On East Lake Street in Minneapolis sits an easily missed shop built on struggle and hard work.
The shop is just one outreach of the nonprofit Tamales y Bicicletas. Run by Jose Luis Villaseñor, the son of Mexican immigrants who has spent the past 15 years working with homeless youth, Latino students and immigrant families, Tamales y Bicicletas was created to fulfill the needs of underserved communities in Phillips area of Minneapolis, including Midtown, East Phillips and West Phillips neighborhoods. The organization focuses on empowerment and cultural traditions and uses food and bicycles as teaching and community engagement tools.
“It’s proven that biking contributes to … creating balanced core muscles in your body. That allows you to have an opportunity to reflect and be physically active to reduce stress,” Villaseñor said. “I always found … growing up, bicycling and being in nature … working with my father in his garden, [offered] opportunities to reflect on life.”
Villaseñor’s childhood is a continual influence on Tamales y Bicicletas.
“I grew up having to take bikes away,” he said, “and I would take them and fix them up, and make them rideable, [then] give them to my friends … or have a new bike because I found someone throwing a bike away.”
Poverty drove Villaseñor to learn about bike repair. Now, he uses it to enrich the community by teaching youth about bike repair, as well as providing bikes to community members in need.
While access to working bicycles is an important part of healthier communities, garden-fresh food provides another healthy option. Tamales y Bicicletas has an urban farm to teach young community members traditional crop strategies geared toward eating healthy foods and promoting healthier lifestyles. Often lower-income communities do not have the easy access to the comforts of healthy eating. Tamales y Bicicletas wants to give them that opportunity; not to mention gardening can be a very fun learning experience.
“In college … there were opportunities to work on a local farm, so I started doing that. And I was an education intern there. It’s actually a really fun job,” said Ashley O’Neill Prado, Tamales y Bicicletas’ urban farm coordinator.
In the next five years, Tamales y Bicicletas hopes to expand and help more people.
“[We are] trying to be more innovative and [connect] with communities around sustainable transportation and food justice,” Prado said. “I’m also really excited that we’re working on a project to get a new greenhouse.”
Tamales y Bicicletas is a reflection of Villaseñor’s childhood experiences.
“I was able to turn a negative into a positive growing up poor,” he said.
Through bikes, gardens and other community projects, the organization helps others turn their lives in a more positive direction. One thing is for certain: The hard work of Villaseñor and his team is not overlooked within the community.
“I think the thank you is like the call I got at 11:30 last night saying, ‘Hey, can you fix my bike?’ Villaseñor said. “Or we’re feeding community members, organic vegetables, and they enjoy it. You know, that’s the way we get a thank you.”