Words by Salomé Gómez-Upegui
PHOTOGRAPH BY Jesse Pratt Lopez
What started out as a much-needed communal space to discuss food, plants, and cultural identity became a hub where Indigenous and Latine people can deepen their knowledge about food autonomy and restore their ancestral relationships to the land.
One in eight adults in the United States reports past year food insecurity, a number that grows significantly worse when speaking of queer, trans, intersex people of color. Studies have shown that one in four LGBTQIA+ adults in the U.S. is food insecure, and that figure is even higher when it comes to racial and ethnic minorities within the LGBTQIA+ community.
Mariposas Rebeldes is a collective of queer Latine and Indigenous activists working to change this reality in Atlanta.
Back in 2019, cofounders Wvkto Tristán and Israel Tordoya took a trip to Mexico that led them to discuss the importance of creating a much-needed communal space for queer Latine and Indigenous people to learn about plants and agriculture. In March of the same year, despite the pandemic’s tribulations, they decided to bring their vision to life with a small communal garden in Tordoya’s backyard.
“From the start, a lot of people came out to join us, and very spontaneously, they invited other queer, trans Latine people of color,” Wvtko Tristán said. What began as a space to hang out and informally discuss plants, food, and cultural identity quickly became a hub where Indigenous and Latine people could deepen their knowledge about food autonomy and restore their ancestral relationships to the land through cooperative agriculture.
Tristán, who is Náhuatl Indigenous from Northern Mexico, shared that in the garden, they sought to reconnect to their heritage by growing plants, such as cacti and nopales, while they were also intentional about recognizing the ancestral roots of the Muscogee land they stood on. As explained on their website, they “grew crops that have been grown by Native people for centuries, including corn, squash, and beans, or the three sisters, a Mesoamerican companion planting technique that has been practiced by the Muscogee and Cherokee since long before the arrival of European settlers and the forced migration of Indigenous peoples.”
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For well over a year, Tordoya’s backyard became a haven, a place where Mariposas Rebeldes flourished and grew through educational meetings and workshops focused on decolonizing plants, growing and processing crops, and the overall importance of connecting to the land to attain food autonomy, create a network for mutual aid, and reinforce principles of non-extractivism. As Edric Figueroa—a Peruvian American member wrote over email— one of their main goals is to partner with and lift up “other local growers of color and create unique events that recognize food and medicine as the most important form of currency.”
In July 2020, Mariposas’ rapidly rising trajectory suddenly came to a halt when Tordoya was evicted from their home.
Upon displacement, “we thought that it was going to be hard for Mariposas to transition to a collective that wasn’t in a specific location,” Tristán said. However, their admirable resilience allowed them to continue organizing through itinerant workshops and gatherings, key partnerships, participating in events and festivals, and even creating Mariposnax, a homemade tempeh snack they make and sell at community events.
More recently, though, they’ve been able to take things to the next level by purchasing land of their own. After a long period of crowdfunding, a grant from Well Fed World, and support from a realtor working with the Trans Housing Coalition, they acquired a plot of land in Atlanta. PJ Avery-Muñoz, a Mexican American organizer who joined the collective not long ago and is their youngest member, said that although it took a lot of work to find the right land, it was worth it. “The space is so beautiful. It’s discrete, and, speaking from being trans, it feels really safe,” Avery-Muñoz said.
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Since acquiring the land, they are now officially hosting weekly workdays on three different properties. On Fridays, participants come to work on the land, learning about native plants. On Saturdays, the group helps the Tran Housing Coalition with its garden. Finally, on Sundays, they visit the Grand Park neighborhood garden, which welcomes them to grow food, Tristán gleefully recounted.
As a queer collective disrupting capitalism and seeking to do things differently, they’ve had to confront a wide array of obstacles that make their work even more difficult than it already is. Figueroa explained that gentrification is one of the biggest challenges for organizations trying to work on reconnecting with the land through agriculture. “Land that is ideal for growing is also ideal for development since it gets good sun, doesn’t have a lot of overgrowths, is flat, etc.,” Figueroa said.
Zoning is another critical issue for organizations like Mariposas Rebeldes that are trying to tackle food autonomy. Although this topic usually stays under the radar, Tristán highlighted its importance, especially as it relates to the supply chain: “Communities can’t empower themselves in talking about food autonomy because we don’t have enough ways to process the food that we grow. I mean, we can have all the gardens in the U.S.—beautiful fruits and vegetables—but we also need to think about processing. For a long time, we’ve seen processing as something that only businesses do, but this is also an element of food autonomy that we have to take into our own hands.”
The importance of securing adequate economic resources is also an area of concern. Currently, the five core members who consistently participate in the collective do so voluntarily, and they can only do so much. Funds are necessary to clear out the land, raise garden beds, plant and harvest crops. On that note, Tristán and Avery-Muñoz both agreed they need more people to join their cause. “As much as we love having enough money,” Avery-Muñoz said, “I think our biggest thing is we need more hands, more people who are willing to work as a community.” The team feels stretched thin sometimes. “It’s a challenge because we put our heart into so many things, but we also need to prioritize self and community care,” Tristán went on to say.
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Despite the trials and tribulations they’ve confronted, overcome, and continue to see, one thing becomes clear from speaking to the Mariposas: This collective is an invaluable safe space for love, growth, and communion.
Speaking of some of their favorite moments, Tristán recalled “trying Israel’s chicha and our Mariposnaxs, and experimenting with corn and nopales.” As for Avery-Muñoz, it’s the community building that fills their heart: “I love when we’re together. When we’re talking and gardening and building things. And when we inspire others to do the same thing.”
“For example,” Tristán chimed in, “a member of the South Asian queer community came to the garden the other day and said that it felt so inspiring for his community to see the way we think about food as a way to reconnect to the land and have conversations about autonomy and the self. They mentioned that, upon seeing us, they felt inspired to look for their own way of strengthening the queer South Asian community here in Atlanta.”
Speaking of their dreams for the years to come, their faces lit up as they thought about the many ways they will continue to inspire others, protect themselves, and take care of each other. Tristán hopes for a communal kitchen in five years. Avery-Muñoz agrees. They can’t wait to feed the community. “I know what it’s like to be hungry,” Avery-Muñoz said “And I am one of many transgender people who knows what it’s like to be hungry.”
The collective hopes to build power through plants and people. The communal garden was just the beginning.