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.
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 $13 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.”
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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