Ask artist Favianna Rodriguez to describe the food she grew up eating in Oakland’s Fruitvale district, and her response is akin to poetry.
“It’s two tortillas,” she says. “They’re soaked in a little bit of grease ... you have some carne asada and you just bite into them and you can taste the simplicity of a good taco.”
You can find these tacos at one of the Mi Grullense taco trucks in Fruitvale. To Rodriguez, these tacos are more than just nourishment; they are also a symbol of resilience and community. According to Rodriguez, food is often the way “that people are holding on to a particular way of life. Many of them have come here with nothing, and they might have remembered their grandmother's recipe, or they have something that ... is going to create a place where the community congregates.”
Beans, Sauces, and Symbolism
For a recent piece displayed at the Oakland Museum of California’s “Who is Oakland?” exhibit, Rodriguez wanted to use food’s symbolic powers to demonstrate the vital diversity of immigrant Oakland. She lined shelves with items collected from local East Oakland markets -- things like jackfruit in syrup, jalapeño salsa, shrimp chips and votive candles.
“What I wanted to do is to recreate the environment of the market,” Rodriguez said. “There's so much symbolism in everything -- from the beans to the particular sauces you can get.”
To gather the items, she sought out international products found in shops like Sun Hop Fat Market, in Oakland’s San Antonio District. It’s within walking distance from the museum.
Step inside, and you can hear the gurgle of fish tanks, the whine of a meat saw, and the buzz of busy shoppers.
Sun Hop Fat shoppers can find distinctly Asian products here like grass jelly, persimmon tea, and silkie black chicken. But you can also find dried corn husks for making tamales, and piles of piñatas. Rodriguez says at Sun Hop Fat and other Asian markets, you’ll see more intersectionality than meets the eye.
“I noticed that many of these markets, even though they are Asian supermarkets, they cater to Latinos -- because that's who comes to buy the food,” Rodriguez reports.
Multiplicity of Cultures
As Rodriguez sees it, the markets represent the intricate overlapping of East Oakland’s immigrant communities. This multiplicity of cultures can be seen all along International Boulevard. Walk through the Fruitvale or San Antonio districts and you can eat noodles from Laos, pupusas from El Salvador, or Vietnamese báhn mi.
“There is so much complexity in the Fruitvale and San Antonio,” Rodrigeuz says. “I think we get seen as East Oakland, as the dangerous part of Oakland.”
It’s this complexity that Rodriguez wants to celebrate. She’s tired of the negative perceptions that plague her neighborhood. Growing up in Fruitvale wasn’t always easy; she knew people impacted by violence, and she didn’t have a great personal experience in school. But looking back, Rodriguez says that she’s lucky to have grown up in an environment that honored her Peruvian heritage, and many other cultures. For this project, she wanted to focus on the neighborhood’s strength. So she created a map that highlights some of the food establishments in the Fruitvale and San Antonio districts. You can find the map in her exhibit, or online.
“I really hope that people come eat, and while they're eating I hope they can begin to understand the ways in which immigrant Oakland is invisibilized,” Rodriguez says. “That has to change.”
But Rodriguez hopes that her exhibit does more than just celebrate her neighborhood’s foodie finds -- she wants the work to inspire people to engage and appreciate communities that have been historically underrepresented. After all, it’s impossible to ignore the work that goes into a carefully prepared meal. It’s there, right in front of you, for you to experience. In that way, it’s a lot like art.