In a monthly column, Leah Kirts covers the work of queer organizers expanding food justice through mutual aid across New York City and beyond.
The Cuir Kitchen Brigade began with a collection of seeds bound for Puerto Rico following the destruction of Hurricane Maria. Composed of a nonhierarchical collective of queer and trans Latinx friends based in New York City, the Brigade responded to stalled disaster relief and processed food aid from the federal government by launching a seed bank and gathering donations from local farms to support the agroecology movement on the island that, prior to the storm, was small yet flourishing.
The collective began hosting fundraisers, workshops and weekly canning brigades where volunteers pickled and fermented produce, filling hundreds of mason jars with strawberry marmalade, aji amarillos, tomato sauce and pickled vegetables that were delivered to farmers on the island by shipping container and packed into Brigade members’ suitcases as tangible gestures of solidarity. Two years later, the collective has expanded its scope to support black and indigenous communities of color that are on the front lines of climate change and political oppression within and beyond Puerto Rico.
“Being from the Latinx diaspora, food is the driving force growing up. We flock to food and use it to build bridges,” says Luz Cruz, a 29-year-old trans Boriqueer (a queer person from Borinquen, the indigenous Taíno word for Puerto Rico) and community organizer who grew up in Harlem and has been with the Brigade from the beginning. Cruz has travelled to the island on numerous trips to deliver food and host farming brigades at community gardens and QTPOC-led agroecology initiatives on the ground. Learning how to grow food and being able to feed each other is as much a practical survival skill as it is a political imperative for marginalized bodies, Cruz tells me. “How will we be able to fight if we’re not able to feed ourselves?”
Before the hurricane, Cruz focused on organizing in queer and trans communities, but working in the collective “changed my whole fight,” Cruz explains. Now their work heavily centers black and indigenous people in and outside of queer circles. In May, Cruz received a Neighborhood Grant from the Citizens Committee for New York City on behalf of the Brigade to facilitate farming and fermentation workshops in underserved Brooklyn communities.
Last December, Cruz wrote the bulk of the grant proposal from a broken-down van on the side of the highway somewhere between Brooklyn and the US-Mexico border while travelling with Brigade members to Tijuana where they joined Food Not Bombs (an international anarchist collective that serves free vegan meals in public spaces) to feed migrants and asylum seekers.
After a harrowing eight day caravan, Brigade members reached the border where they worked long hours for five days in a bustling kitchen alongside volunteers and migrants waiting to receive legal and medical aid, many of whom were also queer. They fed over 100 people each day with little more than unwanted produce from a local market.
“We would ask for merma or ugly vegetables. The stuff that can’t be sold but can still be eaten,” says Ollie Montes de Oca, a 24-year-old artist who illustrates Brigade event flyers and created a cuir canning zine to raise funds for the collective. “Our meals depend on what food we have access to. It’s like Chopped, but with no budget and the food actually gets eaten.”
As a former line cook, Montes de Oca noticed a prominent difference in the emotional and physical toll of working 10-hour shifts at a restaurant earning minimum wage which “felt incredibly pointless,” they explain, and their 10-hour shifts cooking at the border among friends and comrades which “felt like what cooking should be.”
Long hours spent side by side have forged close relationships between collective volunteers, migrants and their children, reinforcing the importance of being physically present in solidarity efforts. “We start out with food and then we form such intimate bonds with people we work with,” says Cruz, relaying the story of one migrant they met, a 24-year-old queer Honduran man named Patrick who had been held in detention for 180 days despite having secured a US sponsor. Since cooking together last year, they have stayed updated about his asylum case in a group chat and one of the collective members hosted a party to raise money for his commissary. On September 2nd, Patrick was finally released from detention and granted asylum.
As the Brigade continues to broaden its efforts toward radical economic and political liberation, its connection to Puerto Rico remains an integral component of the work. On September 14th, the collective will host a vegan benefit dinner & film screening at the Mayday Space in Brooklyn in collaboration with Interlocking Roots to raise funds for Huerta Semilla, a student-run urban garden at the University of Puerto Rico in Rio Piedras that works at the intersection of food sovereignty and urban agroecology.
Even with limited resources and geographic divides that are thousands of miles wide, the Brigade builds community on the bedrock of shared struggles and reclaimed space where stories that would otherwise remain nameless statistics can be told.
This work is especially potent within the queer community where whiteness, misogyny and class elitism remain divisive, and the cost to access queer spaces coupled with the pressure to participate in queer consumer culture leads to further isolation. As much as queerness is a personal identity, it is a political commitment to upend all systems of oppression that control bodies, commodify resources and restrict access to basic necessities like nutritious food and the land needed to grow it.
“To me, solidarity work is seeing a situation that needs aid and putting time in to provide it, in as big or small way that one can,” says Montes de Oca. “It’s what we do as a reaction to injustice, it’s how we remember who we are and what we are here for.”