Music plays softly in the background, overshadowed by the sounds of utensils serving food and people chatting, catching up after not seeing one another since last week. There is a motley crew of pots, bowls and pans of food brought by several different people to serve the community dinner. Conversations range from asking about how someone’s cat is doing to discussing how to create an inner-city commune.
I spend as many Wednesday evenings as I can in Fremont enjoying Casa del Xoloitzcuintle’s community dinners. These dinners take place at Lazy Cow Bakery, a Chicana-owned vegan cafe and bakery. While the bakery serves as a cozy, welcoming third place to vegans and non-vegans alike, the shining gem at the core is its mutual aid group, Casa del Xoloitzcuintle, housed in the cafe.
The most well-known event for the group, best known as Casa del Xolo, is the community dinner, held every Wednesday at 7 p.m. The potluck-style vegan dinners are open to members of the mutual aid group and literally anyone who walks by and wants a bite to eat. Folks can grab supplies like rice, canned goods, pads, deodorant or requested items from the community pantry and fridge to take home.
If you’re asking yourself, “What is a ‘mutual aid group?’” that’s ok! You wouldn’t be the first one to ask this (or the last!). In his book, “Mutual Aid: Building Solidarity During This Crisis (And the Next),” Dean Spade describes mutual aid as “collective coordination to meet each other’s needs, usually from an awareness that the systems we have in place are not going to meet them.”
The Casa del Xolo website adds, “Mutual aid is not charity. [It] is about creating embedded relationships of care that are not dependent on [the] government or accepting donations from wealthy donors.” In short: Mutual aid is the act of building community and helping one another with immediate and long-term needs. This can take shape as political projects, crowdfunding for survival supplies, writing to prisoners, facilitating political education, mobilizing for resistance projects, advocating for prison abolition at a courthouse — the list goes on.
Lazy Cow Bakery was founded by Lara de la Rosa — an artist, entrepreneur and dear friend of mine — when she was 21 years old. It was created to make a safe, welcoming space for vegans and artists alike. Casa del Xolo was founded in parallel as a way to ensure that the local community was included in the bakery’s success.
When asked about Casa del Xolo’s origins, Lara said, “Firstly, [Casa del Xolo] aimed at creating a physical space where Chicanx people can see their culture represented, a place where photos of our people line the walls, our music is played and our food is enjoyed. In an era in which these ‘spaces’ where we can feel safe are increasingly digital, a physical presence in an otherwise white neighborhood is a protest in and of itself.”
On a foundational level, Casa del Xolo’s Wednesday dinners serve to provide warm, homemade meals for folks who might need or want it, open to strangers, friends or curious onlookers. On a community level, the dinners act as a way to build relationships, welcome new people to the group or introduce mutual aid.
“One of the founding tenets of CDX is this: Act locally. We have to put power directly back into our own hands — our neighborhoods — and take responsibility for the places in which we make our lives,” Lara said. The beauty of Casa del Xolo, and mutual aid in general, is that it has so many forms that cannot be restricted to a singular category.
“Mutual aid is a structure of community support that goes beyond material assistance. It allows us to be creative and sincere about how we help each other, whether that’s crowdfunding or shows,” said Emilia, an active contributor to Casa del Xolo. “When I saw that a mutual aid group serving Latine people was forming, I knew I wanted to be involved. The people in this community are also fantastic — a bunch of interesting, smart, goofy people connected by goals like liberation, safety and good times.”
At its core, mutual aid is a response to community needs. For Casa del Xolo, our mutual aid has three pillars: combating food apartheid, building community and creating a cultural center to amplify local artists’ and musicians’ presence in a city where music and creativity is being starved out.
Fighting food apartheid with Casa del Xolo takes a myriad of moving parts. Every week, a member of Casa del Xolo picks up supplies from the local food bank to avoid over-consumption from the grocery store and provide fresh, canned and bagged foods free to take at the community food pantry and fridge. Non-perishable and perishable foods alike are available: I often get a much-needed bag of rice each week.
Mutual aid means something different for everyone involved, and these community dinners are more than just a time and place to eat. For folks within Casa del Xolo, one of the most valued parts is the sense of community. In the social culture developed in the United States, creating a loving community without centering religion or financial exchange is rare. Community dinners in a mutual aid space help foster healthy social relationships in which neighbors enjoy a safe environment to talk about real-life experiences and are encouraged to engage in discussion and activity.
Additionally, folks are welcome to come to Lazy Cow Bakery an hour before the meal to participate in Casa del Xolo’s general meeting at 6 p.m. New and veteran members of the group and the community share a space to discuss feedback, brainstorm new ideas and check in on individual people and the mutual aid group as a whole. Casa del Xolo has become an essential third place, fostering the growth of invaluable friendships and camaraderie that seem harder and harder to come by.
The final pillar of Casa del Xolo is its role as an arts and community hub. The mutual aid group is unique in that there is a brick-and-mortar place where folks can meet and host events. Concerts and other events such as Latine writing workshops, a community ofrenda and a social housing event have been hosted by Casa del Xolo at Lazy Cow Bakery to boost the local music, art and social justice scene in Seattle, something that’s at risk of being lost. Through these events, neighbors from near and far in Seattle are welcome to come and mingle while indulging in the arts the way that arts are meant to be indulged in: at a small venue full of people who you definitely will see again.
Everything is grounded in the “we” present within Casa del Xolo. Whether it’s through musical concerts, dinners or a safe place to get food and supplies, Casa del Xolo values the community and arts in a way that feels like when you find your favorite childhood toy and all the memories associated with it come rushing back. You can’t help but think, “Oh yeah, this is what it’s all about. I almost forgot.”
The community dinner begins to wrap up. Dishes are void of any leftovers, people are taking turns cleaning the dishes and wiping the tables, slowly folks begin to trickle out with full bellies, emphatic “goodnights” and promises to see one another next week. I wave and exchange loving hugs before taking the bus home with my significantly lighter pot, reflecting on the night’s conversations and my mind bursting at the seams with ideas. The most exciting part is that by this time next week, we get to do it all over again.
Read more of the Mar. 1-7, 2023 issue.