EL SERENO — Last month, outside El Sereno Greengrocer in Northeast LA, patrons sat cross-legged on the sidewalk, chatting over the pulsing music and eating flaky pastelitos and warm shuco (a hot beverage made from black corn, beans, and alguashte) out of plastic containers.
From 9 a.m. until sell out around 2 p.m. vendors sold art prints, raffle tickets, coffee, and Salvadorian and Mexican food at booths outside the store.
Searching for a way to support Palestinians and the Congolese, a collective of local artists, chefs and business owners organized a “food pop-up” to raise funds for the people of Palestine and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The organizers said they envisioned the pop-up as an opportunity to move beyond the typical online activism of reposting on social media and to practice solidarity through the intentional purchasing and eating of food.
“Food is inherently political and spiritual and practical and visionary,” Patricia Torres, one of the owners of El Sereno Greengrocer, the market that hosted the pop-up, said. “We’re inviting people to buy this [food] and enjoy it and also regard what context it’s coming from.”
In recent weeks various boycott lists have proliferated on social media, singling out companies they say profit from mineral extraction in the DRC and Israel’s occupation of Palestine. Among them is Starbucks, which recently sued Workers United (an affiliate of the Service Employees International Union) over a tweet expressing solidarity with Palestinians and has since lost $11 billion in market value, in part because of consumer boycotts. At the pop-up, customers could enjoy a pastelito and a cup of coffee from a Palestinian-owned company with the knowledge that their money was supporting brands that align with their values.
Aqua Lemus, a street vendor and chef at Bridgetown Roti, said they organized the event with fellow chef Sayra Lamas and artist Kell Lorenz to be explicit about where food comes from and what the profits go to support.
“Everyone’s wallet is a silent way of redirecting and letting people know where you stand,” Lemus said.
The pop-up raised a total of $2,182, which the organizers split between two non-profits — Friends of the Congo and Middle East Children’s Alliance (MECA). Funds donated to MECA went directly towards meeting urgent needs in Gaza, including medical aid, food, clean water, and psychological support. Those donated to Friends of the Congo will support its advocacy for peace, stability, and justice in the region.
Lemus said they selected the two organizations after reading about their on the ground work in Palestine and the DRC. As of Dec. 16, Israel has killed 18,600 Palestinians and displaced nearly 1.9 million in its invasion and bombardment of Gaza, the Associated Press reports. The head of Doctors Without Borders has warned that the situation in Gaza has far exceeded a humanitarian crisis, with Palestinians facing dwindling food and water supplies, little shelter or sanitation, hospitals exceeding capacity, and growing fear of infectious disease.
In the DRC, a record 6.9 million people have been displaced in a protracted decades long conflict and resulting humanitarian crisis. The latest stage in the conflict has seen a proliferation in human rights violations. In the Ituri province, 75,000 people — including 35,000 children — are living in “hellish conditions” at a remote displacement camp without adequate food, shelter, protection, and sanitation. The New York Times reported that the World Food Program “has enough to feed only 2.5 million out of the estimated 6.3 million people who go to bed hungry every night in eastern Congo.”
Lemus, Lamas, and Lorenz’s vision for the event drew them to El Sereno Greengrocer, a small market on the corner of Huntington Drive and Kendall Ave. Opened by Chicana couple Erika Crenshaw and Patricia Torres in June, the Greengrocer is dedicated to sourcing its products from queer, immigrant, and BIPOC-owned farms and brands, and stands in firm solidarity with all marginalized and oppressed peoples.
Crenshaw and Torres, who have long been involved in community organizing in El Sereno and elsewhere, said they have never hidden where they stand politically.
“We are not about to split just because we have a business and be like ‘Oh, business is one thing and our personal life is another,’” Crenshaw said. “We’re two women. The personal is always political.”
It was this ethos that convinced the trio to choose the market as a host for the pop-up. Unlike other businesses they reached out to, Lemus said the Greengrocer voiced excitement about hosting the event and did not try to “censor the language around these difficult conversations.” In an Instagram post announcing the pop-up, Lamus, and the Greengrocer expressed their support for the liberation of Palestine, the DRC and all nations fighting for their liberation by any means necessary.
“We stand on this colonized land and honor all oppressed people that have come before us and will come after. We demand an immediate ceasefire, the immediate dismantling of these camps,” the post read in part.
In turn, Torres and Crenshaw found resonance with the artist and chefs’ attention to the political, cultural, and historical significance of their own and others’ cuisines. For them, as for Lemus and Lamas, Israel’s removal of Palestinians from agricultural land and conversion of the West Bank “from a producer society to a consumer society” echoes histories of violence against the food sovereignty of their own people in Mexico, El Salvador, and the United States.
“We only exist as a market because our ancestors were like let’s keep making this food even though we’re being genocided and let’s keep caring for each other,” Torres said. “We wouldn’t exist otherwise and many of the food products we carry come from lineages where the food has survived despite ongoing, often intentional harm.”
At the Greengrocer, these histories of resistance and resilience are baked into every loaf of black sesame bread and folded into every dumpling. Crenshaw will tell you, for example, that the bottles of lemon and basil infused olive oil are sourced from Canaan Palestine, which partners with over 1,000 family farms in Palestine to harvest olives from the trees that have been in their families for generations.
Torres said the flavorful oil is infused with the history and symbolism of the olive tree for Palestinians. The olive oil industry is an important part of the Palestinian economy and, as of 2008, approximately 100,000 families rely on the harvest for their livelihoods, according to a United Nations analysis. However, many families are unable to access their trees because of Israeli bans and have watched settlers vandalize and burn their crops. Since 1967, Israeli authorities have uprooted more than 800,000 Palestinian olive trees.
For some, Lorenz said having access to olive oil may seem insignificant. But destroying a people’s access to such staple foods is a way of disconnecting them from their culture and identity, he said.
“Food is such an important part of culture and of feeling in control of your life and connected to your community,” Lorenz said. “Food is critical to survival. If you don’t have food, people die.”
At a time when both Palestine and the DRC are cut off from much humanitarian aid, Jade Gardea, a volunteer at the pop-up, said the event drew its own symbolic connections.
“For me the connection was, again, there are people living on lands who are refugees and so they’re living on other people’s indigenous lands, but colonization is impacting us all,” Torres said. “So I just thought it was beautiful that folks were like, ‘We’re going to bring our people’s food and make it and try to give money to those people’s food.’ We all are still experiencing these wounds of colonization and still trying to care for each other.”
Arelly Iniquez and Hannah Chung, both volunteers at the pop-up, said that, at its core, the event was an offering of nourishment for the people of Palestine and the DRC.
“In my culture, y’all’s culture, I don’t know, food means community and I feel like it’s a way to bring community,” Chung said. “I feel like that’s the best way to bring effort into gathering not just money, but talk and love for Palestine.”
Correction: This article originally said Ecuadorian food were sold outside the market. In actuality, Salvadorian and Mexican food were sold outside the market.