On April 16, 2018, Rosa Hernández, co-owner of Colectivo Sabor a Mi Tierra,and I traveled from Fresno and Madera to San Francisco for the La Cocina Conference. Since the opportunity to be fellows for La Cocina opened we were looking forward towards participating in our first ever event in which food production was the central topic. It was particularly interesting to be involved in this event coming from a place where crops for food production are a central economic activity. Traveling from the California Central Valley to the Bay Area is always a reminder of the disparities in the social and economic landscapes of California.
Food has always been central to our cultural organizing practice at the Pan Valley Institute. Our Cultural Kitchen offers participants not only the opportunity of being exposed to different tastes but to learn the stories and journeys of the immigrants and refugees that have made the Central Valley their home. La Cocina conference was a different experience since it wasn’t so much about experiencing collective cooking but about listening to different topics related to the food production business and history.
The arrival to San Francisco was somehow contrasting for one, seeing the beauty of the city while crossing the Bay Bridge and then coming across the sadness of seeing so many homeless people surrounding the area from the hotel where we were boarded. For Rosa, navigating in the city was somehow overwhelming and she was very grateful of my companionship because I am very familiar with the city.
After we settled at the hotel we went to visit La Cocina where we were to meet the staff and the rest of the La Cocina Fellows. Even though the visit to La Cocina was brief, it was very impressive to learn that such a space even exists and that it has provided so many opportunities to small food businesses. This project not only has benefitted food entrepreneurs but has alsoenriched the Bay Area food offerings by supporting immigrants to put into practice and make a living from their culinaryknowledge. We keep on imagining what it would be like if there existeda similar program in the Central Valley. Another reality check of how neglected this region is and the irony that food entrepreneurs in the Central Valley have to go through so many challenges to make their business happening.
From La Cocina,we walked to a small nicely decorated restaurant call Maize, where we had the opportunity to meet the fellows and learn the techniques of crafting compelling stories around food by the Real Food Real Stories project (RFRS). We would like to have a longer conversation with the founder of this RFRS and to learn more about their work and explore possibilities of including their practice in our Cultural Kitchen.
In general, we loved the experience and the opportunity of participating in the La Cocina Conference and are very honored to have been offered the fellowship. While walking from La Cocina to Maize in a rush, we took a glimpse at the Mission District, its murals and Latino culture atmosphere. This walk also gave us the opportunity to have introductory conversations with some of the fellows, we learned about how they started their business and the people who have been accompanying them to move forward their dreams of becoming food entrepreneurs.
We love the creativity of the food presentation, the passion of people for keeping their cooking as authentic as possible, but also being open to new ideas and food fusions. Rosa enjoyed meeting people from her home state who are part of the food industry in the US, bringing the richness of the Oaxacan food to this country mainly to serve their own community while also providing others the opportunity to get exposed to the Oaxacan food.
For Rosa participating in the La Cocina conference was a wakeup call. Listening to stories of young people making efforts to keep the authenticity of their food, it helped her feel the company of others that have been persistent keeping their vision alive. She come back with new inspirations, connections and most importantly,new relationships. Rosa felt that she is not alone in her vision of keeping the authenticity of her indigenous food and that this business, while a cultural practice, should also be a successful economic endeavor. The opportunity of participating in the La Cocina Conference came at a crucial time for Rosa. She was going through a period of disillusion due to the challenges of people beingreticent to new tastes of Mexican foodas they do not understand that what is known in the USA as “Mexican food”doesn’t even represent a quarter of the Mexican food diversity. Beyond that, sometimes her and her partner feel isolated.Opening their business has been an arduous journey for them,as women, immigrants and being indigenous. Meeting other people that have overcome similar challenges was indeed inspiring to continue moving forward.
The conference also provided excellent information about many topics that enriched the attendee’s knowledge. For example, the references about the structure of the food service, including the look and design of table manners and customs, beingassociated with the monarchy in Europeand how the military and immigrants helped on these and other topics related to the food industry.
Furthermore, many participants mentioned the important aspects of planning and budgeting in the food business. One of them put it very clearly, saying “To talk about money and budget might not sound very sexy but it is crucial in our food business!”
During the conference we heard several times about how this industry helped not just individuals but how it ischanging neighborhoods, influencing agriculture and part of our culture.