Expendio de Maiz, FABRICA, and the Power of the Abrazo

Celebrating Afro Mexican Foodways from La Costa Chica at Art Week

The mission creep of corporate activations over the past decade or so has percolated through contemporary art fairs, rendering the capitalist underpinnings of these ostensibly creative gatherings all the more palpable (see the Deutsche Bank Wealth Management Lounge at the most recent LA Frieze). Logo laden invites have shifted the focus away from presenting artists (increasingly billed instead as “collaborators”) showing new work to selling products (“collaborations”). Against this backdrop, the ambiguity of a three slide Instagram post promoting “La Cena con Expendio de Maiz” was all the more intriguing. The first panel featured two views of an ancient sculpture of Centeotl, the Aztec god of maize, as if from an anthropological catalog. In the second panel, a black and white photograph depicted a woman from behind tending to a large stock pot over an outdoor burner, in the shade of tree cover. The third slide offered only straightforward text: “Experiencia culinaria Afro-Mexicana y Cumbia en vivo,” alongside the date, time, and location.

The evening that unfolded at the unassuming walkup in Colonia 8 de Agosto was unlike anything else I experienced at Mexico City’s 2024 Art Week, and undoubtedly one of the best parties I’ve ever been to. FABRICA founder Darryl Richardson joined forces with Jesús Tornes and Brittney Anda of Expendio de Maíz Sin Nombre to bring a bit of the Costa Chica to Mexico City. A photographer and filmmaker by trade, Richardson had long been fascinated by the Afromexican communities that reside along the coast of Oaxaca and Guerrero. A casual conversation with Anda about his work laid the groundwork for an immersive culinary experience: The three worked together to bring a cohort of convivial relatives under the auspices of their tía, Librada Cortez Felipe, along with a truckload of freshly caught seafood, locally grown produce, regional pantry staples, and three live bands back to Mexico City for a super impractical but extremely impactful night of Afromexican festivities.

I caught up with the team to get the lowdown on how this most complicated event came to life.

Jake Stavis: Darryl, how would you describe FABRICA to someone?

Darryl Richardson: I guess the best way to sum it up is a multi-disciplinary cultural space, with art at the forefront. And not just in the traditional sense; we also look at artists as someone like Jesus – what he and Bri are doing at Expendio – inviting artists and other culinary minds, thinking beyond this white cube sense of art.

JS: I'm curious about the name FABRICA. I feel like there's some resonance with your project. How would you define Expendio?

Brittney Anda: Expendio's kind of like “specialty,” but for a place. For us, we specialize in corn.

DR: “Fabrica” has a few reasons behind it. The space was a trophy factory way back in the day, but also I was kind of taking a page out of Andy Warhol’s notebook. We make art, we function like a studio, but we also make experiences.

JS: Both of your spaces share this interest in specialty production - in the case of Expendio, working with corn, showcasing the heritage and traditions surrounding corn, and then at FABRICA, a whole range of art making traditions. Darryl I'm curious what first drew you to the Costa Chica.

DR: Even before I met Jesus and Brittney, I was visiting Costa Chica and the coast of Oaxaca because that's where the biggest population of Afro descendants reside. I started going down there for my own personal photographic and filmmaking reasons, and then the universe led me to Jesús and Brittney.

JS: How did you actually meet?

DR: I had just been a fan and a client of Expendio for a while before I knew them personally. One day I went for breakfast and a friend introduced me to Bri. I was telling her about what I do, and the projects I’d been working on in Oaxaca since I moved to Mexico and she mentioned that her family has African roots, so the synergy was right there.

JS: I've read a bunch of reviews and write ups describing Expendio as bringing a rural kitchen from Guerrero into Mexico City. How would you guys describe your restaurant?

BA: I think Expendio is a place where you kind of surrender the original thoughts of what a restaurant is. There's no menu. There's communal seating. There's only four tables and an open kitchen. You're supposed to just tell us any dietary restrictions or allergies and then just trust the process of us feeding you. The logistics are difficult. Jesús is constantly looking for producers to buy directly from them, not just for the cost but for flavor. He’s traveled a lot of Mexico by bicycle, seeing different towns, meeting their producers, going to parties. He's mastered a lot, but he's really also a student, and he's constantly learning.

Jesús Tornes: I always like to go against the system. I don't like to do things so much like a typical restaurant. At the same time I understand the economics, and what a menu needs in order to make money. Since I started throwing parties, I’ve tried to attract the kind of people who want to eat and have this experience where you are able to feel… the sense of someone saying I love you or I miss you without saying it. That's something that I felt was happening in many of the places I visited. It’s often something that happens in more rural places. I don't like the energy of [traditional] restaurants. I like to be in places where the people share with me and they’re not waiting for nothing from me.

I am making so much food from my home - Afro Mexican food - but I'm not Expendio. It’s all the people who are part of the production, the people with washing dishes, the people serving, the people cooking. And a lot of times we are just a huge syncretism of a lot of things with feelings and interpretations from every person who works here.

When I'm making a party like the one we made in Fabrica, the principal goal is making something real. I’m the type of person who doesn't want to just make the recipes from my home. I want to break the system. We must go to the coast. We need to do this with Tía Librada, we need to go fishing with my family, we need to bring local ingredients, local produce from my home. It’s about traceability - for me, that’s the best way to share feelings. There’s an energy that makes it so amazing and easy to cook. That’s what we tried to do and I feel like we did it.

JS: You brought your aunt - Tía Librada - to come and kind of lead the show at FABRICA. Has she ever done something like this?

JT: We have something in our family we call “the arm” - abrazo - it’s when you need the support of your family, you can call them and they must be there. You can count on them. So I called my mom and was like “I need the arm from Tía Librada.” When she called her, to be honest, she was so drunk - that’s rural life, but she was having fun. So the next day she just called her and said “cousin, my son needs your help” and she basically said, “fuck yeah., I want to make it happen. Whatever we need, if we need to kill someone, let's do it.” That’s the abrazo, it’s your people. I have more than 600 family members in the area surrounding Costa Chica. I have so many amazing memories… It's not something you can really buy, it’s all about the people. I brought everyone up to Mexico not for the purpose of making money - I spent more than three days with everyone, bringing them to the basilica, treating them like princesses, because I knew they would make the best that they are able to do for us and more. I brought them in an uncomfortable truck - it was like four older ladies behind me on this long trip, and I’m a fat person. But at the end of the day my responsibility is to give my family the same love they give to me I’m here.

I don’t feel like we bring traditions - I feel like we bring the real Costa Chica to Mexico City. And that’s fucking hard because we bring everything. We bring the produce, we bring the salt, we bring the ladies in my family. I still have some sand in my bags. No one can say, like, “that’s not real, that’s not what the people there eat.” We brought the actual people who live right on the beach and who fish. It’s not about making money, it was about making community. I feel proud of who I am, and my roots, my grandma. I love to share my life through food. Seeing the expression of my aunts, how much they enjoyed it - she calls me Angelito (my mom is called Angeles and I’m junior). So all the time she was saying Angelito, if you need me next week I’m gonna come, because I admire what you are making. When we first arrived they didn’t really know what we were getting into, but Darryl and I were really straight with them, saying this is going to an an Afro event, made by Afro people, for people who understand the importance of our community - that we exist, that we are alive, that we matter. A lot of restaurants want to try to create this kind of experience, but this is something we couldn’t have done without these people. The reason for this event wasn’t Expendio, it wasn’t FABRICA - the protagonist was them. The importance of Afro Mexican people - their lives, and showing people they exist. I don't know if I'm talking right?

JS: It echoes the philosophy of Expendio. It's about so much more than selling a dish, rather it's about experiencing something meaningful and doing it in a way that feels not exploitative, but instead, carries on a legacy, carries on knowledge. I'm curious from a production standpoint, it feels like you circumvented a lot of norms. It was a very labor intensive event, and something that you really wanted to be memorable.

JT: It was epic, especially given how little time we had once we decided to make it public. It was a learning experience for us, but it was something really enjoyable and something that we would remember for the rest of our lives.

BA: When I met Darryl about two years ago, he told me about his space and how I should visit, and how he's going to have this whole kitchen. We have private events for people all the time, and I'm used to like a bunch of art galleries being the same - very pretentious - but FABRICA is different. It's in the middle of housing. It’s amazing. So a couple years ago when we first walked through the space, I imagined a space with candles on the floor, barro, people eating communally. And we said let's make it happen. I pitched it to so many clients but no one bit. Someone expressed interest like a few weeks before the actual event and suggested we do this during art week. Two weeks before the event they bail out, saying it’s too much pressure, and I’m thinking whatever, it's fine. I understand that pressure from what we do, but then Darryl suggested we open up to the public. We'd never done that before, which made us nervous, but Darryl convinced us that we could make it happen. So basically a week and a half ahead of the event, we said okay, let's make this the least complicated we need to and we ended up making it the most complicated. We basically decided to divide and conquer - I took care of the restaurant, the logistics side of the event and pre-planning, Jesús went with Darryl to the Costa Chica, went fishing, filmed, and picked up the tias. They also visited Ayutla - our hometown where our grandmother's house still is - and then came back to basically cook for 48 hours, all the while making sure we had a beautiful space setup for the event with flowers, candles. And we also had to go to the weekly market on Tuesday for dinner on Wednesday, taking all the tias. Like we basically made it as complicated as possible, but I also think that’s so us.

DR: There's no really other way to do it. There’s no way to cut corners with an idea like this - you just kind of have to throw yourself into it and trust the process. I think it speaks to our space and a similar approach to Expendio, which is like, screw the system. I'm not trying to be a gallery - I’m using the space to function like one, but also looking beyond and bigger than just the status quo, being able to say like, “hey Britt, you have this idea for a low seating, 50 person dinner in the space, let’s do it. You have my trust 100%.” When you’re looking beyond the gallery mode, it’s bigger than selling art. There’s so much synergy between us.

BA: It’s really nice when somebody does that for us – letting us do whatever we want – because we know what we’re good at. Jesús is really good at throwing parties! We had three live bands at the end. We had a lot of offers that week, and a lot of big clients wanted us for art week, but we all said no to them because we were dedicating the week to Fabrica. We chose it above making money because it was meant to be an experience.

DR: For me it's so important to do these types of experiences and events during Art Week. I don't want to bore anyone with another show, another press release, another pseudo theory of something you're looking at. How can I make you feel something? How can we collectively do that? Treating our space as this kind of hideout or sanctuary, a place of refuge in a way, especially during a highly pretentious week. This was a mixed group of 50 random strangers. We fed them amazing food, gave music, there was no ego.

JS: I saw the flier and it was a little bit vague, but it looked cool and then I showed up and it was miles beyond what I could have imagined. These art week events can be so superficial and sponsor-loaded and boring but this had so much heart behind it.

DR: It's realness.

JS: And to Jesus’ point it wasn't about any one person - sure, Tía Librada was out leading the charge getting everyone fucked up. I loved how she had that server following behind her with the four bottles.

BA: All of the tías divided and conquered to make sure everybody had a good time. They don't come from any professional kitchen background or professional event background, they come from feeding their families.

DR: But they are professionals in the trust sense.

JS: They're aunties.

DR: When I first met them last spring, Tía Librada was cooking for hundreds of people at her sister's wedding. There’s an element within them - she’s a true hostess.

JS: You gave a little spiel for most of the dishes, but maybe we can just run through it to give folks a sense of what you served. I know we started with pineapple.

JT: Yeah, we gave everyone a small piece of pineapple from the mountains. When I saw that farmer in Ayutla I was so excited because that's a person that I really admire. We had pineapple along with fresh coconuts. But the first prepared dish we served was the picadita with shrimp and beans. We made it with salsa de molcajete, with tomate pajarito, chile criollo, and garlic. It was just that, so simple - heirloom tomatoes, beautiful Afro-Mexican chiles, and garlic from Chilapa. The beans we brought from Ayutla, and they were just cooked with salt. The shrimp are cooked a la diabla.

BA: It’s overcooked, but on purpose. With crab too, from the mangroves. And then we had the taco de pescadito chiquito.

JT: That was the one I most wanted to make - fried fish with mojo de ajo. We also made fish a la talla, finished with a little mayonnaise that we made here and some chile served in a taco.

JS: There was something that was folded.

JT: That was a pescadilla - it’s another recipe from the family. You use masa to make something like an empanada filled with fish that we brought back.

JS: What about the liquor that the tias were serving?

JT: My mother and my aunt Jenny, they made all of these - we call them curados.

JS: I wanted to talk a little bit more about sort of the room and how you sort of laid it out and the vision there. But how did you come to this vision?

BA: That’s the way we kind of grew up eating. There were no forks, no knives, everything was meant to be eaten with your hands and it’s messy. Sometimes we didn’t use napkins - you’re meant to suck your fingers. It’s about connecting with the food, connecting with the earth, and connecting with the people around you. In the middle, we had a lot of the barro (pottery) made by another aunt, alongside fresh coconuts, pineapples, and the ingredients used in the meal - the corn, the salt, the beans. Everything was laid out to show what you were about to consume, but it was also styled like an ofrenda - an offering.

JS: And you had projections in the front room.

DR: Yeah, that's a collection of visuals that I've been compiling since 2019 from several trips to Costa Chica. So most of what you saw was traditional Afro Mexican just kind of cultural norms of the coast - practices like the dance of the devils, the vaqueros, it’s very Afro influenced.

JS: And what about the bands?

JT: Their roots are in the coast, but the bands are similar to Expendio, but in terms of music, bringing that to Mexico City. We brought one band to play Chilefrito and two bands to perform Cumbia. It was amazing.

JS: How did you fill the room with such little lead time? I met so many people that night and everyone was like, “I had no idea what I was coming to and this is the best.” In a strange way it felt very IYKYK.

DR: It's kind of how we approach most of these events with the space – the right people will find it. I don't want to overly advertise and promote - we kept it kinda vague, because how do you show the true essence of what we're about to deliver in an Instagram post or a flier? I'm a firm believer of just like, if we kind of put it out like the right people will show up, especially given the strength of Expendio.

BA: I think in the beginning, we were nervous if we could sell out since we were working with our own budget. We were like, who can we invite - who already knows how we work, who won’t ask a lot of questions and will just be down to have an experience (because I can't even answer half of the questions – I didn’t even know what the menu was going to be basically until the experience, I just knew it was fish based). But those things are so us and a lot of our clients. We knew a lot of friends were coming for the week - one even flew in for the day and flew out. Because they just know. I think that's a lot of the point of coming to Expendio – not asking a lot of questions and just trusting the process.

Presented by Fábrica and Expendio de Maiz

Production by Darryl Richardson, Jesus Tornés, Brittney Anda

Head chef: Librada Cortez Felipe

Cinematography: Nico Wachter

Photography: Darryl Richardson