Photos by Luis Pimentel
Left: Alejandra Cuicahua serves pinto beans | Right: Alejandra Guzman, the kitchen’s greeter and accountant. Photos by Luis Pimentel
LGBTQ

Inside Mexico City’s First LGBTQ Soup Kitchen

By supporting those in need, Manos Amigues makes the essential radical.

Leer en Español.

Like many parts of Mexico City, the Guerrero neighborhood feels simultaneously bustling and relaxed. Just northwest of the city’s historic center, kids play in the street as mopeds zip past narrow buildings in bright, pastel colors and tree-lined sidewalks. But Guerrero lacks the glitz and glam of wealthier boroughs nearby. It is a working-class area where people have historically grappled with some of the city’s highest crime rates.

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On a Friday afternoon, just blocks from one of Mexico’s oldest churches, a dozen people are lined up beneath a rainbow flag and a banner that reads Manos Amigues. It means “helping hands,” a phrase that typically uses the gendered word amiga, but here is rendered with a gender-neutral alternative, amigue. In Mexico, gender-neutral Spanish is not yet widely embraced, but here in Guerrero, it has gained a foothold thanks to Manos Amigues, founded in 2021 as Mexico City’s first soup kitchen by and for the LGBTQ community. Here, people of all ages, genders, and sexualities dine side by side on iridescent tablecloths, between walls adorned with work by queer and transgender artists, as Mexican cantina music shuffles with disco on the speakers.

Manos Amigues, like many other mutual aid projects across North America, first began to address the surge of need around COVID. People formed collectives to fundraise for those whose incomes tanked, buying groceries, masks, and medicine for neighbors or sending money to far-away strangers. In Mexico City, one LGBTQ-led mutual aid project, Burritos No Bombas, used donations from the US to purchase 80-plus bags of groceries every week, which it gave free of charge to queer elders, trans sex workers, migrants, and families. After the project’s leaders began collaborating with an outdoor soup kitchen in Zona Rosa, the city’s gay neighborhood, that seed blossomed into the indoor Manos Amigues kitchen.

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Two tables under a pop-up tent in the street expand the kitchen’s seating capacity and give Covid-conscious diners the option to eat outside.

“If the pandemic made everybody vulnerable, imagine how it’s been for the people who were already vulnerable,” Alejandra Gúzman, a 21-year-old trans woman who works at Manos Amigues, told VICE. Already, more than one-quarter of the country was affected by moderate or severe food insecurity, according to the UN’s Pan American Health Organization; from 2018 to 2020, an additional 2.1 million people in Mexico fell into extreme poverty, according to a government report. Gúzman said the LGBTQ community was especially hard hit, and she saw many struggle to find work because of homophobia and transphobia: “Supporting those people is the best thing we can do right now, so when there’s an opportunity to help, we do it right away.”

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Alejandra Gúzman, the kitchen’s greeter and accountant, begins the sign-in sheet for the day.

Manos Amigues has evolved into an anchor of support for hundreds of food-insecure people, as well as a burgeoning meeting ground for Mexico City’s flourishing LGBTQ community. In addition to serving 200 meals every weekday at a price of 11 pesos (approximately $0.50), the kitchen, which operates in a converted garage, hosts drag shows, concerts, performance art, parties, and a rotating gallery of visual art. Employees and volunteers come from across the LGBTQ spectrum, and clients include straight elders local to the neighborhood as well as queer and trans people who come to eat in a safer space. Manos Amigues proves that solidarity can bring ambitious visions to life—and as the kitchen continues to grow, its staff is dreaming even bigger.

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A line of guests forms daily outside Manos Amigues before it begins serving food at 1PM.

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Masked and vaccinated, the Manos Amigues team has kept the kitchen open every weekday since mid-2021, though they temporarily suspended Friday events during the Omicron wave.

Though the pandemic rapidly accelerated their necessity, Manos Amigues and Burritos No Bombas grew out of earlier efforts to feed the many hungry people among Mexico City’s queer and trans population. 

In October 2019, after months of fundraising and recruiting volunteers, Brent Alberghini, a 44-year-old US expat who has lived in the city for ten years, helped open the free kitchen at Vida Alegre, an LGBTQ senior center founded one year prior by local trans activist Samantha Flores. When the pandemic hit, Vida Alegre was forced to shut its doors, and Alberghini, who has worked on other humanitarian projects throughout his time in Mexico, urgently sought ways to help.

While his friends in the US received unemployment benefits and stimulus checks, Alberghini said, “the Mexican government didn't give people a dime.” But Mexico City implemented measures like closing hotels (stranding the queer and trans sex workers who worked and often lived there) and shuttering nightlife and performance spaces (major sources of income for the LGBTQ community). Some moved in with family, which created new challenges, while Vida Alegre’s closure affected queer elders, who often don’t have kids to support them. To feed these populations and others, Alberghini created Burritos No Bombas. The name was inspired by the mutual aid network Food Not Bombs, and he recruited volunteers from Vida Alegre and friends involved in nightlife, vogue houses, and circus groups. Each Wednesday, they all converged on his apartment in Zona Rosa to pack groceries into bags. 

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One year into the pandemic, Burritos No Bombas was still going strong. A few blocks from his building, Alberghini met two men from UPREZ, a grassroots leftist group allied with Mexico’s revolutionary Zapatista movement. These UPREZ organizers had helped launch a comedor emergente, one of 20 pop-up soup kitchens that the city funded when pandemic restrictions forced dozens of the city’s 300-plus indoor kitchens to close, even as demand for their services had rapidly grown. Alberghini started volunteering at this new outdoor kitchen, which reserved nearly half of its daily meals for LGBTQ-identified people and began to reimagine Burritos No Bombas as a brick-and-mortar soup kitchen.

Alberghini registered a nonprofit in the US, Americas Unite, to handle the flow of donations from his home country to Mexico, with the intention of renting a space. Thanks to their GoFundMe—and sustained financial support from actor John Cameron Mitchell, the creator and star of Hedwig And The Angry Inch—Manos Amigues was able to pay its first three months of rent and open its doors in July 2021, just after Mexico City celebrated its first Pride in two years. Today, the kitchen serves nearly a thousand meals a week. 

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Mitchell told VICE he believes that funneling resources where they’re most needed, such as projects like Manos Amigues, is one way for LGBTQ solidarity to cross borders. “There are things in common about being queer throughout the world,” he said. “We’ve been judged for being different… we have this bond.” Alberghini agreed: “The two governments may not get along, but if the citizens form a community that reaches across those lines, they can actually make a difference in each other’s lives,” he said. “It doesn’t take much. We’re talking about the price of one cocktail on the beach in Puerto Vallarta.”

“We say this project is both for and by the LGBTQ community,” Alberghini continued. “People sometimes think of us as a marginalized community that needs help, but here, we are not just the ones being served, we are the ones doing the serving.”

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Maja Pulcheria, a queer woman from Poland who has lived in Mexico City for over a year, cleans silverware while volunteering as a server at Manos Amigues.

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Alejandra Guzman collects guests’ 11 peso meal fee and marks their names to get a headcount.

At the front door of Manos Amigues, Alejandra Guzman greets guests and collects their money. On weekends, she works as a makeup artist, and her talent is demonstrated clearly on her own flawless face. Inside, her mom, Alejandra Cuicahua, is the cook. To differentiate between the two Alejandras, co-workers call them “Alebebé” and “Alemamá”—both were recruited by Alberghini, who had worked with Cuicahua at another kitchen where she cooked for eight years.

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"Supporting [vulnerable] people is the best thing we can do right now, so when there’s an opportunity to help, we do it right away.”—Alejandra Guzman.

Though Guerrero was once a neighborhood with little queer visibility, Guzman told VICE, guests at the kitchen “have always respected me and called me by my pronoun, ‘she.’ People are learning, they’re getting to know us, and seeing that we’re not as bad as we’ve been represented.” She pointed to the kitchen’s weekly Friday shows, which have included drag and stand-up comedy, acoustic guitar and fire dancing, and headbanging rock shows and experimental work by trans performance artists. According to Guzman, “It’s mostly older people who come, so I feel that we’re progressing a lot.” Many of those older people are heterosexual residents of Guerrero, making Manos Amigues a space of surprising cross-cultural exchange: A newspaper article about the kitchen ran under the headline, “Two Generations in a Cultural Convergence.”

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Guzman has met groups of trans women who cross the city to eat at Manos Amigues, who, she said, are “grateful that they can trust us, and to know there’s a safe place where they can come and let go of their fear.” In the seven months since the kitchen opened, Guzman’s favorite moment was when they started receiving city funding and the meal fee dropped from 15 pesos to 11. When guests found out, “Their faces were so happy. For vulnerable people, it’s difficult to get 15 pesos,” said Guzman. Indeed, those four pesos—less than a quarter in American dollars—make a difference: Because of the growing demand, Manos Amigues increased its daily meal count from 140 to 200. 

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Planned and prepared by Alejandra Cuicahua, this Manos Amigues menu from a Friday in January includes pasta soup and picadillo, a Latin American dish made from ground meat.

Three days a week, the menu features meat, and the other two days, vegetables. Every guest receives beans, soup, rice, tortillas, and an aqua fresca. All of it is cooked singlehandedly by 49-year-old Cuicahua, who, like her daughter, is a native of Mexico City. “I work here because I consider myself also part of the community, because of my children,” she said. Besides her trans daughter, Cuicahua also has a gay son. Her husband has two gay brothers, and more than 20 years ago, she’d join the three of them in dancing at gay clubs on the weekends.

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After cooking all morning, Alejandra Cuicahua serves pinto beans for nearly 200 guests on a Friday afternoon in January.

Cuicahua loves working with an all-queer staff, and she is a loud presence at every Friday event, applauding and cheering. “This is like my home,” she said, gesturing to her team. “This is my family.” She understands the devastating effects of anti-LGBTQ prejudice, having taken in some of her daughter’s friends when their parents kicked them out of the house. “These parents don’t inform themselves, they don’t read, they don’t listen,” she said. “They kick them out because they themselves have never had to suffer in the streets. Imagine if it was you."

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Mariam Karbassi is a volunteer who washes dishes at the kitchen on Fridays.

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As prep cook, Victor Haro (who is also an athlete and sculptor) assists Cuicahua five days a week.

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Mariana De Horta, a sound engineer and guitar tech from Uruguay, helps produce Manos Amigues’ Friday events.

Working at the kitchen, Cuicahua’s own awareness has continued to grow. “My mom used to think trans women were drag queens,” said Guzman. “When I came out, I began to explain things to her, and she understood a little more.” But after joining Manos Amigues and attending its colorful events, Guzman said, “Now she’s saying things like, ‘How does that person identify? Are they non-binary?’ She’s learning that there are different genders, different pronouns, all kinds of different things.”

Cuicahua’s own favorite moment came on the Friday before Día de los Muertos in November, when her daughter performed a traditional Mexican dance with Miguel Diaz, a 21-year-old pharmacy worker she met at the kitchen, who bikes 15 minutes every weekday to eat there with other queer people. “I support myself,” said Diaz, “so to have a place where I can eat for 11 pesos and take food to go, that helps me a ton.” Though he visits gay spaces like clubs and bars, they can be “very limited—they don’t necessarily offer support, or the freedom to express yourself.” At Manos Amigues, “You can meet people of any kind, yet feel understood.”

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Alejandra Cuicahua, who has a trans daughter and a gay son, says she cooks at Manos Amigues because she considers herself part of the LGBTQ community.

In an outfit well-matched with turquoise accents down to the shoes, 22-year-old sociology student Rudy Arkadia carried bowls of soup, plates of food, and refills of tortillas and agua fresca to each table. Arkadia, who is one of the servers at Manos Amigues, identifies as a non-binary trans-femme and uses the pronouns ella and elle, “she” and “they.” They learned about the kitchen through social media and started working there in its first week.

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Rudy Arkadia, who works as a server at Manos Amigues, is a non-binary student, activist, and member of a Mexico City ballroom house.

“A project as big and ambitious as Manos Amigues is really promising in many ways,” Arkadia told VICE. “You really feel like you’re building a community beyond just the LGBT… We meet here for a sacred act, which is to eat, and through that, more intimate and personal ties start to take shape.” Chatting with guests, they’ve made unlikely new friends, like the 70- and 80-year-old señoras who have learned to call them by the gender-neutral pronoun elle, which is still so new that the Royal Academy of Spanish, which regulates the language worldwide, removed it from its website mere days after adding it in 2020, citing confusion and lack of usage. One señora recently gifted Arkadia a sweater; another, a pair of earrings.

Older people “are not accustomed to [queer] social dynamics, yet still they have respect for us,” said Arkadia, using nosotres, the gender-neutral word for “us.” After a year of social distancing and lockdowns, they said, “Arriving in this world that is the community kitchen has meant meeting all the people who come here, but at the same time, letting myself be seen and discovering things about myself.” In addition to playing emcee at many Friday shows, Arkadia performed with their ballroom house Kiki House of Karnalxs in a voguing showcase when the kitchen premiered a trans-focused exhibit in January.

Manos Amigues’ monthly art exhibits are coordinated by Antonio Zaragoza, a 36-year-old curator and artist who has been with the project since it began as Burritos No Bombas in early 2020. He knows what it’s like to be hungry in Mexico City: He moved there eight years ago to partake in its vibrant queer and artist communities but has since struggled with the menacing cost of rent and food in the city. During one brutal year, he slept in rundown hotels and ate at soup kitchens, where workers belittled him with homophobic and classist remarks. Years later, he is exhibiting work internationally while dedicating time to ensuring Manos Amigues thrives as a cultural space that uplifts young, marginalized artists from the LGBTQ community.

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At Manos Amigues, people of all ages, genders, and sexualities dine side-by-side on iridescent tablecloths, between walls bedecked with work by queer and trans artists.

“In a way, we discriminate against heterosexuals,” Zaragoza said with a smirk, “because, in general, all spaces and all of life is made for heterosexuals. At the end of the day, this is a space for diversity, and we must be somewhat exclusively for diverse artists.” Zaragoza finds art through open calls on social media, sometimes with specific themes like January’s “Trans Memory” show; other exhibits have featured drawings, photographs, and posters from the archive of activist group Colectivo Sol. “The idea is to promote emerging artists from the community,” he said, a few of whom have sold work shown at the kitchen. 

Manos Amigues plans to gradually broaden its offerings, such as by connecting visitors to services like HIV and STI testing. Alberghini hopes to contract beds from the hostel next door to create a shelter for queer and trans migrants and others without places to sleep. In the long run, Manos Amigues—which in November received an award from the local chapter of international queer advocacy group Impulse—could become a full-fledged LGBTQ community center, something that doesn’t yet exist in Mexico City. But all these ideas would require much more funding. For now, Alberghini remains focused on simply keeping the doors open.

The kitchen’s volunteers share and are motivated by this vision—some feel it can be a model of queer community and mutual aid not only in Guerrero, but across Mexico and beyond. Though Mexico City is considered a relatively tolerant place, Arkadia said, “In other parts of Mexico, queer people continue to be highly attacked, marginalized, excluded, discriminated against, and unfortunately also killed. It’s extremely important to forge links between countries to help marginalized groups, because regardless of what country we come from, the truth is that at the end of the day, we’re all going to need a mano amigue [helping hand].”