Interview with Christina Sanchez Juarez of the Cocina Abierta Collective

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Documentation of The Worker Body, June 2015. Dinner and Conversation hosted by Cocina Abierta and ROC LA. Photo by Heather M. O’Brien.

Interview by Kai Daniel (SPArt Social Media Intern)-

Upon meeting with co-founder Christina Sanchez Juarez, I entered an extremely welcoming environment. Christina herself was eager to talk about Cocina Abierta, its mission, and how it does what it does. The goal of Cocina Abierta, a collective of artists and restaurant workers, is to create critical awareness of food labor. Through food-based interventions such as communal cookouts, DIY cooking shows, and recipe swaps in collaboration with diverse community groups, Cocina Abierta creates these dialogues. With the merging of the consumer and restaurant workers experience, and putting restaurant workers in a position of autonomy through their programing, they are steadily increasing awareness with their platform.

Below is the interview that took place with Christina. It carries a lot of weight and highlights her and Cocina Abierta’s motivation and action as a collective.

Can you describe the work of Cocina Abierta please.

Cocina Abierta is a nomadic experimental “test kitchen” run by a collective of Los Angeles based artists and restaurant workers. Our practice provides a platform for engaging restaurant workers and consumers in conversations about the realities of food labor. We organize food-based interventions such as communal cookouts, DIY cooking shows, and recipe swaps in collaboration with diverse community groups. Through these exercises in learning and listening, the collective facilitates the exchange of immigrant histories, culinary skills, and base building strategies towards the development of a worker-centered philosophy to eating ethically. We work in collaboration with a rotating roster of artists, restaurant professionals, community organizers, and educators.

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Documentation of The Worker Body, June 2015. Dinner and Conversation hosted by Cocina Abierta and ROC LA. Photo by Heather M. O’Brien.

How did the project begin?

My partner Cayetano and I established the collective in 2011 shortly after moving to LA. Cayetano migrated from Oaxaca Mexico at a young age and has worked in the restaurant industry for 18 years. When we moved to LA, Cayetano quickly realized that if he was going to survive the Los Angeles restaurant industry we needed to do all we could to begin building community with other restaurant workers. Unlike back home (Oakland, CA), he no longer had a  support network of workers to draw from to find work or get the 411 about the working conditions in a particular restaurant. He was diving into the LA food landscape completely blind. Once he got situated, I came to him with this idea of conducting interviews with his fellow workers to begin meeting new folks and building an archive of worker testimonials. In the beginning it was hard to find people to speak to us, namely because we didn’t really know what we were doing or exactly what we were looking for. We understood that people were suffering, that folks were overworked and underpaid, and we wanted to contribute something to the causa. Around the same time, we met the organizers at the Restaurant Opportunities Center of Los Angeles (ROC LA), a worker center dedicated to organizing workers and advocating for restaurant workers rights both locally and nationally. We became members of the worker center, began volunteering our time, and building relationships with other restaurant workers. Through the relationship with ROC LA, and the subsequent relationships with other workers, we began gaining a political understanding of the forces that suppress wages and keep the substandard working conditions unchecked, such as the “other” NRA—the National Restaurant Association, a powerful lobbying group that is responsible for, among other atrocious things, freezing the national tipped minimum wage at just $2.13 per hour!

On par with this political consciousness, our membership in ROC LA gave us an opportunity to become friends with politicized, badass restaurant workers who were doing what they could to support the movement via their stories and activism. This frankly has been the best part—meeting and learning from others what it means to be a poor restaurant worker in Los Angeles in this moment of massive expansion, capital, and development. I mean, right now in Los Angeles the average 1 bedroom apartment cost something like $1700! I think I’ve heard it said that you need to be making $33 dollars to afford an apartment at that price! Restaurant workers and other low-wage workers, the people who keep this city going, make nowhere near that much. Most of our restaurant worker friends piece multiple jobs together and travel long distances in order to get to their jobs. This is an absolute crisis, and what we try to do through Cocina Abierta is both point at the crisis and collectively work towards implementing and fighting for alternative models.

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Documentation of The Worker Body, June 2015. Dinner and Conversation hosted by Cocina Abierta and ROC LA. Photo by Heather M. O’Brien.

What does Cocina Abierta Stand for?

Translated into English from Spanish “Cocina Abierta” means opens “Open Kitchen”. The inspiration for the name is a direct reference to the architectural trend of open restaurant kitchens, where, for example, you can sit at a bar and watch a restaurant worker make your meal; the opposite of this being a closed kitchen that is hidden in the back of a restaurant. Metaphorically we were thinking about our work as being an opportunity make this so called “open” space more porous, but instead of it being purely spectacle or a “cool” opportunity to watch someone make your food, it’s about exchanging information and stories between restaurant workers and consumers. So as a consumer you’re not just sitting at a bar watching, you’ve stepped into the kitchen, or the worker has stepped out of the kitchen, and you’re learning from one another, perhaps even making a meal together.

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Documentation of The Worker Body, June 2015. Dinner and Conversation hosted by Cocina Abierta and ROC LA. Photo by Heather M. O’Brien.

How do you engage with the community?

Well I would say that during the life of Cocina Abierta we have engaged multiple communities in different contexts and “how” is really dictated by the communities that make up those contexts. For example, in 2014 via a summer residency at LACE we teamed up with organizer Wanda Pathomrit of the Thai Community Development Center to facilitate a day of programming for Thai seniors living in a section 8 housing complex in North Hollywood. In the weeks leading up to the event, we worked with Wanda to determine what this community would be receptive to and what we could learn from one another. We ended up settling on three activities for the day: one-on-one interviews with Thai seniors who were former restaurant workers, a cooking demo in their community garden to christen a new communal grill that folks had been too timid to touch, and an intergenerational potluck and dialogue between young Thai Americans and the seniors about their relationships to food pre and post migration. In the case of this program we spent way more time listening than we did “presenting” anything. We honored the history that exists in the community by listening and recording the restaurant worker stories, shared some of our expertise through the cooking demo, and finally reverted to listening and bearing witness during the potluck, which mostly took place in the Thai language.

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Documentation of the Cocina Abierta: Help Wanted event at Palm Village Senior Housing, June 2014. Photo courtesy of the artists and LACE (Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions). Photo by Angel Alvarado.

Over the past year we’ve been working on a public engagement project at Victoria Community Regional Park in Carson, Ca. The project was commissioned by the Los Angeles County Art Commission in partnership with Los Angeles Parks and Recreation and has allowed us to spend a year investigating how food can deepen cross-cultural alliances in the park. At the start of the project our approach was to try to immerse ourselves in park culture as much as possible; we attended the park’s various sports games and dance classes, while simultaneously building relationships with park staff, coaches, and park users. The research and development phase led us to the production of a community cooking show which was filmed on site in May and June of this year in collaboration with videographer Mark Escribano. Five community cooks were selected and paired up with restaurant workers from the Cocina Abierta collective (Oakland Bautista and Erica Vasquez) to film a series of cooking shows. Each show features a community cook showing a restaurant worker how to make a dish from start to finish, as well as a profile that depicts the community member engaged with their particular park community (e.g. softball, basketball, ballroom, etc.). The cooking shows will be screened for the park community in early 2016 as a part of a larger community food festival which will inaugurate a beautification project that we’ve also been working on in the park with the help of architect Carmen Cham.

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Documentation of Victoria Park Cooks: An Exploration of Food, Family Traditions, and Park Life public engagement project in Carson, Ca. May 2015. Photo courtesy of the artists and Los Angeles County Arts Commission.

This summer thanks to support from SPArt we embarked on beginning to organize a series of dinners/conversations for and by restaurant workers. In June we teamed up with ROC LA and its leadership board, which is comprised of both front-of-house and back-of-house workers, to host a four-course meal in a community space run by the amazing Meg of Large Marge catering. The guest list was completely made up of fellow restaurant workers mostly recruited from ROC LA’s newer membership. The main impulse for dinners was to provide restaurant workers with a beautiful eating environment where folks could break bread while discussing some of the most pressing workers rights issues in the industry. Each dinner is centered around a different conversational theme and an accompanying thematic menu. For June’s dinner, we asked guests to share stories about the effects of restaurant labor on the body, focusing on both the physical and spiritual consequences of this work. To compliment this conversation, chefs Adrianna Sullivan and Cayetano designed a medicinally inspired menu featuring healing foods, such as nopales, which are respected by many cultures for their ability to lower blood sugar levels. The dinner in and of itself was absolutely beautiful and delicious, and the conversations were deep and sincere, but on a personal level I feel the heart of this work is in the organization of these events; the weeks of meetings, conversations, and negotiations that happen amongst the organizers of the event, in this case, a group of restaurant workers that desperately want to see things change and are engaged in creating platforms for listening to one another.

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Documentation of The Worker Body, June 2015. Dinner and Conversation hosted by Cocina Abierta and ROC LA. Photo by Heather M. O’Brien.

What challenges have you encountered in your programming?

I would say the biggest challenge is sustainably and consistency. Our commitment to working collectively and working primarily with other restaurant workers isn’t an easy feat, mostly because, as I said before, our friends work multiple jobs and/or their work situations can be precarious. We do what we can to be sensitive to this and meet people where they’re at. Collectivity is slow process; you can’t loose your patience with it. If it’s genuine you have to learn to let the moments of so called success come and go.

Personally, I’ve also struggling immensely with balancing this work with the work that actually pays my bills. I’m a teaching artist in an independent school and I’m grateful for this job as it allows me to teach while continuing to be an organizer/artist in Los Angeles, but it’s an incredibly taxing juggle. I’ve gone from being an artist that was hungry for opportunities to a person who strives to remain relatively healthy and not constantly make myself sick with stress. Cocina Abierta has taught me that I’m not at all a “go-getter” or someone who’s nessesarily always interested in final products, I’m a process-oriented artist that’s interested above all in building real relationships with people.

How are you planning to finish out your year? What does Cocina Abierta have planned?

The plan right now to is to continue working with ROC LA and other organizations to facilitate more of these conversation-based dinners throughout Los Angeles. Cayetano and I are also heavily invested in the human right to housing struggle and are founding members of the newly formed Los Angeles Tenants Union. We would like to continue exploring how we can draw connections between the restaurant worker movement and the anti-displacement work that is currently erupting all over the city. For us, these connections were particularly highlighted when we were in residency at LACE. While collecting testimonials we spoke to numerous Hollywood restaurant workers who under no circumstances could afford live anywhere near their workplace because of skyrocketing rents.  Over and over again we heard about folks working multiple jobs to be able to keep a roof over their heads. We believe that these struggles are intrinsically linked and we want to do what we can to bring people together to fight for living wages, as well as housing that doesn’t require you spend all your waking hours working and making profits that mostly benefit others.

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Documentation of Los Angeles Tenants Union protest in Boyle Heights, October 2016. Photo by Timo Saarelma.

More information and updates about Cocina Abierta projects can be found on their website. http://www.sanchezjuarezstudio.com/#!cocina-abierta/c1xcp

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