This segment called People of Color Negocios will highlight amazing businesses around different cities that are either plant-based or spreading awareness of Veganism through a variety of platforms. We will be interviewing these women and non-binary folxs, knowing how their businesses started, and be inspiring to other women/NBP of color that want to spread similar messages! Have a vegan business you would like us to highlight? Contact us!
* * *
Defying the odds through plant-based Mexican cuisine
Somos Semillas: The Story behind Gianna's Pop-Up Kitchen
Interviewed by: Estefania Rodriguez Photography: Karolina Cantu
Deep in the heart of Texas, you can find the buds of veganism beginning to blossom. Gianna Navarro, a queer nonbinary/gnc/gender fluid Houston native, became interested in veganism from a young age and turned their life around by creating Somos Semillas (We are the seeds), a plant-based pop-up kitchen dedicated to transforming traditional Mexican cuisine. The name was inspired by a classic Mexican proverb: “Quisieron enterrarnos, pero se les olvido que somos semillas” (They tried to bury us. They didn’t know we were seeds.)
How did veganism become a part of your life?
“Veganism became a part of my life about four years ago, when my ex-partner and I started learning about sustainable agriculture. Around this time, I was also thinking about having or adopting children one day. While I changed my mind since (for many reasons), that point of my life forever shaped how I approached my habits in relation to environmentalism. Thinking about the world children will inherit has been a major driving force behind my intentions that I put into practice every day.”
Gianna recalls wanting to go vegetarian a few times. There was a time in middle school that they wanted to start but felt they could not because of their parents’ income. As time went on, Gianna watched numerous documentaries (e.g. Food, Inc., Cowspiracy, etc.) and noticed their sister reading The China Study (a comprehensive study on nutrition, heartdisease, diabetes, and cancer). Everything felt like it was aligning for them.
“While environmentalism and health reasons helped me transition into veganism more easily, I want to add that it’s important not to decenter nonhuman animals in their own movement. This is the core of veganism: ‘a way of living that seeks to exclude, as far as possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing, and any other purpose.’ Upon further reading, it became clear to me that veganism should always refer to an ethical position against nonhuman animal exploitation.
These other avenues of exploration into my personal values really opened my eyes to some issues I had long known in my heart were unjust, but for so many reasons had suppressed those facts. This made it possible to practice honesty with myself and acknowledge the cruel consumptions I was contributing to on a massive scale (e.g. relying on factory farming and animal agriculture for ‘sustenance.’) As with other causes that are important to me (and my very own identities), none of these are single issues—[these]are [all] interconnected."
In my personal conversations with marginalized folx interested in veganism, the issues that intersect with veganism make it easier to relate and this is something I always practice.”
How was your experience navigating veganism in the beginning vs. now?
“Initially, it was easier for me to give up dairy products because I am lactose intolerant. It was difficult to find options while eating at places, or things that didn’t take a very long time to prepare. Now, many ‘accessible options’ [consist of] just sticking to simpler ingredients due to fever cravings/adapting.”
How did you start a business in Houston and what were the struggles that came with it?
Gianna began as a full-time photographer while transitioning to a plant-based diet. While they hustled all aroundHouston, working endlessly and carrying all their equipment, they began to experience Guillain-Barre Syndrome (GBS): a neurological disorder in which the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks part of its peripheral nervous system.Then, they began to experience its chronic counterpart, Chronic InflammatoryDemyelinating Polyneuropathy (CIDP): a neurological disorder characterized by progressive weakness and impaired sensory function in the legs and arms. Nevertheless, they continue to persist. Cooking became a means of healing through GBS/CIDP. On top of being a disabled person establishing a new business, they note that they have made several sacrifices to keep everything running smoothly (i.e. obtaining permits/kitchen through selling some of their photography equipment like their camera.)
“People often ask me if I was always interested in cooking, and while it’s true, I never got the chance to fully explore this creative outlet because of [I’ve been] forced to work multiple jobs ever since I was 17 years old. Once I experienced the onset of GBS, [I found time] to cook almost daily [and learn] new ways to make creative use of limited ingredients. I had very little money or transportation to get to grocery stores. Often, I had to learn how to keep things interesting while also trying to make sure I could get enough nutrients for my body to survive through the worst stages of my illness. Once I could start standing up with support, I was in the kitchen leaning up against the counters to support my body while I used different kitchen tools to relearn and strengthen my dexterities and muscle memory. In many ways, cooking helped bring my healing full circle, as well as extend that in some ways to my community.”
Thoughts on intersectionality and accessibility when talking about veganism?
“Even simple ingredients [are] difficult to come by.”
Houston does not have the best reputation when it comes to public transportation, so being without a car can leave many of its inhabitants at a disadvantage. There are many areas throughout the greater Houston area that live in food apartheid, far from quality food products.
“Making [vegan spaces/products inclusive and accessible should be] part of our mission, to be present in areas that might not always have affordable options for pre-made vegan/healthy meals.”
Gianna recognizes the importance of discussing veganism, emphasizing that it is not just about the animals. They make it a point to spread “the work of the Food Empowerment project”, a vegan organization founded by lauren Ornelas, a woman of color, whom is dedicated to shining as potlight on the abuse of animals on farms, the depletion of natural resources, unfair working conditions for produce workers, and the unavailability of healthy foods in low-income areas.
“Many times, I have felt excluded from mainstream animal rights activism. I felt like many campaigns were claiming to be about “justice” while protecting certain oppressors of my own identities. Many single-issue campaigns specifically target certain cultural/racial groups, further demonizing and othering those already disenfranchised communities. I don’t wish to take part in activism that excuses racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, classism, transphobia, xenophobia, Islamophobia, etc. or to alienate others who experience these. It’s vital to be consistently anti-oppression because, in fostering a movement that is safe for the oppressed, this will never take away from (but will further benefit) nonhuman animals. In my community, in the events I am [a part in organizing], I believe it’s important to ask rather than assume the needs of others who come from different backgrounds.
Houston is huge and comprised of many smaller communities. We are constantly connecting with one another by understanding and listening to those who advocate for other anti-oppressive/justice efforts in [various communities] (e.g. black, indigenous, immigrant, people of color, LGBTQ+, people with various disabilities, abolitionists, low-income, single mothers, etc.) We will always strive to create space for people who may not feel welcome in the mainstream vegan movement.
"One of my favorite ways of connecting with other communities has been to offer food classes, demos, and to connect in more intimate spaces that allow for questions, advice, and conversation, rather than simply selling to someone.”
What is the best feedback you’ve ever received from a customer?
“They taste like/better than when someone’s mom makes them”
“The masa is so fluffy/perfect ration of masa to filling”
“I learned about this new ingredient”
“You could make me go vegan”
“It was made with so much love”
How do you keep your menu exciting for customer? What inspires your menu?
“Rotating flavors, trying more regional ingredients, moving away from processed foods, inspired by vibrant colors/pigments by flowers, new ways to color without dyes.”
“One of the newer additions to our menu has been Jamaica-Asada Tacos. I was inspired to create these by questioning the act of tossing Jamaica flowers after using them to make tea. From a young age, we [were always] taught to get more than one use out of just about everything, so I wondered what I could do with leftovers. I started researching online to get some ideas and I saw on Instagram that some people were using Jamaica flowers as ‘meat’ in tacos, enchiladas, enfrijoladas, and more. I instantly wanted to experiment with this. I started working on developing my own method and recipe last year in November, but I didn’t want to put it out into the world without spending more time working on the taste and texture, as well as finding time to make handmade blue corn tortillas to go along with the ‘meat.’ I had a specific vision in mind and I finally brought them to the menu a couple months ago.”
As a business owner, what keeps you motivated and inspired every day?
”For me, it’s all about feeling a connection and healing myself. [It’s] very rewarding and [the] most therapeutic thing I can do. [It’s also about] wanting to create security… and [a] new environment for [the] LGBTQ+; [supporting] local farmers, [fostering] co-op values instead of capitalist/competitive community driven events, [and sharing] opportunities to teach and share skills.”
What is the future of Somos Semillas?
The goal is to get a “brick/mortar, [continue expanding the] menu, and start a kitchen co-op.”
Advice for Houstonians who are interested in pursuing veganism
“[Don’t buy from] Amazon; not buying bananas, limiting almond milk, chocolate, not buying into fast fashion.[Remember:] Vegan ≠ cruelty free
“Attend community events when possible,[you] never know who you can learn from; support local urban farmers, don’t be afraid to ask questions, be gentle with yourself and find people who will do the same.”
“I would like to ask everyone who reads this to please also read Karen Washington’s interview with guernicamag.com, I don’t want to paraphrase her powerful words that shaped my own perspective on terminology and the problematic roots of the food system, and how to continue this transformative work we are collectively working towards. She notes that ‘food desert’ terminology can to mind desolate places, rather than places with incredible potential- Houston communities of color are full of life, vibrant, and by no means barren- rather systemically challenged by an unjust food system.
She prefers the term ‘food apartheid’ which asks a more important question:
"What are some of the social inequalities you see, and what are you doing to erase some of the injustices?’”
Creating a Space for Veganism in The Bronx
Next Stop Vegan: The story behind Bronx-based meal-prep service
Interviewed by Alexis Montoya Photography: Ev Martinez
Long before Next Stop Vegan existed, Blenlly Mena, a native Bronxite with proud Dominican roots, was situated in a small village in South Korea preparing veganized dishes from her culture for the friends she made in town. Veganism was almost unheard of in South Korea, so when she started introducing the concept of it to people in the area, they were curious about the culture and most importantly, the food. What is a typical dish amongst Latinxs (rice and beans, burritos, guacamole) was unheard of cuisine amongst her South Korean friends, let alone vegan cuisine. Amazed by the flavors, the love of her food spread from one friend to the next, creating a new unexpected journey for Blenlly.
How did veganism become a part of your life?
“It all started three years ago while living in Los Angeles. I was trying to change my lifestyle and I’ve always been very into nutrition. I understood veganism, but I wasn’t really sure what it was until the instructor of a weightloss challenge I participated in challenged us to go on a raw foods diet for two weeks. Veganism is one thing, but raw vegan is another extremity. I learned very promptly how intense it is.
Sure enough, I did the two weeks challenge and it worked out amazingly. My body just detoxed completely. Everything just changed: my spirituality, mentally I felt more awake, more energetic, more spirited. After I finished the challenge, I realized I liked this, but I just wasn’t sure what it was. So while researching raw dieting and raw recipes, the word ‘vegan’ popped up a lot. I was following all these YouTubers and Instagramers, and that’s when I learned about veganism and the word itself. I learned how veganism is not just a diet, which I thought it was, it’s a lifestyle.”
How did you get involved in the meal-prep business?
“When I created vegan dishes for my friends in South Korea, everyone was like “Oh my god, this is amazing! You should run a business like this!” So then I was like “Yeah, sure! I’ll do this! Whenever you guys want. I love this.” I was putting everything on my Instagram and people were excited and interested. Eventually, one of my good friends, Sunil Mahtani, said “You should consider meal-prep.” He was actually in a meal-prep service in Korea. It was vegetarian/vegan, coincidentally. He said, “You should try it yourself. You have this Latin twist and this passion for it. You would beat the Korean market in a heartbeat!” I was like “Nah, I’m good. I don’t like cooking like that. I cook for you guys for fun. I can’t cook for the public like that.” And he said “Well, you should consider it.” That was the initial conversation.”
A few months later Sunil, so impressed by Blenlly’s food, asked her to cook for him. This was the start of the business, initially called It’s Blenlly Catering. “I did this whole shopping list, I created this whole vision of what this business was going to look like in South Korea.” On meal prep day, Blenlly stuffed her bag with all her seasonings and made an hour long trip to Sunil’s house. This meal prep day turned into a 14-hour event of non-stop cooking for Blenlly, “we started cooking Saturday at 12 and ended at almost four in the morning.”
After the end of that day Sunil said, "This is your it, Blenlly. This is your passion"
Blenlly was reluctant to the idea of starting the business because of how competitive business would be back in America, but Sunil persisted. He offered to help Blenlly make a business plan, even going as far as promoting the business online. After this, she was contacted by another friend in South Korea who wanted the same service done. Soon, people started asking for her service more and more and suddenly, It’s Blenlly Catering was booming. It wasn’t long before Blenlly would be going back to America, where her business would evolve into more than just a weekend gig.
How did the name Next Stop Vegan come about?
“One day, I’m sitting in my office and I start envisioning this business. Is it going to be in The Bronx? Do I want to cater to Latinos? Do I want to cater to just vegans? What name am I going to put? I went on Facebook and asked my friends to help me create a name for this business. My friend posted a motivational quote that began with ‘Next stop…” I was thinking, “Next stop? Oh my god, it’s like New York City. Next stop Kingsbridge Road. Next stop Fordham Road. Next Stop Vegan! I wanted the logo to have a train and an orange line for the D, the green for the 4 train, the brown- and that’s where the colors came about. I then sent my vision to a designer where the logo was created. When I showed it to my family they were like, “Oh this is cool. This is clean.” and it’s been our image ever since.
The next step was registering this business before coming to America. I wanted to make sure this idea was copyrighted and that this name didn’t go anywhere. I knew this name needed to be registered because I didn’t know where I was going to go with it, but I knew I was going to go places. I knew I was going to take this to America, take this to the Bronx, cooking in my friend’s house. So I paid, I got my business, got my tax ID, and got everything ready so by the time I came home in August, I was ready for it.”
After situating herself back in America, Blenlly wasn’t sure she would be able to operate her business out of her mom’s house. She even went on a road trip, scouting areas in Atlanta, Florida, saying she was, “wasting time because she didn’t know what she was going to do with Next Stop Vegan.” After settling once again in The Bronx, her sister reaches out to her saying, “Blenlly, you promised you were going to cook for me!” Her sister encouraged her to just start somewhere, so Blenlly decided to use her mom’s kitchen to create a week’s worth of food.
What was it like working with family and navigating veganism with them?
“I ended up cooking for my sister and that was my first client. Then my aunts called me and they were like, “I heard you’re cooking for your sister. I’m interested in losing weight. What is this whole vegan thing?” I didn’t think they would be interested. I came back home very close-minded. I knew in Korea, they were going to be open-minded because it was new, it was culturally accepted because it’s something fresh, modern, and new."
In America, I thought the Dominicanas were going to be talking shit because people don’t want to steer away from their cultural comfort food. It was the total opposite, my family was so understanding. They were so interested. They really thought that veganism was going to change their life and it has.”
What was just a sister cooking for her sister became much bigger as other family members began inquiring about her services and veganism in general. Soon, more and more family wanted Blenlly’s food. Then friends and co-workers of family. Once again, Blenlly’s customer base was growing, turning her part-time work into a full-time venture.
Drawing from her experience in South Korea, a lot of Blenlly’s initial dishes were inspired by Korean cuisine, which isn’t as easily veganized either. Eventually her sister pulled her aside and said, “You’re doing great, but you really have to tweak it a little bit because we’re Latinas. Maybe I can help you.” Blenlly’s sister, Ana “Loli” Baez, was a great cook who owned restaurants with her husband. Loli helped her tweak her offerings to include vegan Dominican food. Blenlly admitted that she didn’t know how to cook Dominican food and said if they wanted that food, they had to help her make it.
The first meal made with her family was a vegan sancocho. After getting the approval of many family members, they added this dish to their menu rotation. After posting about this meal on social media, the idea of a vegan sancocho blew people away. Receiving messages like, “Vegan Sancocho? What is this? Who’s making this?” After getting so many inquiries for this dish, Blenlly asked Ana to help run this business. The introduction of this Sancocho coupled with the uniqueness of the business drew in a growing curiosity. Customers were coming from Brooklyn, Long Island, and more. When more and more customers started flowing in, Blenlly knew things were getting serious.
What’s it like owning a business?
“As a business owner, there’s a lot of fear. With all the investment that we put in, will this be flourishing? Will this be how we envisioned it to be? At the end of the day, one of the main things that I live by is taking risks. I’m very much into living life on the edge. Life is short. I don’t want to be the person that thinks, “I wish I did it when I was 25.” I want to be that person that can share the story about my experience and tell the younger generation what happened and how they can make it better. For me, there’s fear behind the business and having this establishment and reputation. At the same time, what’s the worst that could happen? I take pride on how many people we’re already helping. How many animals we’re saving. It’s all nerve-wracking, but it’s a good nerve-wracking.”
Soon the business became a family affair as more relatives came on board to help prep the food and along the way, follow the vegan lifestyle. As demand grew, the business had to move out of Blenlly’s mom’s house, into her sisters, then finally in the space established in The Bronx today. When you peak through the storefront of Next Stop Vegan, you’ll see an empty space, for now. Blenlly explained that their location, which open just three months ago, was meant to be their space to continue their meal-prep business. As we discussed the vegan resources available in The Bronx, Blenlly explained that she felt the pressure. “That’s why we’re gonna have to open up. People want this food to-go. So my mom, my sister, and I are thinking we are going to have to open up, because of the lack of options.”
Without the bells and whistle of a typical restaurant, this former Chinese food restaurant turned home for Next Stop Vegan truly felt as such, a home. Blenlly has a natural welcoming aura to her that made all of us feel like old friends catching up. Describing her journey to Next Stop Vegan was mesmerizing. “I still get goosebumps when I share this story.” said Blenlly. “I still get emotional. I have yet to ground myself and recognize that this happened and is still happening. It’s happening so fast! It’s so surreal.”
Watching Blenlly interact with the community as they knocked on her doors, and they knocked often, told me that this is the kind of business founded with community first. Each time, she kindly explained the business, sharing their enthusiasm for veganism and forming connections with the local residents. “Every time I open that door, it’s just like synergy.”
Born out of the persistence of a friend and grown from the unexpected support of family, Next Stop Vegan thrives as a successful vegan meal-prep service in the Bronx. Not only are these meals plant-based and cruelty free, but they are filled with amazing flavors where you can “taste the love” as photographer Evelyn Martinez described after sampling their famous Chimi Burger.
* * *