Gianna Navarro was working as a photographer three years ago when they began to experience the onset of Guillain-Barré syndrome, a rare condition in which the body’s immune system attacks the nerves. One year later, they were diagnosed with chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy (CIPD), a more severe form of the same illness.
“I started to become paralyzed from the hips down,” recalls Navarro, a queer and gender-fluid Houstonian who uses they/them/their pronouns. “The nerve damage spread to other parts of my body as well. I lost my job and had to learn to do a lot of everyday things, like walking, all over again.”
Spending time preparing favorite dishes soon became a healing practice for Navarro. Using cooking tools helped them relearn and regain some motor skills, and adhering to a vegan diet kept the symptoms of CIPD at bay. “The loss of my abilities comes and goes in waves, but the symptoms have been lessened by my physical activities and overall health,” they say, adding that working with plant-based food also allowed them to experiment with different traditional Mexican-inspired recipes.
After Navarro’s friends and fellow chefs asked them to help cover a pop-up vending event in October 2017, Somos Semillas vegan kitchen was born. “I always thought it would be cool to serve food to people, but it always just seemed like a dream,” Navarro admits. “Being that I was in a wheelchair at that point, I never thought it could happen. But within two weeks of finding out about that pop-up opportunity, I developed three flavors of tamales that we still use today.”
The first event was a great success, and they’ve continued to serve meals at local pop-ups. Their next appearance takes place at Finn Hall with Papalo Taqueria on December 11. “I really did not know we would grow in such a way,” Navarro says. “I definitely struggled to maintain a business with my physical limitations, but thankfully I’ve always been able to sustain it through help from community, friends, and my partner, Blue, who helps with the business a lot.”
As of late last month, fans can also enjoy Somos Semillas’ tasty and colorful comfort food every Tuesday and Wednesday for dine-in or takeout at Houston’s Grand Prize Bar in Montrose. A frozen take-home version of Navarro’s tamales is also available at Henderson & Kane General Store, VegSide Mkt, and Sauce Co. Shoppette. Large holiday orders can be placed on these individual retailers’ websites.
All of Somos Semillas products are made from locally grown vegetables and other regional ingredients. “We don’t really use meat or cheese substitutes in our cooking,” Navarro says. “We stick to whole foods and plant-based ingredients combined with spices and herbs in flavorful ways. People tend to say, ‘We didn’t think about this being vegan. It’s just good food.’ One of the most rewarding things is showing people that vegan food can taste good without it feeling like it lacked something.”
Food presentation also plays an important role in the Somos Semillas brand. The shop’s Instagram-worthy meals are often colorful and plated with leafy greens, bright sauces, and pink and purple flowers. “It’s inspiring to work with plants because they’re so vibrant,” Navarro says. “We use their colors any way that we can. One of our meats, Jamaica Asada, is even made out of marinated flowers.”
That faux hibiscus “meat” can be found in Somos Semillas’ Empanada de Jamaica, a fried corn masa empanada served with escabeche (pickled serrano, cauliflower, and carrot) and salsa verde. Other tasty options include Papa a la Mexicana Empanadas, Tamales de Hongos, and Tamales de Tomatillo.
Navarro says that one motivation for starting a business was to showcase vegan substitutes for meat and dairy products in favorite dishes from other cultures outside of the mainstream American market. “When I would go to vegan events, I felt very isolated. It was hard to find any food that felt familiar, and I didn’t see many people I could identify with. I think it can be a deterrent for people to not see anyone who looks like them [in these spaces].”
Another driving force was to create a healthy, safe, and enjoyable work environment for people of color, LGBTQ folks, and people with differing abilities. One day, Navarro hopes to start an all-inclusive cooking co-op that provides access to an affordable kitchen space and other tools to help grow a business. “Kitchen culture can be racist, misogynistic, homophobic, transphobic, and ableist. I want to create spaces where people don’t have to deal with any type of harassment. Work should be a place where we’re all able to celebrate each other.”
Despite all of the adversities that Navarro has faced, Somos Semillas has continued to thrive. The name of the business, which derives from a Spanish proverb, is a reminder of those challenges: Quisieron enterrarnos, pero les olvido que somos semillas. (They tried to bury us, but they forgot we were seeds.)
“This saying has always resonated with me,” Navarro says. “My personal journey has come with so many challenges, but I’ve always been able to stay resilient through community support. Being nurtured, held, and supported has helped me not only grow my business, but also my own sense of self.”
For more information on Somos Semillas, visit facebook.com/somos.semillas.htx. To purchase a holiday order of tamales, visit tinyurl.com/y3hp3sgs (Henderson & Kane), tinyurl.com/y2pdrpsx (VegSide MKT), and tinyurl.com/y3u3x9nk (Sauce Co. Shoppette).
This article appears in the December 2020 edition of OutSmart magazine.