Jenny Niezgoda always dreamed of owning a café—at least, that's what she professed in a video last week that accompanied a now-defunct Kickstarter campaign. She sought to realize her fantasies through La Gracia, a concept that she called a "modern frutería" within the heart of San Diego's Barrio Logan. It's a neighborhood with a storied history of fierce, principled resistance to gentrification.
La Gracia would effectively function as a high-end juice bar with a plant-based menu, boasting such drinks as a blazing hot pink "wellness latte," all with the intention, Niezgoda explained, of paying homage to a traditional Mexican frutería. An alum of the hospitality industry, Niezgoda is a wellness blogger who describes herself as "a chic nomad, driven by wanderlust." She goes by the nickname 'the Barefoot Bohemian'.
"Above all places, Mexico has filled my heart," Niezgoda chirpily proclaims in the video. "And then I found it here! In San Diego!" She goes on to describe Barrio Logan as "vibrant" and "up and coming," and part of her stated mission with La Gracia is to "improve" the barrio and grace it with a "healthy option."
Niezgoda's dreams are unlikely to materialize. After fewer than three days of having the video live, she made the campaign page private; by then, it had pooled merely $812 of its stated $35,000 goal. She has since locked her own Instagram account and disabled the comments on La Gracia's Instagram. She has scrubbed her blog of any posts mentioning the project. La Gracia, Niezgoda announced in a rueful Facebook post on Saturday, will not open.
The decision is the result of a torrent of criticism Niezgoda faced on social media and from local activists who felt that Niezgoda was parachuting into a neighborhood as an outsider who was unaware of the depth and nuance of its history, along with its class and racial politics. According to her critics, she was borrowing, sans attribution, elements of a vibrant culture that has sustained the neighborhood for decades; in other words, accusers said, La Gracia was a textbook case of cultural appropriation. The two-minute video accompanying the Kickstarter campaign has since become the subject of reaction videos. Niezgoda did not respond to immediate requests for comment from MUNCHIES on Wednesday regarding her thoughts on the backlash to her project.
"Fruterías have long been an integral part of the Latino community, providing us with affordable fruit cups, aguas frescas and otras chucherias on hot summer days," Esteban Castillo, the blogger behind Chicano Eats, wrote MUNCHIES on Wednesday. "These fruit carts have often been an only source of income for people of color. Niezgoda was looking to insert herself into a community where she was not needed or wanted."
San Diego resident Zoe Rain took to Twitter last week and amplified Niezgoda's campaign, detailing the numerous ways in which she perceived the venture to be disingenuous.
"Jenny's plan was to regurgitate a whitewashed version of a frutería in a Mexican neighborhood, a neighborhood that already has plenty of authentic, Mexican-owned fruterías," Rain wrote MUNCHIES over email Wednesday afternoon. "So not only was her business unnecessary, but it was contributing to the gentrification of Barrio Logan. While Barrio Logan has been going through gentrification for some time now, the fact that Jenny is slapping a Mexican label on her business with no actual Mexicans involved is what I find most insulting."
The controversy with La Gracia recalls the recent hubbub surrounding ill-fated startup Bodega, founded by two ex-Googlers, which was met with furor for both a name and business model its detractors saw as tone deaf. The incident also bears resemblance to the swift closure of Kooks Burritos in May, a concept pilloried by critics who were unenthused by two white women opening a burrito shop while nominally honoring a Mexican culture they loved.
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"La Gracia is a prime example of cultural appropriation, not appreciation," Castillo insisted to MUNCHIES. "If Niezgoda was truly passionate and appreciative about Mexican culture, she could have at the very least learned to pronounce 'frutería' and 'barrio' correctly."