'Food Became the Wheels': Nelda Ruiz of Tierra y Libertad

Photo by Dominic Bonuccelli

Photo by Dominic Bonuccelli

Tucson's La Doce neighborhood bustles with gardens, taquerias, restaurants, markets, home cooks and bakeries. In 2017, a group of high school students worked with Tierra y Libertad Organization and the University of Arizona to document the foodways of this community, producing a short documentary, a report, and a handful of exciting plans for the future. Nelda Ruiz, an organizer with Tierra y Libertad and the lead project manager of the Barrio Foodways Project, took time out of a busy day--she was off to Nogales right after the interview to get parts for a rainwater barrel installation--to talk to me about the project.

We met at Café Santa Rosa, an important gathering place for Tierra y Libertad organizers and other members of the La Doce community. Ruiz encouraged me to try the red chile popover and I took her suggestion, stuffing my face with fragrant, spicy beef and crisp frybread as she told me about herself and the Barrio Foodways project. "Food became the wheels to take us in many diff•erent directions,” Ruiz says in the report and our conversation echoed this--we didn't just speak about La Doce's abundant container gardeners or burgeoning food entrepreneurs, but also about forces of structural inequality and gentrification, and the many ways community members are working to strengthen their neighborhood from the ground up, from creating catering collectives to planning a community land trust.

Can you tell me a little bit about yourself and your involvement with Tierra y Libertad?

Originally, I’m from Ambos Nogales. I was privileged to be born on this side after my mom migrated here in the late 80s to seek a better life. I had the flexibility of my body being able to move freely across borders to reunite with family on both sides, but I always knew there was something fundamentally wrong about other members of my family not being able to do the same. I was raised in a single parent home, just my mom and I--there’s so many stories of struggles here; she was constantly working, seven days per week, no joke, constantly. I was often watched by my grandma and my bisabuela--this is where I learned of my love for plants. My parents divorced when I was young and my father moved back to Mexico, I was raised on both sides--I consider that my home more than this side. My family all comes from Sonora, from where the desert meets the ocean and my other side from el Rio Sonora. I’m very intentional about continuing our cultural traditions and reclaiming my indigeneity, especially since that was lost in my grandmothers and even more so with my mother's generation.

I moved to Tucson in 2001 after I finished middle school because I quickly felt the urgency to leave after realizing that there weren’t many opportunities for youth in Nogales and quite frankly that was extremely suffocating, I felt like I was drowning. There is nothing, other than damaging and extractive industries: Border Patrol, police, drug trade, and the produce industry which capitalism has turned into an ugly beast--unsafe working conditions, pesticides, abuses to farmers, low paying wages, this can be a separate piece...I mean some companies have started carrying organic produce but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s trajectory is entirely positive, know what I mean? Absolutely nothing to nurture passions, to build skills for good, and nothing to transform a community into a healthy, beautiful place to want to live in. I witnessed first hand, what it was to see a rampant increase in border militarization with NAFTA, in the 1990s and quite frankly those were the seeds of my personal resistance that were planted back in the day which led me on the path I’m currently on.

When you were growing up, was that before the border wall that currently divides Ambos Nogales?

Yeah, it was, back in the day it was just a fence. People would move much more fluidly, it wasn’t as dehumanizing as today. After 1994 we saw a big change in the community, an increase in low-wage production jobs--for many in the community that meant “progress” when on the contrary it created much more poverty and need. There was also a depletion of opportunity soon after.

I moved from Nogales because there was no opportunity, I wasn’t aware that we could create alternatives. And being young and knowing that was kind of unfair, too. I had to grow up fast to help people maneuver the system. Whether that was translating at a bank for my mom or my grandma, teaching them how to call the city, or even opening up our home for folx who needed shelter during journeys. I had to learn quick if I was going to thrive.

I moved to Tucson because originally my plan was to go to law school, and I thought that going to a private school in Tucson would get me in the door a lot easier. I begged  my mom to send me here. Sometimes I sit back and reflect and it saddens me because I made her work so much harder to do something I wanted. I made her dive into even more debt through loans to send me to private school, a place where I didn’t belong--it was a very big culture shock for me, I hadn’t been around a lot of people with mass amounts of privilege before, I hadn’t navigated those waters! It was hard to adjust. Also, those memories are mainly composed by internalized oppression and self hate, mainly due to my peers--fuck you, Jake (he’d call me a beaner among other things quite frequently).

I became politicized late in high school. I always loved being informed, I’ve always been kind of a news junkie, but in high school I had a really great teacher--Mr. Rogers! I believe the class was something about theology and sexuality--it was an incredible political class for being in a Catholic school. I often think about how much flack he must have got from the administration because of parent complaints...that class made you stop and question everything! The seeds of resistance that were planted when I was a child were flourishing and my friends in high school were not there for it! They weren’t interested in doing any type of political work or any work for that matter, they’d actually talk shit to me for being informed and opinionated and wanting to change things, so I’d go to demonstrations and rallies by myself. And that’s where everything started.

I’d go out to rallies, I’d go out to marches, and I’d always hear this super loud crew on the megaphone everytime and I’m like, “Who are they?! I want to know them.” They were Tierra Y Libertad (TYLO). I naturally gravitated toward them and little did I know that ten years later it would be the biggest part of my life. Organizing and transforming communities, all through collective processes--it’s a beautiful and demanding process. Originally, I dug them because they were loud, unapologetic, and had the best chants! But I had no idea about the treasures behind the programming that existed, and how much they aligned with what I was into; building a world we want to see, building a world we deserve. I sit back and reflect on how much has been accomplished, like actual action, rather than just talking about ideas, it’s so powerful and astonishing. Sometimes I think we don’t give ourselves enough credit about the transformational work that has been done for seventeen years  and we continue to do, but we’re humble. Just right now, I was with our youth and after hearing some of their comments I’m confident that we are nurturing the next generation of leaders and that they will be ready to grab that torch and light their way!

Can you tell me about the La Doce Barrio Foodways Project and TYLO’s involvement in it?

You know what, let me just go back to the first question. We always encourage folx to own their stories and share them, but when it comes to doing it yourself--

It’s so hard.

So hard! I went to the university [of Arizona] for a year and it was intense for me. I didn’t have a good support network, I didn’t know how to maneuver that system. It was so discouraging that eventually I was pushed out.

Organizing saved my life, it was the continuation of my education, not necessarily through an institution and concluding it by getting a piece of paper (degree) but I learned from community, my peers, and there is no conclusion, no end. Working with people, building community and farming--flowers and crops and water--really has saved my life. It’s been a healing process.

Getting your hands in the dirt and building stuff?

Yes, but also building with people who are sharing their own stories.

La Doce Barrio Foodways Project has been such an empowering and equitable process, and I truthfully couldn’t be more proud. Let me give you a little bit of backstory of how it all came to be. In 2016, there was a conference at the University of Arizona, it was called the “Food Justice, Faith, and Climate Change Forum.” I was invited to be on a panel called “Growing a Future: Tucson’s Community Project.” On the panel were different community members who do work on the ground having to do with food, social, and environmental justice. The city had just gotten the UNESCO designation, so there were a lot of people at this conference because people heard of the designation. One of the questions the moderator asked was, “What does the designation mean to [your] community?” I straight up said, “It doesn’t mean a thing. The people who make these amazing traditional foods, who have tended the land, the crops, who make the food that you’re highlighting aren’t being recognized.” And those are the kitchen workers, waiters, servers, bussers, farmers,  O’odham people from here who have been farming these crops for thousands of years. That community, which is the reason why we got the designation, are not even acknowledged.

The designation is so focused on restaurants and the downtown Tucson dining scene.

Five-star restaurants. And not trying to discredit the amazing chefs--I know it takes a lot of training and skill, props to them. But to be traveling across the globe to Paris to talk about traditional foods from this land--where’s the O’odham farmers who have been growing and tending these lands for generations? Do they have the same opportunity to tell their own stories, especially when it relates to their own foods!? Are they getting flown to different conferences to network and meet other traditional knowledge bearers?!

On that panel there was Leslie Ethan from the City of Tucson, she’s with the planning services department. She was there, and so was Nick Henry from the Community Food Bank. He was actually the one moderating the panel. And I knew that my comment was gonna ruffle some feathers, so I was ready to be challenged. Somebody asked me, “What is the best way for us to share power?” And I responded, “We need to shift power. It’s not about sharing a seat at the table, we’ve got to redistribute wealth, change structures, even abolish them.” That’s where the ball started rolling. The Office of Sustainability [for the City of Tucson] wanted to apply for a grant with the Community Food Bank, and the partners that came to the table were the Community Food Bank, the City of Tucson, Southwest Folklife Alliance (SFA)--who organizes Tucson Meet Yourself among many other beautiful cultural programs--and the Community Foundation for Southern Arizona, they’re a philanthropy foundation.

So these big organizations.

Right? But they matched half of the grant--so I mean, if anything, that’s good, that’s equitable. Then they reached out to a community organization, which was TYLO--they wanted to reach out to somebody who was already working on the ground and had a trusted relationship with the folx here. They actually hired me to manage the project. Originally it started as a food ethnography project, but while food was the initial topic, food became the vehicle to talk about all these different things.

You have that quote in the Barrio Foodways report where you say, “Food became the wheels to take us in many different directions.” I love that so much.

That is so true. Food is such an intimate part of someone's culture. It’s our connection to our place, our home, and who we are as people. Food was the vehicle, it also served as the door to enter these beautiful people's lives and build trust. It became the entry point to talking about a lot of different nuances and beauty that exists in our lives. And the biggest treasure was that it allowed us to dream and hope about what is possible in our community, all started by asking questions about food.

We recruited about twenty youth from the community and that wasn’t intentional--TYLO is very youth driven and very youth based so, organically, we went to our peeps, which are the youth. We went to different schools and talked about the project, talked about our work, about the importance of writing our own narrative. There were probably about sixty people who signed up to be a part of the project, but we had to narrow it down to twenty.

Oh! That’s the hardest part.

It was so hard. But we got a good solid group and we began work in January of last year. We were very intensive about the trainings that we were having. SFA also hired the lead ethnographer--who’s an anthropologist, Dr. Rebecca Crocker--and she led most of the anthropology and ethnography trainings, the heavy academic stuff.  It was a little overwhelming at first because our youth had never been exposed to such content but what’s beautiful is now they have those skills.

That’s awesome!

So cool! And what was so dope about it was their transformation. Aside from the trainings inside we went to go map forty blocks--greenspaces. Every Saturday we’d hit the street, we’d have our maps, and map all the green spaces that we saw. When we’d come back to the classroom--we were intentional about them reflecting, so we’d ask three questions: What did you see? How did you feel? What did you notice or observe? In the beginning it was so hard to get them to write five words, and towards the end they were writing multiple pages of what they were seeing. One of the most telling quotes--I think it’s in the report--Axel, one of the youth, he said that he had never noticed the beauty that existed in his community. And that was just like, “Yes!”

The process of paying attention and recording stuff can really encourage people to notice things.

And thinking of why things are designed a certain way. It’s not coincidental, it is intentional. Also acknowledging those systems of oppression that really keep us in the same circle. How do we break out of that? How do we even know that we need to break out of that? That’s the transformation that they did.

We did the mapping and what we came up with is that people are growing in their house. There’s very heavy lack of shade, lack of infrastructure, but what’s going on inside peoples’ homes is very animated and it’s very active.

Like container gardens in the windows?

In the windows, yeah. Definitely small containers. We saw a lot of chiles, like chiltepines, a lot of citrus! One of the youth said, “Why don’t we make a La Doce jam?” Glean, pick up all the citrus from all the houses.

Did you do it?

We wanna do it!

We did mapping, we did questionnaires because that’s how we found out what people wanted--we didn’t just come in like, “We don’t see this, so we’re gonna start a farmer’s market or community garden.” Everything came from the people that live here. And what was said was that people are interested in having a business and growing, in having a community garden and having a farmer’s market, but people don’t even know where to start. A lot of micro-entrepreneurial spirit everywhere, a lot of houses had plants for sale. Informal economy is so alive, it’s the bloodline of our communities!


That brings up a good point that I want to ask you about. The report talks about Barrio Foodways’ having an emphasis on mapping and supporting what already exists--the food traditions, the economies--instead of coming in and implementing something new. Why did Barrio Foodways choose this approach?

Because our communities are always seen as deficient. Especially our Southside communities, migrant communities, communities of color, there’s always this horrible picture painted of what the perception is, and what it’s lacking, and its deficiencies. But there’s so many assets and skills and talents that exist here. So how do we empower people and ensure their voice will be heard and give them space and let them know that the knowledge that they hold is extremely valuable? You know how to fix cars? That’s amazing. You know plumbing, you know electricity? You cook a bomb pot of beans? What’s even sadder is that the majority of people who live here leave their neighborhoods to go the north side or to the east side to better and beautify those communities, while their communities continue to be disinvested in not just by the city but other residents by continuing to perpetuate the narrative of south side communities--“that we don’t deserve nice things.”

Our role was connecting people to resources that already exist. There’s a river of money. How do we get our people to know how to bucket the money out, to use it for them, you know?

It makes me think about what you were saying about going to the UA, and how hard that system is to navigate, especially for students who didn’t growing up being taught how to navigate the bureaucracy of a college. It seems like there’s a similar thing going on with the city infrastructure, where it’s the people who know how to access it who can access it.


Or feel entitled to it.

And that’s something that we noticed in the process. Whenever anybody refers to the Southside they tend to lump us all together and refer to, “Oh, Mexicans” or “Chicanos” or “poor brown folx” or whatever they want to use. But the reality is that it’s so diverse and there’s people from many different regions in Mexico. They’re here--people don’t know it. They’re continuing their cultural traditions and practices by cooking their traditional foods in their kitchens, those traditions and the knowledge that they brought with them are here. And that’s something else that’s so special--food is the connector to our place. Reminding folx know that those traditions and those customs hold value. That’s traditional knowledge, that’s treasure. It’s being lost, too, so fast. Speaking on that, we were also intentional about documenting such stories, so we conducted about twenty-seven oral histories with people from the community and recorded them. We then produced a mini-documentary with PanLeft about food traditions on 12th. We held a media training with PanLeft and our youth to talk about the basics of videography, so sharing and learning more skills.

I wanted to ask you specifically about the Cuchara de la Abuela collective that Barrio Foodways has supported, because it seems like they’re doing some really interesting stuff with food and small businesses. Could you tell me a little bit about this collective and what they do?

For sure. That’s something that came out of this process. We frequently heard from folx that they’ve always been interested in doing something in the food business but for whatever barrier couldn’t, whether that be lack of access, lack of status, lack of capital, lack of English language. You know, a lot of the materials from the city up until recently were mainly in English.

They’re not bilingual?

They’re trying to get there, but, I mean, it’s 2018.

It seems surprising for a place like Tucson, especially.

Crazy. Well you know we didn’t have the first Mexicanx representative on council until Regina Romero and that wasn’t until December of 2007. That’s insane.

So, Cuchara came out of that. There was a group of women who always wanted to do something around food. Their dreams are to have a restaurant, but how can we get them to that level? So we started a catering collective! It’s composed of five women who are from different territories in Mexico and each has their own traditional dish. We offer that as a menu. So far since December, since its inception, we’ve done about thirteen events. Talk about building capacity!

We have a good relationship with the YWCA and they’re currently building a commercial kitchen here in South Tucson at La Escuelita or House of Neighborly Services, a community space that’s been in this community for over fifty years. They took over the space about three years ago and at first there were concerns among residents that an institution was taking over, but it’s been really good. They currently run many training programs out of the space with various partners and also incubate small businesses. Cuchara is so excited to be able to have an accessible commercial kitchen with affordable rates as opposed to the nearest ones we have, which aren’t very near. The women also hope to enroll in some of their programs for small businesses development.

Is the Mercado one the other nearest one?

There was one there at one point, I think they were charging in the $20’s per hour but I don’t think folx can rent it out anymore.

Woah! That’s a lot of money.

That is a lot of money. And that’s the problem--our community is lacking that initial capital. One of the quotes in the La Doce documentary, one of the women said: “Our people, if they have five dollars, they can turn it into twenty.” That’s so true. We did surveys with the mobile food vendors on the avenue and the majority of them said they started because of family. No loans, they thought that seemed like a very unattainable process for them. As we know, racial discrimination exists heavily in the economic structure of this place, so not everyone has the same access to credit or capital like their white counterparts, folx may not know the political jargon but they live it and are well aware of it.

What are some of the Cuchara signature dishes?

Ensalada de nopalito!


So good. It has onions, cilantro, limón, chile, tomato. Another one is gorditas de Sinaloa!

Those all sound so good.

They are so good! But the nopalito salad is a staple. That’s their signature dish. And it’s so simple, too, but it’s delicious.

The report mentions gentrification and I want to ask about that. What forces of gentrification are threatening La Doce right now and what strategies have been used or considered to push back against gentrification?

So, right here--44th--is kind of the beginning of 12th, all the way down to even Los Reales, but the main area is here to Drexel. Right now, we don’t see any big signals of gentrification coming in yet, but we definitely feel it in South Tucson.

Creeping from downtown?

Exactly, creeping from downtown. NALCAB--National Association for Latino Community Asset Builders; they’re based out of San Antonio, Texas, they’re a membership organization that conduct research and provide direct support in urban planning, small business development and community asset building within Latinx communities nationwide, were hired by the city to conduct a study on neighborhood change and community development and in their report they claim they don’t foresee gentrification happening heavily here until about seven to ten years from now. So now more than ever we need to prepare ourselves - for the beast, and one of the ways that we see being able to fight that is owning land. We don’t have easy access to capital to buy land so easily, so what’s the alternative? Average home price in South Tucson was under $100,000, now it’s $130,00 to $180,000, and it’s rapidly increasing.

In seven to ten years? I think it’s gonna happen a lot sooner than that, personally. We think that’s why one of the recommendations that came out from our work was starting a community land trust, that way WE have the power to decide how our community is developed. Most community land trust models since the 70s, since [the program’s] inception, are focused on affordable housing. Here, over seventy percent of residents are homeowners, so there’s not a drastic need for affordable housing, yet. But definitely deciding how land is developed and who comes in is a way we see of fighting off gentrification.

We’re trying to focus on a community land trust for urban agriculture. The community said they need and want a cultural center with a plaza, an open space, a space for gardens (which can serve as a demonstration site), a space for skill sharing (bringing different community members to share their skills with others); when we held questionnaires, people said they wanted to share their skills with others! So there’s models that already exist. What we want to start doing now--so the grant ended March 30, but like we always say, whether there’s money or not we find a way to make it work, but this is where our partners and allies need to show up and support with resources. And that’s true. We’ve been a grassroots organization for seventeen years, we find a way but now is the time for others to show up! Next steps include to start a work study group with residents, stakeholders, and partners who have access to resources to come together, study the different models to see how they can be modified and implemented to fit here.

You’re building a plan, essentially?

You know it’s been hard, the reactions that we’ve gotten from the recommendations have been so mixed. There’s those folx who get it and are like, “Hell yeah, alternative solutions! This is the way to protect ourselves.” Then there are those other folx who are like, “What if someone falls, what about liability?” Those are the folx who don’t understand, who call this a utopian idea and it’s not. The bar is set so low for us, so low. Improvements? Fix some potholes, if we’re lucky, you know? We need to raise the bar. And that’s what we’re doing. You don’t get it? That’s okay, wait. We’re gonna show you. We are not only building a plan but ultimately a model that can be replicated elsewhere, an off the shelf solution.

Is there anything else that’s in store for the Barrio Foodways project?

The first step is starting the work study group and then implementing the recommendations. Sounds easy, right? But we know this is going to take time. Also, to help the city recognize alternative models of governance, neighborhood associations aren’t the most effective tool to engage folx anymore. People are gathering in these “non-official” spaces--I mean, creating their own spaces! To come together, look out for one another, and build community, the city needs to recognize the power in folx mobilizing on their own and finally recognize their voice.

What makes this story complete a full circle, and what makes the next steps extremely special, is that I’ll be going back to work in Nogales. Especially after feeling the need to give her something back. I’ll be working on a project called Voz Frontera (www.vozfrontera.org). VozFrontera will be a center for youth engagement, leadership, and local arts incubation in Nogales, Arizona. It will offer activities rooted in the practice of gathering and sharing community stories. VozFrontera is a project of the Southwest Folklife Alliance in collaboration with the University of Arizona’s College of Social and Behavioral Sciences and individuals and organizations in Nogales, Arizona. Programs with cross-sector partners led by local emerging leaders will ensure sustainable education and training to reclaim identity and self-efficacy.

SFA hired me as a program coordinator and to make the circle even more complete, I’ll be working with Cesar Lopez who is managing the project--he was a mentor when I first began organizing and I’m excited to continue learning from him.

And to conclude, I’ll be continuing the La Doce foodways work as SFA staff while never taking off my Tierra Y Libertad hat. The work and the communities trust has taken me where I am today. I especially couldn’t have done it without the support of Dr. Maribel Alvarez who is someone I look up to and respect so deeply, thanks for believing in our work and in me.

And one last question! What’s your favorite thing to eat in La Doce?

My favorite thing to eat on La Doce is tacos de cachete and bichis at Tacos de Cabeza Estilo Cajeme, past Nebraska, right across the street from Alejandro’s, NE corner of Alaska and 12th - best tacos de cabeza, cachete and they have the best salsa de aceite (chile oil salsa with ground up toasted chile de árbol, caution it’s hot) en Tucson! Get a bichi sin carne with verdura and a couple of taquitos, and you’ll have a good day!

Follow Tierra y Libertad on Facebook (@TierraYLibertadOrganization) and on Instagram (@barrio_sustainability) to learn more about what they’re up to!