Building Bicycles, Building Community

14-1 Tamales y Bicicletas
Tamales y Bicicletas’ Solution to Pollution Bike Tour in Minneapolis’ East Phillips neighborhood, an educational bike tour about environmental justice on Earth Day. (Courtesy Nevada Littlewolf)

For Jose Luis Villaseñor, everything and everyone is connected. 

“I always like to say we are all indigenous from somewhere,” Villaseñor said. “Community gives us an opportunity to talk about what we have in common.” 

The son of Mexican immigrants, Villaseñor has spent 15 years working with homeless youth, Latinx students and immigrant families. In conversations with the community, he found a need for job security and healthy, affordable food access. This all inspired him to search for an inclusive way to highlight Latinx culture. The result: Tamales y Bicicletas

According to its mission, Tamales y Bicicletas is dedicated to strengthening Latinx and immigrant communities through bike projects, green farming, cultural empowerment and environmental justice. Today, two of the nonprofit’s projects are an urban farm and a bike shop.  

For the urban farm, Tamales y Bicicletas gathers community members in late winter to discuss what foods to plant in spring. When the weather turns to spring, community members help put the seeds into the ground. However, there’s a bigger picture.  

“We also talk about how food is not just food, but it’s also a medicine,” Villaseñor said. “So not only do we have these conversations within our own communities, but we also try to educate people outside of the community, about the importance of supporting urban farms and…to support initiatives led by people of color in their communities.” 

Ashley O’Neill Prado, community garden coordinator for Tamales y Bicicletas, emphasized that a community garden’s purpose extends beyond food production. 

“The name Tamales y Bicicletas is actually kind of a symbolism for precolonial food and taking the power back to make our own food,” Prado said. “So in indigenous cultures, there’s a lot of different ways to make tamales, but those recipes and tamales existed before the colonizers came. That’s why it’s called Tamales y Bicicletas because [we’re] thinking back to pre-colonial food and how we’re trying to refine that.” 

As for the bike shop, Villaseñor said when he was younger, he and his family couldn’t afford a bike for him. So, he would find bikes that others threw away, fix them and ride them. Tamales y Bicicletas’ bike shop pays homage to that. 

“We literally fix people’s bikes, give away bikes, and encourage youth and young adults to come in and learn about basic bike repair,” Villaseñor said. 

Getting to this level, with a bike shop, urban farm and other opportunities, though, was challenging.  

“[It] is very rare there are organizations and projects that are led by those that are directly affected by food inequities and environmental inequities,” Villaseñor said. “So it was very difficult for people to really believe the vision.” 

Tamales y Bicicletas has volunteering opportunities every other Friday and Saturday, as well as projects like the Urban Farm Institute. The Urban Farm Institute’s main purpose is to educate Latinx and other marginalized youth and their families about urban farming and sustainability to create greater access to healthy foods and practices. 

Over the summer, Tamales y Bicicletas is doing a Northside food justice bike tour with Appetite for Change, Oak Park Center and other community organizations to highlight the need for food security in North Minneapolis.   

The goal of Tamales y Bicicletas is to be a place where Latinx and other marginalized communities can come together through good food and outdoor activities. With Villaseñor’s clear passion, there’s nothing stopping this nonprofit from pedaling on forward. 

“It is something that comes from my heart.” Villaseñor said. “When I talk to young folks, it may sound cheesy, but I think it’s important to follow your heart. A lot of this work that I’ve done in my community around issues of food security, environmental justice, is something that gives me hope, and place to land when things become difficult in the political climate or in our communities.”

Watch ThreeSixty student Samira Mohamed cover this story during ThreeSixty’s TV Broadcast Camp: