineage of women who conjured and worked roots to “loose” their torturers of the sin of infidelity, and to free themselves of the embarrassment and shame that comes from betrayal. It was through the conjure work of Vodou that Haiti was made free by way of the largest slave uprising in the Americas. These slaves were able to syncretize Vodou with Roman Catholicism, drawing parallels between the powers and attributes of African deities to those of Catholic saints, passing along messages through worship that allowed for an uprising to be planned and executed, unbeknownst to their slave masters.
In the song “Freedom” from her visual album Lemonade, Beyoncé’s message almost parallels the worship gatherings that allowed vodou to be practiced in plain sight. The uprising would send now-free Haitians scattered across the Atlantic, and many found their way to Louisiana to lay down their roots. Beyoncé’s matrilineal ancestry originates in Louisiana, the place where Cuban Lucumi, Haitian Vodou, Roman Catholicism, and Yoruba religion met to create American Voodoo. Lemonade begins at the root of the problem, at the origins of our history as black women in America: the plantation.
No single place quite contains the specters of our past as does the Southern Plantation, and one could argue that depictions of the plantation in Lemonade connect to ideas of the racial trauma stitched into the cellular memory of black women. Writer and priestess Luisah Teish references the inheritance of racial trauma and knowledge in her book Jambalaya, stating:
“We could therefore say that every mother contains her daughter in herself and every daughter her mother, and that every woman extends backwards into her mother and forward into her daughter . . . the lives of her ancestors pass down into the generations of the future.”
The women on Beyoncé’s visual album seem to serve as the ghosts of black women who suffered subjugation and endless violence from their white mistresses, and ongoing rape and sexual abuse from their white masters. These black women seem to be standing in watch over the losses of children torn from their wombs and sold off, of lovers forced to act as “bucks,” all propagating the next generation of women to be tortured, and men to be broken down and slaughtered.
Their suffering and pain are palpable. They gaze at us with challenging glares while sitting on the limbs of trees or keeping watch on the porch, their faces sometimes obscured from our direct view. They are avatars for the unexpressed rage that hangs heavy in the places where our ancestors were stripped of their divinity, and it is this suffering that makes conjure work. Conjure magic came out of a need to regain control of one’s personhood in the face of slavery and extreme inhumanity. Beyoncé invoking goddess imagery through the entirety of her visual masterpiece is not surprising to me, but that she centers that goddess imagery firmly in the tradition of African and black American indigenous religions — most specifically Vodou and root work — is what has thrilled me upon each subsequent viewing of her visual album.
I feel her speaking to me, showing me how to reclaim the power in our troubled history. Beyoncé then becomes an avatar as well, using her experienced pain to channel the unresolved pain of generations of black women to conjure a world in which black women are not only divine, but revealed as God herself.
We are introduced to the orishas of the Yoruba pantheon who served as divine personifications of Obatala, the supreme deity. Emerging from a door wrought in gold, Beyoncé comes to us as Oshun, adorned in gold with rivers at her command. Oshun is righteous rage personified. Among the orishas, she has endured the most abuse and neglect and thus harnesses her anger for her healing. When, in “Hold Up,” we see Beyoncé battering a series of car windows with her baseball bat, it is revealed to us that the hot sauce referenced in “Formation” is a tool, perhaps in reference to the rootworkers’ “hot foot powder,” a mixture of hot peppers, gunpowder, and sulfur used to rid one of unwanted persons.
In Lemonade, Beyoncé reaches into a deep tradition of female badness, wildness, and anger, revealing it to be not only necessary but transformative when acted upon. The transformation materializes from the science of voodoo, “a science of the oppressed, a repository inherited of womanknowledge” as described by Luisah Teish. Teish goes on to define Voodoo as “a matriarchy almost from its first days in Louisiana.”
Tapping into that ancestral womanknowledge in “6 Inch,” Beyoncé emerges awash in red in the backseat of a car, invoking the spirit of Erzulie-Freda, this time embodying a Haitian lwa. As Erzulie, goddess of desire and passion, Beyoncé harnesses her erotic power to free herself from destructive feelings of battered self-worth.
“6 Inch” allows us to revisit the backseat scene of Beyoncé’s “Partition.” The backseat is a place where Beyoncé holds power over her lover, using her sexuality as a tool: Though on her knees, and at his feet, it is her lover who is most vulnerable in the exchange, as he accesses his pleasure by making himself susceptible to her erotic power. In “6 Inch,” Beyoncé is alone in the backseat, leering at men through the window; it is the only time we see men in Lemonade. She watches them, all faceless and unimportant, suggesting Erzulie’s power to avenge the wrongs wrought against her, and by extension all women, by preying on men.
Beyoncé further assumes the role of God, because revenge is God’s alone, as stated in Romans 12:19:
“Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine, I will repay, saith the Lord.”
Notice that even in the Bible — a powerful tool in conjure work — we are urged to make space for wrath and promised vengeance if only we would harness that anger.
It is not only unusual but uncanny to find such deep reverence and homage to African deities in popular culture but unsurprising when I think of Beyoncé’s rich matrilineal heritage. Lemonade is evidence of the knowledge passed down from ancestor to ancestor, generation to generation. A knowledge rooted in the blood, in a shared history of loss and pain. Voodoo and conjure work was forged out of a need for community, a way to preserve and pass on the womanknowledge that slavery and colonization sought to dismantle.
What does it say, then, about our relation to divinity that the most unprotected, most reviled, most ridiculed and abused members of society are — and have been — black women? We carry the burden of remembering with us every day.
The tears that stream down the faces of Sybrina Fulton and Lesley McSpadden reminds us of this burden of memory, and through Lemonade, Beyoncé challenges us to reach back toward the past, to conjure a future where the God in us expands our capacity to forgive ourselves and thus, to love ourselves (and our wrongdoers) fully. Lemonade reminds us that as black women, we only need to look within to find immeasurable strength, because within us lies the source of the divine and the liberation that will break the curses that threaten to destroy us.
Lemonade is a powerfully visual journey, illustrating this act of forgiveness of self that allows the women in the video to escape the prison of specter, transformed by the conjuring of their rage and pain, to uncover the divinity within.
They lift their arms to the sky, their feet cleansed by the waters they’ve troubled.
On Race & Inclusion in PhotographyPublished in Women Photograph on November 11, 2017
I am a photographer. I also happen to be black, a person of color, and a womxn. Often, my identities seem to suffocate the fact that I am an artist when my identities should be fueling my art in the way they fuel my activism. In art school, you don’t learn to use your voice on behalf of others. But my foremost priority as an image maker is the recognition of humanity, that spark that makes ‘the work’ come to life, and gives it depth.In recognizing humanity, it’s impossible to not want to advocate for an inclusive world in which multiple viewpoints -- especially those relegated to the margins -- are presented with dignity, respect, and importance. None of us should feel good about having a hand in a limiting, exclusionary industry.
We live in a diverse world. Humans come in all colors, in all body types, in all genders, with different life experiences, and we come together on any given day: diverse, different, compelling.What I want to talk about is what we can gain, how much richer and deeper our experience can be when we make the effort to include everyone. I think about a quote that found me months ago, from a book on Jewish ethics. The quote, in all its infinite wisdom, told me, “You are not obligated to finish the work, nor are you exempt from pursuing it.” I think about the artists I know and the sacrifices they make for ‘the work’: sleepless nights, traveling away from loved ones for weeks on end, trying to find someone to watch a newborn so an assignment can be taken, infinite stores of ramen, hoping a partner is okay with taking on a bit more of the rent, praying in front of a screen that just one more assignment will appear…We hope. Our work is a lot of fucking hope.Women Photograph and Diversify Photo exist because current and former image makers realized that the need to take up the mantle and advocate for themselves and their colleagues is just as important as doing the work, that it is an integral part of the work. There is no work without us.And yet, so many of us are literally lost in the margins. We exist but we can’t be found. We make work and it just... sits. This year alone, I’ve watched two young artists become so fed up and disheartened that they’ve made the decision to walk away from their cameras.Listen: I understand what we do isn’t for everyone, but I have to wonder, I have to really ponder why it is so easy for so many of us to get to the point where we walk away from our greatest love? I’ve considered it a few times myself, but I’m stubborn. I’m working towards making myself undeniable even in the face of rampant racism and sexism, even in an industry where the image makers who are helping to shape the way we see the world are disproportionately heterosexual cisgender white men.Their points of view are being helmed as the standard. And while each one of these dudes are incredible artists in their own right, decision makers are clearly dropping the ball if a group of white guys are leading how we see our incredibly diverse world. It’s not enough to assign ‘diverse’ stories. Image makers need to be diverse in visual approach and identity and experience. There is nothing new or novel about sending out a white photographer to photograph communities and people of color. We have a century of what that looks like.I struggle to think of (m)any white women (Elizabeth Weinberg), any non-black women of color (Ye Rin Mok), any black women (Shaniqwa Jarvis), any non binary people (Devyn Galindo), queer women (Jess Dugan) or Native women (Nadya Kwandibens) who are known in the same way, who have been given access to the same assignments, who have been mentored and groomed, guided in the way those men have. Why is that? Why is it even with resources created by working photographers and a few forward looking photo editors, why do decision makers still count us out?The issue of inclusion is bigger than just the photo industry. The fact that our industry is cliquish and exclusive is a direct byproduct of how we live our lives outside of our work. If we work with our friends and all of our friends are white, well, that’s a problem in more ways than one. If we hire people we think are likable, but have been socialized to think women are inherently unlikable and we don’t grapple with how that dictates how decisions are made regarding a ‘pushy’ email from a woman photographer versus an ‘ambitious’ email from a male photographer, nothing changes. If we constantly misgender folx who have told us their pronouns, or can’t even wrap our minds around the fact people have multiple, intersecting identities, there is a problem.Comfort zones need to be obliterated.
We need to hold ourselves to a standard that doesn’t exist yet: one worth holding ourselves to. We can create that standard, but it doesn’t happen with this essay. It doesn’t happen with one assignment given to one marginalized photographer. It doesn’t happen with one browse through Women Photograph or Diversify Photo. It doesn’t happen with one cover story or one Instagram comment.It happens with accountability, and the constant reminder that while you are not obligated to finish the work, you are not exempt from pursuing it.
A Toast to Woman-knowledge in OaxacaPublished in Explore Parts Unknown on January 10, 2018
I've been thinking a lot about woman-knowledge, a term coined by the African-American healer Luisah Teish to describe the collection of recipes, skills, cures, and other variants of community sustenance shared across generations of women.
I’m in Oaxaca on a creative retreat with a group of 13 women. Being the only woman of color in the bunch, I’m particularly interested in the Afro-Mexican communities of the region, and the concept of woman-knowledge—a term coined by the African-American healer Luisah Teish to describe the recipes, skills, cures, and other variants of community sustenance shared across generations of women.
For five days, I want to absorb the stories, triumphs, failures, and wisdom of indigenous Oaxacan women artisans and creatives who have carved their own paths using their woman-knowledge, passed down generationally through a myriad of skills.
How will I do this? Mostly by eating.
Eating in Oaxaca is a crash course in the indigenous woman-knowledge lovingly and proudly preserved by the Zapotec and Mixtec women from the Isthmus of Tehuantepec to the valleys of Oaxaca. The local food is also a byproduct of stringent gender roles in communities where women tend to the home, children, husbands and extended families. Along with the old-world quaintness of the colonial city of Oaxaca, the food here is a big draw for tourists. Mole, chapulines (grasshoppers), flor de calabasas (squash blossoms), quesadillas, tetelas (masa corn triangles usually filled with Oaxacan cheese), tamales, hot chocolate, and mezcal are Oaxacan staples used, and perfected in, indigenous kitchens.
I spend a week eating in every manner imaginable—grazing at the ubiquitous food stands near the zocalo (main square), trying out chilis in the massive Benito Juarez market, revelling in the daily homemade breakfasts at El Diablo y La Sandia, savoring a breathtaking dinner of fish tacos with avocado and chepil salad at the Enrique Olvera-helmed Criollo. I indulge in mezcal whenever it is presented to me, which is often and everywhere. One popular indigenous dish is sopa de flor de calabaza, a soup made from seasonal squash blossoms that is thickened with either masa or savory, pureed Oaxaca corn and dressed with chepi—a pot herb that is strangely classified as a weed in the U.S. and tastes a bit like an under-ripe green bean.
My favorite version is made by Chef Abigail Mendoza, owner of Tlamanalli, a cavernous but warm space in the Oaxaca village of Teotitlán del Valle. Mendoza opened Tlamanalli at the age of 20 to share her woman-knowledge of Zapotec cuisine, and has taught courses in Africa and Europe. She makes squash blossom soup in the kitchen she runs with her four sisters. While one sister checks the pots of slowly simmering soup, another strains jamaica (dried hibiscus flowers) for an agua fresca, as a third quietly but deftly creates floral arrangements of fresh-cut roses in yellow, pink and red. They all wear embroidered Zapotec dresses and their hair in traditional braids weaved with ribbon.
Oaxacan cuisine relies on seasonal ingredients found at farmers markets, and food grown on family and ancestral lands. The Mendoza sisters source their ingredients from Tlamnalli and Oaxaca City. Another Oaxacan woman sharing her woman-knowledge is Graciela Angeles Carreno, a fourth-generation mezcal producer who recently inherited her family's distillery in Santa Catarina Minas, about 45 minutes outside Oaxaca City. She’s one of a few women working in mezcal production, a field previously closed off to them due to longstanding superstitions about women’s moon cycles affecting the quality of mezcal.
Carreno focuses on the agave plants’ distinctly feminine qualities: the plant has a reproduction cycle of nine months and can terminate reproduction if temperatures prohibit successful growth of new plants. A dedicated mezcal evangelist, Carreno is making room for a new generation of mezcalilleras. Her mezcal accompanies a lunch of paper-thin slices of beef cooked on an open grill and basted in its own rendered fat. Meanwhile blue corn tortillas cook on the comal, a smooth griddle placed over a wood-burning fire that is often found outside Oaxaca homes.
We are invited to help Carreno and some of the indigenous elders prepare the meal: charring tomatoes over an open fire to make salsa, and mixing blue corn masa, shaping the tortillas, and gently placing them on the comal to be baked. There are no measuring cups, just hands and minds with precise measurements perfected through repetition. Stumbling over our gringo, marble-mouthed Spanish, we resort to gestures and observation to communicate. A few generations of women from all over the world creating sustenance together.
When we sit down at the large, family-style table adorned with an agave leaf centerpiece, Carreno toasts: “To us, las mujeres fuertes (the strong women)!”
Another member of the young, female vanguard creating exciting Oaxacan food is Paulina Garcia, an expert in pickling, fermenting and canning. Her offerings include mango vinegar, tamarind jam, and an incredible wild mushroom paté. Though her fermentation kitchen Suculenta could feel contrived elsewhere, food preservation here feels like a fusion of traditional and new-school Oaxaca, an exchange of knowledge to create hybrid foods. But the real spark comes at Zandunga, in Oaxaca City’s tourism district, where Doña Aurora Toledo from the Isthmus of Tehuatepec serves me a small, ground beef appetizer with shredded Oaxacan cheese on a tortilla along with a sweet plantain croquette. I am certain the accompanying pickle—a pickle I’d eaten many times before as the child of a Haitian immigrant—has roots in West Africa. In fact, the menu at Zandunga tastes incredibly Caribbean to me. I suddenly remember my grandmother grew chepil in her backyard, and that she taught me how to make piklis, a pickled slaw made from cabbage, carrots and Scotch bonnet peppers.
Doña Toledo grew up in the Costa Chica region of Oaxaca where an estimated 200,000 African slaves were brought during the Atlantic slave trade. All my meals in Oaxaca felt familiar. The flavors spoke to my own ancestral woman-knowledge, and with that revelation, it felt deeper than generational. Perhaps the gatekeepers of our cultures have also found a way to share ideas across expanses, across the imaginary borders of country, state, race, and class to create the sustenance that keeps our species going.