Colaboratory Kitchen: Sovereignty Around Food Landscapes

The kitchen isn’t just a space to prepare food; it unfolds as a territory of emotional ties, memory and creative processes. It is also a place where cultural factors come into tension around gender and class, a frontier of flavors and knowledge, a meeting place of food landscapes and the destination of ancestral recipes. The kitchen can be all of this, say the members of the Colaboratory Kitchen project, but it is also “a metaphor for experimentation and coexistence.”

Community science, drought cooking, culinary arts, edible forests, seed exchanges and expanded museology are some of the concepts that have emerged from this project, which began as a pilot in 2018 in collaboration with the Institute for Research in Ecosystems and Sustainability of the Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). We spoke with the designers and transdisciplinary researchers Mariana Martínez and Emilio Hernández, who are part of the collective that was present at Galafest 2 in Bosque Pehuén. The event brought together various managers, artists and organizations that seek to confront the socio-environmental crisis through creative and transdisciplinary processes.


Fundación Mar Adentro: How do you conceive of a fairer and more sustainable food system, and how does Colaboratory Kitchen approach these concepts?

Mariana Martínez (MM): Justice and sustainability are very broad concepts that sometimes must be contextualized in each location. Although both terms appeal to the consumption of biodiverse foods, produced without chemicals, in an agroecological manner, with fair prices and stemming from solidarity networks, we try to understand what this means in the different places we work in (Chiapas, Xochimilco and Oaxaca), since we aim to co-build these approaches with the inhabitants of each place. 

Emilio Hernández (EH): Social justice and food sovereignty are about agency; that is, that the people with whom we collaborate can have the ability to decide what to do in their own contexts. Justice isn’t just about bringing skills or elements, but about opening up and shaping the capacity for action and decision making. We seek to approach sustainability in different ways in each territory. It’s also about access to information and food, for which we promote horizontal dialogues. 

MM: Yes, so to define these lines, we have approached people with different roles in each community; for example, farmers, kitchen workers, young people, etc. We see that a transition to sustainability and justice is necessary, where health –and therefore access to healthy food– is essential. Therefore, information is also necessary; and it doesn’t have to come from outside, since there are many deep-rooted practices that are already being used. What we do is connect those practices, visualize them and put them into a dialogue. From there, we build and share, always asking those who are agents or, rather, bearers of knowledge of sustainable practices. 

The project is present in three territories. How have you sought to integrate yourselves and how have you dealt with these biodiverse socio-environmental contexts?

EH: I remember a conversation we had with Jaime Luna, an Oaxacan philosopher from the community. He would ask us “Where are you from? What are your interests?” He challenged us and invited us to recognize where we were, and why. We’ve built an approach from those questions in order to connect with the people who have shown us their territories. The project allows us to see three very different areas. Loma Bonita (Chiapas) is a relatively new area, if we compare it with the thousands of years of history of Oaxaca or Xochimilco.

MM: There are different ways of approaching nature in each place. For example, Loma Bonita is composed of settlers who came between the 1970s and 80s, from different parts of the Republic, to form a mestizo border between Guatemala and Mexico following the agrarian reform. There was a call to populate the area, as lands were being distributed. People came to this tropical landscape located in the Lacandona Forest, and many inhabitants remember how they arrived as children in small planes. So there isn’t an ancestral link with the forest, from their side, but rather it has been a kind of negotiation of rapprochement with the land and its inhabitants, the Lacandones. In addition, there is an ecological reserve on the other side of the river. So the tropical nature is there, but there is also an aquatic border. 

There is also a research station there which had been previously owned by the UNAM (and is now owned by Natura Mexicana), as it is one of the most biodiverse places in Mexico. The forest has undergone many changes, since much of it has become agricultural land –for palm tree monocultures, for example–, affecting biodiversity. There is a food and social crisis at the border, in addition to the effects of climate change, which means that it is increasingly hotter with deforestation, and the rains are coming at inopportune times, making it difficult to plant and harvest the cornfields. There are floods and crop losses. Our research has sought to facilitate bridges and a sense of agency, as well as to encourage questioning about certain practices. 

On the other hand, you are in Santo Domingo, Oaxaca, with a predominant indigenous imprint. That is where you are acting as coordinator Emilio…

EH: Yes, the region of the central valleys is surrounded by hills that are home to a community that, at the beginning, we believed was only Zapotec; but based on the research of a historian from the collective, we traced Mixtec and Zapotec genealogies. The roots to the territory are very strong in these places, but there is also a syncretism around culture and religion. In terms of uses and customs, there is a pre-Columbian form of organization, a municipality and also, following the agrarian reform, there was land distribution. In this sense, there are tensions typical of a large territory that is used for agriculture. In the 1950s, large dams were built and it was a fertile place for many years; but climate change has led to droughts. Because it is close to the city, it is also one of the few places in the central valleys that has maintained its strong culture, as it has not been allowed to build large structures or intervene too much in the landscape. Life in Oaxaca is carried out under the philosophy of communality, where the territory is the most important, with the organization of assemblies and the party that gives meaning to celebrating the relationship with the territory. We have a space here called Casa Pitahaya, conceived as a demonstrative classroom for experimentation, meetings, workshops, practices and dialogues.

And finally, there is Xochimilco, with a strong tourist hallmark that evokes the trajineras, those colorful boats that we typically see in postcards. What is the socio-food reality there?

MM: Xochimilco is a fairly large district, a valley between mountains, very touristic. It is the prevailing land of ancient Tenochtitlán, built over a lake. Mexico City is built on a lake, precisely, but it is connected underground. So in Xochimilco you can have a visual and cultural relationship with the water in a more evident way, with a series of canals and islets sustained by a system of bardeo and ahuejotes, which are very tall trees that maintain agricultural islands.

It is an agricultural area of Xochimilco and Mexica origin, where the production of chapines is practiced. These are squares made of mud from lake sediment that are like small ‘cakes’ used for growing seeds in the ancestral context of the chinampas, an agricultural practice carried out on water. So it is an intensive agriculture that cultivates flowers, lettuce, radishes and fresh vegetables that feed the city. But there is a large problem that stems from how part of the water was piped to reach the more affluent areas of Mexico City; so the water of Xochimilco isn’t of the best quality, which affects the crops.

In addition, we have to consider the pressures of tourism and the city, which are contributing to the loss of agricultural practices related to strong gentrification. Access to food for the chinamperos and their families, as well as the inhabitants of Xochimilco, is not very accessible, so there is no consolidated food sovereignty. There are various projects in this place that seek to reconnect people with the practices of the chinampas and to create solidarity networks. Unlike Santo Domingo and Loma Bonita, we don’t have a physical space as such, but a network that is managed with groups of allies that have been working there for a while, as it is an area with a lot of project intervention. In particular, we work with the Humedalia chinampa, which fights for the regeneration of the wetland and biointensive culture. That is where we began building a kitchen for collective meals, where we also undertake workshops. We also work with the Ahuejote collective for fair commerce and other community projects, always including people from the territory.

How have you interacted with the communities in these places?

EH: We have sought to unite interests from transdisciplinarity, especially without imposing anything and with voluntary participation. That has been the driver: having people express a need and, from there, mobilizing to fulfill it. In that sense, we don’t work on the territory or on people; but with them. We adapt to what is happening in the territories and the information from the research on what happens when the team looks into drought, and new practices emerge or something like drought cuisine is conceptualized. This way, there is a crossing of research and recipes and new practices emerge. 

MM: At the same time, we try to keep in mind that “the community” is a broad concept that can be romanticized. We sometimes work with groups of 10 to 15 people, or sometimes there are a couple of interested people; this varies, but we are constantly evaluating the interests, local resonances and concerns to then weave them together. We work in three areas: the kitchen; the experimental plot of land with knowledge exchanges and more technical approaches; and the Living Biocultural Archive as a space for seed exchanges, gatherings and expanded museology, as a way of creating a museum that goes beyond an institutional space, becoming a tool for participatory research-action. 

Also relevant is the idea that we work in the moment. For example, in Chiapas, we worked with the community to create experiences of activation of edible species, based on scientific monitoring studies from the forests. We go to the forest, collect them, dry them and then try them. Recently, in Xochimilco, there was a day-long event on quelites –wild leaves or stems (currently in discussion)– during which Nora Estrada, a chef from Xochimilco that is inspired by her grandmother’s recipes, proposed that continuing this food practice was to create a space of anarchic resistance. We are open to the different meanings of the ongoing practices.

In this regard, during our foundation’s Poligonal podcast, Mariana said that “eating is a political act.” What other experiences of Colaboratory Kitchen illustrate this?

EH: First, I would expand this idea of eating to cooking and sharing. These three elements are illustrative. We have the Living Biocultural Archive project that is important here because it emerged as a space for seed sharing, stories and gatherings…

MM: There is also the open kitchen with young people. Part of the Archive and the collective kitchens propose is to get together to cook and understand the recipes as ways of relating to the territory, and to stimulate the imagination of desired futures. This year in Oaxaca we worked with a group of traditional female cooks who are preoccupied that the recipes are not reaching newer generations. This also provokes a loss of knowledge of local biodiversity and cooking techniques, which in turn leads to the typical saying: “Things are not how they used to be…” This also creates a somewhat negative view towards young people. We can see that there are young people who would like to learn, but not necessarily the spaces needed for it. So we invited a group of cooks and young people to cook tamales together, with each one bringing their own recipe. We talked about memories and what we’d like to see in the future. The political act occurs when we create an intergenerational space and by putting the issues on the table to activate the kitchen together; it is a way of rehearsing a collectivity that perhaps did not occur before. 

EH: On another occasion, we organized a dinner for these women. They always cook, work and spend time together, so after the pandemic we swapped roles; they sat down, shared their experiences, saw each other, hugged and cried. It was a space of care and affection where we were the cooks. The affection was very much needed. These are representations of how we can change the projects and make them into spaces where we can hug and share. 

MM: It’s about affection, but it is also about the links between the territory and its biodiversity, which translates into flavor. We see how links are created from pleasure and sharing. We’ve done mobile kitchens to cook in public spaces, in the middle of a city square, where we move from a contained area to a public space. It catches people’s attention. The challenge is to create permanent instances of exchange. For example, in Loma Bonita we are currently building a community kitchen together with Taller Comunal de Arquitectura, following the community’s creation of a co-designed plan. In Xochimilco there is a permanent kitchen, and in Oaxaca we are evaluating a possible community stove. 

EH: It’s reciprocal. People open up their homes to us, but we also want to return the gesture with actions in which communality and organization are practiced. We can see the food landscapes in the kitchens, how the exchanges take place, the relationship with the territory, the recipes and the biocultural heritage. 


You recently participated in Galafest 2. How did you experience this space of exchanges and what projections did you observe in other initiatives?

EH: I think of the word ‘resonance’. It’s a space where your ideas and practices resonate; a place of support where we can begin to imagine what we can do and how to collaborate. We left with a list of themes, such as water and various methodologies. I think that Galafest is a gathering of hope –although it might sound cheesy– where I was able to feel that we aren’t necessarily crazy. 

MM: Or yes, we are crazy, but there’s a lot of us [laughs]. It was an instance of learning, getting to know other practices and understanding our own work in dialogue with others. There are similar initiatives and different ones, but I could always perceive a common direction that makes us see and think about something that we hadn’t seen from another point of view. Galafest was a very valuable experience to recognize ourselves from the perspective of diversity and biodiversity.

Mariana Martínez is a designer and artist, with an MA in Narrative Environments from Central St Martins (UAL) in London. Her work is situated between architecture, participative art and social design practices, with a vision from “critical spatial practices”. She has been a tutor and guest professor at art and design universities such as CENTRO, ENAP, UAM (Mexico City), Royal Academy of Art (The Hague) and The Rietveld Academy (Amsterdam). In 2018, she co-founded Colaboratory Kitchen, where she leads creative programming in public spaces with a focus on environmental and social sustainability, using food as common ground. She is currently a project coordinator in Loma Bonita, Chiapas and works with general creative coordination.

Emilio Hernández has a Master of Arts, with a specialty in Future Studies and Design applied to Social Innovation from Central St Martins (UAL). His practice focuses on investigating and exploring the role of art and design as tools to activate other possible ways of inhabiting the world. Within the project he works on the conceptualization and application of art-education projects, accompanying various groups in the construction of communal spaces for translocal learning and social action. He collaborates in the design of collective learning experiences, which generate participation and training on topics of art, agroecology and participatory design. Emilio is the founder of the Oaxaca Imagination Center and coordinator of the creative processes of the project in Santo Domingo Tomaltepec, Oaxaca since 2020.

FMA communications

Authors: Interview and text by Violeta Bustos, head of communications of Fundación Mar Adentro (FMA) / Guideline of questions and documentation by Rocío Olmos de Aguilera, FMA communications coordinator.