“The future deserves a present where our truths were spoken.” – Mangos With Chili artist Alexis Pauline Gumbs, on Audre Lorde
Below is our story in our own words, the way we want to tell it. Please click here to read our official mission vision and impact statement (aka the stuff we put in all of the grants we get rejected from).
Once upon a time in an era long ago, in the time of Friendster and before cell phones or GPS, Leah and Cherry met one fated summer in unsunny San Francisco when they were both attending a retreat for writers of color, and visiting their then boos. Mangos With Chili was a dream hatched on corner store phone cards, Fruitvale tienditas selling the snack that is our namesake, and big visions of taking queer and trans people of color performance art to big stages. We knew that our community of artmakers, our craft, and our beautiful stories of resilience and survival, deserved to be witnessed. We knew that our community deserved to come to spaces where they could feel home, be fully held, be celebrated, and see stories similar to their own reflected in creative work.
So in 2006, after many years of performing as solo artists, and facing similar unsavory experiences with queer performance spaces that were mostly white, and people of color performance spaces that could be homo and transphobic, Cherry and Leah brought their dreams, sweat, and desire together to start planning a ten day tour that took the Northeast by storm.
Our breakout 2007 cabaret took 8 queer and trans performers of color working in different artistic genres to cities and stages throughout the Northeastern United States and Canada. With no core funding and mostly grassroots publicity, Mangos With Chili was a phenomenally successful project. We raised our budget through grassroots fundraising and door revenue, and were able to pay artists a fair wage, in addition to covering all travel and housing costs. The show packed world class theaters, underground performance spaces, and campus halls, including Buddies in Bad Times Theatre in Toronto, C-Space in Cleveland, Swarthmore College, Cattyshack in New York, The Black Repertory Theater of Providence, Theatre Juste por Rire in Montreal, rural Northeast stages and more. Audiences everywhere thanked us for both the high caliber of work and the life-saving importance of the testimonies we shared through our art. We were completely blown away by the tour’s unexpected success- how night after night community and university spaces were packed to capacity with folks who had learned about the shows from word of mouth and were hungry for more. (Even though Leah thought we could definitely fit seven people in a six seater minivan. We have since learned that when it comes to tour rigs, being a sizequeen is everything).
In our early years not only did we have no core funding, we barely had working computers. During our first two tours we relied on a huge paper atlas of North America to find our way around (the atlas has now moved on to become part of our archives!). We paid for gas out of pass-the-hat donations as gas prices began to soar. But we did it. We found a way. We made magic happen. We made shows that are gorgeous healing spaces, that people talk about years later.
At the time of MWC’s founding, Leah lived in unceded Missisauga of New Credit territories/Toronto, and Cherry was completing a revisit to the rural immigrant community in the Northwest she grew up in, and was about to move to Oakland. Between 2006 and 2007 as we relocated to the Bay Area, we began to create and produce artistic work in the Bay. Some of our signature shows were created during this time – Encuentros, which featured stories from immigrant and first generation queer artists, Beloved, which took place in October and honored our QTPOC dead, and Whipped, which is our show about the many manifestations of queer love. We also had many opportunities to present work in the National Queer Arts Festival, and used this as an opportunity to launch new shows in addition to our signature shows. During this time we also continued to tour. We followed our inaugural tour with 2008’s Queer Borderlands Tour, and 2009’s Stunning South Tour. We took a break from intense touring following the 2009 tour – we were tired, had some really hard stuff to sort through, and needed to figure out future directions, and Cherry was recovering from being hit by a truck – but we did brief stints in different geographic areas between 2010-13.
We came to the Bay Area to learn from and contribute to the amazing QTPOCTS art and culture made here. We don’t know if we will be in the Bay Area forever- gentrification and cultural and economic displacement are factors that affect us like they are affecting all of our communities- but we are committed to the project continuing in new places and in new manifestations and evolutions as our lives, migrations, and artistic paths evolve.
We feel that it is important to be very transparent about the fact that we have had very little core funding over the years and operated on a very sparse budget. Our work does not neatly fit into the visions of funders who operate under the white supremacist hetero ablest patriarchy. We refuse to be tokenized. We refuse to filter or tame our work. We refuse to shift our message or description about who we are or who/what we are here for to appease those with power. We are unapologetic about this. We are forever thankful to the Horizons Foundation, the Astraea Foundation, and the Queer Cultural Center for providing us with seed grants, capacity building grants, and commissions at various points in our history. (Read about the historic moment that we received the Horizons award here!)
We are also deeply thankful for our beloved community members, who have filled passed hats and Paypals, given us venues, videography and places to sleep, given us hugs and encouragement when we felt like giving up, and been our most consistent source of support. We have always said that capitalism doesn’t love us, but our communities do. We have been able to keep operating due to this support, as well as the support of countless community members.
In our 8 years of existence we have also made mistakes. We have learned from our mistakes. We have paused when we needed to reassess our personal and professional relationship, and there are times when we have questioned our financial, emotional, and energetic capacity to continue. During times of struggle we have reflected on the legacies of the qtpocts artists and cultural workers who have come before us. And we have been determined to keep going for the ones who will come after us. And most importantly, we have learned, grown and survived. We have committed to, and grown our commitment to disability access, moving towards only having shows that are in wheelchair accessible spaces and stages, with captioned videos and fragrance free seating. As two cis queer women of color, we continue to grow our commitment to work against trans* misogyny. And while we have produced a lot of solid and exceptional work over the years, we are also humble enough to acknowledge that not everything we have created is brilliant. We are a work in progress. We embrace our evolution.
8 years, 150 artists, 4 tours, 100+ productions, 2 countries plus Aztlan, 44 indigenous territories, one pre-Kickstarter Paypal fundraising campaign when we both literally had $47 in the bank, one pre-GPS 125 mile all night roadtrip through the backroads of northern New Mexico on no gas, one three hour ICE stop and search filled with sexual and racial harassment, one 24 hour straight drive home from Denver to Oakland through the Rockies, 20,000 donated hours, over 125 volunteers, and many many many memorable curtain calls to Prince’s ‘Let’s Go Crazy’ later, we see how our labor has changed the world.
We are part of a growing and ever present movement of queer and trans people of color and Two Spirit cultural activism. From performing at the 2010 U.S. Social Forum to headlining at Brown’s annual Black Lavender Experience; from curating shows on QTPOCTS love sex and desire, rites of passage and ancestry, death and memory. Supporting other QTPOCTS artist collectives like Queer Rebels, R3 and Peacock Rebellion. We root in our belief that we can make stages into sites of freedom, healing and transformation through shared story and art. We know we are both ancient and breathtakingly new. That poetry and dance are far from a luxury. That our ancestors survived through song, poetry and story, mapping freedom trails and envisioning new ways of being beyond survival. And as we remember them by dancing in their memory, we do the same.
And we will keep finding the way.
In Love, Lipgloss and Revolution,
Cherry and Leah