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A Chicano Community In San Diego Was Outraged Over A White Woman’s Attempt To Open A ‘Modern Fruteria’

La Gracia/Kickstarter

Jenny Niezgoda clearly didn’t do her homework. The travel blogger and self-proclaimed “barefoot bohemian” released a now-canceled Kickstarter campaign and accompanying video for her next passion project – a “plant-based cocina” and “modern fruteria” she was calling La Gracia. And she would be opening this business in the center of Barrio Logan, a historically Mexican-American and Chicano neighborhood in San Diego with a long history of grassroots activism and fighting gentrification.

The backlash was almost instant, with community members and activists, along with a large chunk of the internet, calling this yet another signifier of gentrification in their community by a woman seen as the poster child for cultural appropriation. La Gracia is now being called La Desgracia.

Here is the video that sparked it all.


Niezgoda has all the markings of an Instagram influencer, branding herself as a “gypsy soul,” “chic nomad” and “a pure reflection of her world” while posting photos that are the product of someone with a clear savviness for marketing. She bears a resemblance to actress Blake Lively, appears to love a good flower crown and waxes about how “life is good in Me-he-co” in her blog.

In the video, she struts effortlessly through the neighborhood in an off-shoulder top, posing in front of murals of Frida Kahlo and Cesar Chavez while Latin-sounding guitar plays in the background. She turns in slo-mo, whipping her long, wand-waved locks around and dropping a toothy smile into the camera. Between poses, Niezgoda explains that she’s “spent the last couple of years traveling the world in search of the most vibrant, history-rich, artistic and food-centric neighborhood,” but it was Mexico that stole her heart. “And then I found it here in San Diego!” she announces excitedly. Niezgoda goes on to explain that a fruteria is a “Mexican-inspired juice bar,” however La Gracia “we will be so much more!” In fact, it will be “an integral thread in this community’s fabric.” In the end, she proudly shouts she is bringing “a heathy option to the barrio!” And this is just the video, which many didn’t believe was actually real. The Kickstarter page also has caused outrage over its tone deaf phrasing and what some call a white savior attitude.

CREDIT: Credit: La Gracia/Kickstarter

In her quest to create an “urban sanctuary” and a business of her very own, Niezgoda has enraged a community that is fervently protective of its identity and has fought tooth-and-nail for decades to preserve itself from outside influence. Barrio Logan has a long history of activism and grassroots organizing. It’s one of the epicenters for the Chicano movement, with Chicano Park, located just down the street from where La Gracia hopes to open its doors, earning the designation as a cultural landmark in the National Register of Historic Places.

“People who know its history know its resistance,” says Irma Patricia Aguayo, a Chicano Park muralist and longtime activist. For someone to come in thinking they’re going to save something they’re not part of is offensive. The way she’s representing her business, I feel colonized once again.”

In the last few years, as residents have built businesses that the “hipster” demographic (cool coffee shops, art galleries, tattoo shops, a craft brewery serving culturally-inspired beer and a taco shop covered in bright Chicano artwork, to name a few), they’ve seen the city and developers take notice. It’s resulted in new developments, one of which is a building that houses La Gracia, increased rent and an influx of newcomers that don’t fit the long-standing ethnic make-up of the community. Which is to say, white people. White people are coming, and the incredibly protective community is not happy with what that means. Niezgoda and La Gracia are certainly not the first sign of gentrification in Barrio Logan, and surely not to be the last. But it has sparked the outrage and hell no-attitude that bubbles constantly in the neighborhood by those who fear that Barrio Logan will be lost, though not without a fight.

“She didn’t start this,” says Antonio Ley, owner of the Corazón de Torta food truck, run out of Logan Heights. “Down the street there’s hot dogs sold out of a lowrider. She just made the dumbest video ever. It’s the most racially divisive business that’s hit Barrio Logan because she made it completely white. She was here to take what we made and tried to run with it.”

CREDIT: Credit: The Barefoot Bohemian

“For someone to come in out of nowhere and present herself in such a way as to be a savior was at best clueless and at worst completely disrespectful to an entire community and culture that has fought and struggled to survive in the face of great odds,” says Brent Beltran, vice chair of the Barrio Logan Community Planning Group (though he does not speak on behalf of the group).

He adds: “For me the part that stands out the worst, beyond trying to appropriate our culinary culture, is the blatant willingness to gentrify this community. One of her responses to being called out was to claim that her business would help increase property values for homeowners. If she had done her due diligence she would’ve realized that Barrio Logan is a community of renters. If property values rise then the current working class residents will get pushed out.”

There’s a lot of history, too much to get into here, but a Google search and talking to business owners and community members would have been beneficial to Niezgoda. However, she doesn’t appear to have done much of the latter, from what a handful of business owners tell us. In her Kickstarter, she says says she’s “spent months getting to know the neighbors and surrounded myself with a team of people who know their sh*t,” but only one person out of the dozen interviewed for this story says she spoke to them about La Gracia.

“She’s a sweet girl,” adds Ley, who says she only mentioned her business, but never asked for input. “She told me about this months ago, and I thought ‘Damn, that sounds expensive and not for the neighbors that already live here.’ But I didn’t want to burst her bubble or tell her she’s culturally appropriating. I thought, ‘it’s fruit. People can do whatever they want with it.’ But if I saw that video, I would have told her it was offensive.”

“If she doesn’t take the time to get to know the neighbors, her fellow business owners, the history of the neighborhood, the history of Chicano Park and the local organizations, then she doesn’t understand the fabric of the neighborhood,” says Olympia Andrade Beltran, a nurse and activist who’s a member of the Barrio Logan Community Planning Group. “She can’t assume the role [of being part of the neighborhood’s fabric]. It’s not for her to define, it’s for the neighborhood to define.”

The video, and some of Niezgoda’s other online posts, is what the Barrio Logan community has to go off of when understanding who she is and, to put it in words many of them have used, what the hell she was thinking.

Here’s a break down of some of the video’s offenses, point by point.

CREDIT: Credit: La Gracia/Kickstarter

The Spanish guitar music throughout the video.

For Ley, the music used reminded him of Rick Bayless of the Travel Channel.

“The music itself sets the tone that it’s not from Barrio Logan, it’s from outsiders,” he explains. “It’s super cheesy and corny. It’s trying to identify that this is somehow Latino, and right away it sets the tone because it’s just stereotypical Latino music.”

The name, and use of the Spanish language and Mexican influences overall.

“I don’t feel she had bad intentions, or is intentionally racist against Mexicans,” says Andrade Beltran. “She’s a white woman born with privilege. She had the financial stability to travel and found beauty in Mexico that everyone can appreciate. I think that her idea to capitalize off that inspiration of indigenous traditions, an indigenous style of preparing food, and to bring that into an already culturally infused and rich community was her mistake.”

Calling Barrio Logan a “vibrant, up-and-coming neighborhood.”

This provoked outrage and concern in many, who see or hear this phrase whenever neighborhoods feel the effects of gentrification. It’s one of the first signs.

“It’s a classic case of Columbusing, or thinking that you are the first person ‘discovering’ something new or hip even though it has been part of the common everyday life and practices of the people from whom you are ‘discovering said phenomenon,” says Roberto Hernandez, a professor of Chicana and Chicano Studies at San Diego State University. “In this case, both in terms of her doing the “modern” fruteria but also in terms of Barrio Logan and her being at the ‘forefront’ of the ‘up-and-coming’ neighborhood.”

Posing in front of murals of important Latinx figures.

CREDIT: Credit: La Gracia/Kickstarter

For Betty Bangs, a resident who also works as an on-air DJ at the local, community-powered radio station, Radio Pulso del Barrio, this hit a particularly sensitive nerve.

“How does she relate? Did those people fight for her? Does she know what those people really mean to us?,” says Bangs. “I’ve never seen her. I walk these streets every single day, and I’ve never seen her. How is she walking the streets like she’s part of it or made it a better place. What gives her the right? Because she has money?”

Niezgoda saying she’s “bringing healthy options to the barrio.”

This has been a major point of contention. While Barrio Logan is a food desert, healthy options do exist, even in the form of fruterias.

“She’s not innovating. She’s not the first person to do it,” says Andrade Beltran, who welcomes the idea of more healthy food options to the neighborhood. “I just would appreciate it if she would acknowledge the efforts already being made in the neighborhood.

“That’s why you want to be here,” says Bangs. “Because it’s already good. You want to come here and feed me my own culture on a plate? No, white girl. I don’t think so.”

Insisting it’s “appreciating” not appropriation.

CREDIT: @lagraciasd/Instagram

Later, in a response posted on the La Gracia Instagram page, Niezgoda or someone on her team posted a response to a comment insisting that the company has “so much love and respect for the culture and a love for Mexico.” She describes doing her yoga training in Puerto Vallarte and spending “many winters” in the resort fishing village of Sayulita as proof, which many have called problematic in itself as is shows a lack of understanding of the culture beyond a vacation mentality.

“This is not appropriation or gentrification, it’s APPRECIATION,” she writes.

CREDIT: A still from de La Gracia video showing Niezgoda and her friends vacationing.

But as Andrade Beltran points out, that’s not really how appreciation works.

The the problem with cultural appropriation is that people with privilege are defining appreciation without asking the people they’re inspired by how’d they’d like to be appreciated,” she says.

Beltran likens Niezgoda’s version of appreciation to native figures being used by sports teams like the Washington Redskins, who then argue that they’re not disrespecting the cultures but showing appreciation for them, despite the outcries from people of that culture.

“Instead, to just say it is Mexicans that just do not understand and that they need to be taught by presumably them as more enlightened beings just exacerbates the most basic aspects of it, such as their belief that their presence should be appreciated because after all they are helping raise property values of homes,” he explains.

While the backlash has been aimed most loudly at Niezgoda and the concept of La Gracia, it’s the product of a larger problem the community sees. In a statement sent to mitú, the local political organization Unión de Barrio says, “As long as we limit our understanding of this struggle to individual Beckys or isolated barrios, we will forever be easy targets [of gentrification].”

Some believe “hipster” businesses, like coffee shops, restaurants, breweries and galleries, brought this on.

“We can’t deny that it is those same galleries and shops that attract outsider culture vultures, affluent folks and developers to the hood,” says David Morales, who grew up in the neighborhood. “When this happens, rent prices go up and people who have lived in Logan for many many years are displaced. My own family was displaced from Logan. The house we were renting was bought by a young white couple looking into moving close to the ‘vibrant, up-and-coming’ community that this White lady from La Gracia describes.”

Many of those businesses, however, were built by Chicanos and Mexican-Americans from the community or with close ties to it through their work. When these businesses began long ago, it was a sign of ‘gentefication,’ a term coined by Latino Los Angeles business owner Guillermo Uribe to describe the process of improvements to a community from its own people. It’s not a case of this is why we can’t have nice things, as some argue, so much as it is a case of blaming those with the power.

“Blame should not be placed on [local business owners] for trying to make their community better,” says Beltran. “It’s the greed of the property owners. They are the ones to blame. These property pirates that are trying to capitalize on the cultural caché created by the people who built this.”

Aguayo believes that while Niezgoda is a misguided, privileged white woman, the problem doesn’t completely lie with her. The property manager, Hector Perez, is a longtime community advocate and professor at the nearby Woodbury School of Architecture. It was his decision to lease the space to Niezgoda.

“I’d like to know the science behind the decision, what Hector was thinking then and what he’s thinking now,” says Aguayo. “The reason it’s so hard for people to come into this neighborhood is because there’s gatekeepers, and they’re here for a reason. In this case, Hector is the gatekeeper. I don’t know how he has allowed this to happen.”

Both Perez and Niezgoda were reached for comment, but did not reply.

In the meantime, Barrio Logan community members have made their thoughts on La Gracia well-known, and continue to fight this and other white-owned businesses encroaching on the neighborhood. Because for them, protecting the soul of the community is essential to preserving their own identity.

Update: In a statement posted on the La Gracia Facebook page, Niezgoda announced she will not be opening La Gracia.

CREDIT: La Gracia/Facebook

READ: The Artist Behind ‘Veteranas y Rucas’ Talks About Her Place In Boyle Heights’ Battle Against Gentrification

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Find Out Why One West African Country Adopted Mexican Telenovelas As One Of Their Own

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Find Out Why One West African Country Adopted Mexican Telenovelas As One Of Their Own

Picture this: A muscular man and an attractive woman are in the middle of a passionate love scene in a horse stable on a pristine Mexican hacienda. They’re both kissing, sweating, and, as the scene progresses, wearing less and less clothing.

In a matter of moments, a jealous ex-lover rides up to the hacienda on a beautiful white horse, walks into the horse stable, and fires a gun, immediately killing one of the lovers.

Though this scene is completely fabricated, it’s a sequence of events that tends to be used repeatedly in Mexican telenovelas and could easily have been played by someone like Cuban-born actor, William Levy, or Mexican singer actress, Thalia.

CREDIT: Credit: Facebook

Telenovelas have grown to be a important part of Mexican culture since they first appeared as radio programs in the 1930s, which were later transformed into television series throughout the United States and Latin America. Each has its own story line but they tend to follow themes related to love, family, murder, and crime.

But the popularity of Mexican telenovelas, which some estimates show, attract more than 40 million viewers on any given night, have also spread to countries outside of Mexico and Latin America.

The West African country of Ghana is home to over 27 million residents and is considered to hold one of the largest Mexican telenovela viewerships outside of Latin America. Mexican telenovelas like “Esmeralda,” “Rosalinda,” and “La Ursupadora” have become so popular in Ghana that they have been consistently translated and dubbed, forcing television companies to create shows dedicated to offering commentary and analysis on Mexican telenovelas.

The world is becoming increasingly smaller and interconnected, today, through digital platforms like Facebook and other forms of social media, but Mexican telenovelas in were introduced to Ghana long before the internet frenzy.

Ghanaian cultural critic, Ameyaw Debrah, remembers the moment Mexican telenovela “Acapulco Bay” was first introduced to Ghana in 1997 by TV3, a Ghanaian television company.

CREDIT: Credit: Melanie Stetson Freeman/Getty Images

“TV3 first introduced ‘Acapulco Bay’ and it became a smash hit because aside from the love story there was a lot of suspense and crime,” explained Debrah, who has amassed an enormous social media following for his analysis on Ghanaian pop culture. “This made it interesting for both male and female audiences, and then, seeing the success of telenovelas, also introduced ‘Cuando Seas Mias.'”

Like “Acapulco Bay,” “Cuando Seas Mias” featured two prominent Mexican actors, Silvia Navarro and Sergio Basañez, who played the leading protagonists.

In a country where women have had a large role in the country’s informal and formal market growth in the past ten years, they often, according to Debrah, often leave work early or close their businesses to rush home and watch the shows.

“Telenovelas have been disruptive to the normal TV viewing culture of Ghanaians,” described Debrah. “It has been known to affect productivity, especially with working females and even housewives. So market women close early to catch their favorite show.”

Ghanaian women also viewed telenovelas as a way to learn about concepts of love and romance.

“In a country where women have had a large role in the country’s informal and formal market growth in the past ten years, they often, according to Debra, leave work early or close their businesses to rush home and watch the shows.”

“My entire life revolved around telenovelas,” explains Delali Quarshie. “They were such beautiful stories and were my first introduction to what ‘true love’ seems to be about. As a girl growing up in my society, I was swept away by prince charming and fighting against the love triangle.”

“Even if it doesn’t end with love, there’s always that note of a positive light ahead for them, and that’s something that I think makes a telenovela the beautiful genre that it is.”

It’s not the first time, however, that Mexican telenovelas have become extremely popular in a country outside of Latin America.

Both China and Russia had their own telenovela craze in the early 1990s and have since created their own adaptations based on their cultural customs and language.

Ghanaian television companies have yet to follow China and Russia’s model. But a new generation of filmmakers and creatives throughout the country are realizing that creating authentic Ghanaian-based films requires depicting the impact that Mexican telenovelas have had on one of Africa’s most diverse nations.

Popular musician and filmmaker, Blitz the Ambassador, born Samuel Bazawule, whose upcoming film, “The Burial of Kojo,” depicts the life experiences of two Ghanaian brothers, understands the impact of cross-cultural storytelling in a world that is becoming increasingly interconnected.

CREDIT: Credit: Blitz The Ambassador

“The film is about two brothers who deal with tragic consequences,” the filmmaker described over the phone from his home in Accra, Ghana. “The brothers are miners and engaged in illegal mining with gold and diamonds, which is a trend that continues to grow with Chinese investors.”

The prominent musician and emerging filmmaker is part of a growing group of Ghanaian creatives who grew up with telenovelas as part of their cultural experience.

“Telenovela culture is huge here and we’re very attracted to the melodrama and its very African when it comes to the very dramatic nature of things, it’s pretty much up our alley,” he described.

CREDIT: Credit: Blitz The Ambassador

Because Bazawule wanted to portray an authentic Ghanaian experience, he and Mexican-American cinematographer, Michael Fernandez, felt like it was important to create a storyline for their film where they could reflect the influence of Mexican telenovelas in Ghana. 

But affording the licensing fees required to purchase the rights for an established telenovela was outside of their budget, forcing them to find creative alternatives like to creating and shooting their own telenovela, which they titled “Puebla Mi Amor.”

“When I was making this film we couldn’t afford the telenovela license,” he explained. “We had to find a way and we had to be clever. So in the telenovela that we create for the film, there’s similar circumstances and there’s a parallel to what’s happening in the film.”

Filming the “Puebla Mi Amor” was initially supposed to take place in Miami, but Bazawule — who self-funded most of the film — was forced to shoot in Ghana.

CREDIT: Credit: Blitz The Ambassador

“We were planning to shoot in Miami but we didn’t have enough money, so we had to recreate scenes that looked like Miami using Puerto Rican and Spanish actors.”

Finding ways to work around budget concerns was a common occurrence during the film’s production, but including a telenovela scene in the film’s production was a way to show Ghanaians, like anyone else, live in an interconnected world.

“Nobody is on an island and as much as we may not recognize, our ideas about love, relationships, and family are often borrowed and it’s huge.”

Still, he hopes that one day Ghanaian culture and media can have the same impact that Mexican telenovelas have had in his own country.

“Nobody is on an island and as much as we may not recognize, our ideas about love, relationships, and family are often borrowed and it’s huge.”

“What’s not happening is the reverse, as much as we know about the world, you rarely go to Latin America and people know about Fela Kuti and other African musicians.”

“The influence has not been an exchange.”

As the Ghanaian filmmaking community continues to grow and consistent collaborations between Bazawule and Fernandez continue, perhaps Bazawule’s wishes might come true.

CREDIT: Credit: Blitz The Ambassador

“Michael is Latino and understands the importance of black and brown media images. The work that we continue do has to be global and has to leave a footprint.”

At that rate, what’s to say that Latinos in the U.S. and Latin America won’t be glued to their television screens while watching Ghanaian telenovelas in twenty years?

READ: 11 Crucial Life Lessons I Learned, Not From My Parents, But From Telenovelas

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