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Menu from the Prison Gourmet by Karla Diaz

Orange Chicken made from recipe by Sergio Talavera in the book the Prison Gourmet by Karla Diaz.

photo taken at Slanguage Studio/LAXART, Photo courtesy of Monica A. Martinez, background artwork drawings by Daniel Gibson, 2015

The Prison Gourmet

March 1, 2016

by Karla Diaz


The word action indicates movement and performance. But to me, it also means silence and stillness. There is an erroneous belief that radical acts only involve protests and militant actions. Although I understand the necessity of these actions at times, I prefer what I call “quiet actions.”  By this, I don’t mean to suggest that I have suppressed my passion and conviction; I believe in political involvement and awareness. On the contrary, my actions are more focused, strategized, and intentional. As a young immigrant child, growing up in both Mexico and Los Angeles, I bore witness to many injustices — exile, violence, poverty, and the power of government/institutions to take away basic human rights such as shelter, food and water.


I have been thinking about the meaning of the word action not as a temporary act, but as a process. I have been thinking about action as education, and how it can involve the individual as much as a group of people. For example, getting a college education (I am the first in my family to do so) is a radical action. There are still many young women in the world who are denied education. Yet, I am very aware that my role as an artist is not going to change the world. Instead, I am passionate about discovery and how I can learn with and about others.


Acts happen with observation. I start a project by assessing and learning what that group or community has to offer: What skills or knowledge do they have that they can build upon/contribute? Some of these are are the most valuable assets — things that those in authority, those with homogenous thinking or singular visions, will often tell you are wrong. I don’t begin a project because I know everything about it, but instead, because I know very little or absolutely nothing. I am an artist because I want to educate myself.


I have also been thinking about action as forming alternative ways of exchange and of dialogue. Of course, as an artist, this means visually showing, interpreting, rendering, and transforming this knowledge. I want to share my personal narratives through others’ personal narratives. Action in its quiet moments means listening. It means asking questions, without speaking. Action means doing what you fear. Action is a beginning, not a conclusion. Action means maybe you are not making protest flyers, but allowing someone else to make her own.


The most mutable action has come to me after my mother’s terminal illness — she was diagnosed with dementia and Parkinsons. She has been battling the disease for ten years, losing (among other things) her ability to move, eat, or speak. At first, the most difficult part was understanding her silence. It frightened me because it paralyzed me and made me physically inactive. I wanted to do something to help her but there were many times that I could not do anything but cry and watch. It was then that I realized that, through my mother’s illness, I learned to be a better observer. I watched her breathing as she lay in bed for hours sleeping. I watched her as she moaned and grunted from the pain. I watched her as she opened her eyes. I watched her as she reacted to light, to medications, to sound, to music, to speech. I watched in multiple ways, seeing differently each time because no single day could be the same. And watching carefully could mean saving her life. As caregivers know, some days are good, some days are bad, and some days are okay. Some of my most cherished quiet actions now are the days when I get to see my mother open her eyes or smile. They are small, quiet actions but deeply moving and meaningful to me. Through my mother’s illness, I have learned to be a better observer.


I did not realize how useful what I have learned from my mother would be. In 2003, my brother went to prison. It shattered my life. My first impulse was to react: yell, cry, ask why, and judge him. But instead, I began to write to him and, in my replies, I learned to listen. This was one of the most difficult things I had to do. This form of penpal writing gave me an emotional distance while creating a vehicle to communicate. One day, I wrote him a letter mentioning my mother’s Mexican recipe for Mole and he wrote me back with a recipe he made out of the commissary food items. Commissary food items are selected in packages for inmates to eat/cook in their cells. The food is highly saturated with salt and sugar. Depending on the severity of their crime and the type of prison they are in, some inmates have limited access to kitchen and cooking tools. This means that prisoners have to be creative about what they use to cook the food — such as towels, t-shirts, and trash bags. Although I had tasted a prison recipe once before, it was the first time I had tried a recipe from commissary food items. So, wanting to buy healthier food for my brother in prison, in 2010, I performed Prison Gourmet (2010-present) at LACMA as a two-hour performance that recreated commissary prison recipes from California inmates.

In this context, “Prison Gourmet” broke down stereotypes, approaching the inmates as expert Chefs and asking them to be as detailed as possible in their intent and process. I also learned that these recipes are some of the only forms of collaboration among inmates. It revealed to me that even in what appears to be segregated institutional paradigms like prisons, there are always alternative modes of thinking. Once, I wrote to an inmate asking him if he thought the food tasted bad. He answered that for him, it wasn’t about taste, but that every time he made that recipe, he thought of his daughter. That correlation between taste and memory has taken me to the next step of this journey. I have begun to ask questions about the relationship between food, identity, culture, freedom, and memory. I have begun to ask questions about food politics and resources and about food in prison as a strategy for survival. Thanks to a recent grant from Art Matters, I will be working on developing this next step of the project.


I am incredibly honored to empower these inmates to be free to use their imagination and express their creativity with food. Without the incredible trust of the inmates, and support of the inmate’s families — the mothers, the wives, and the friends — this project could not be possible. The quiet acts I shared in my mother’s illness and my brother’s imprisonment have taught me greatly to build and facilitate this project. I do not judge, I am simply asking, observing, listening, and hoping to create dialogue. Its been a while since I raised my fist and yelled through the bullhorn — instead, I have written many letters to prisoners asking them to share their recipes. While this may not seem a radical action; to me, this quiet act has impacted my perspective. I know it has also impacted some of the inmates and their families — for that quiet act, I am grateful. 


Karla Diaz is an artist, writer, and activist. Born in Los Angeles and raised both in Mexico and L.A. her work often uses performance and writing to question institutional power, explore social practices and cultural relationships, create collaborations and provoke dialogue among diverse communities. She received her MFA from California Institute of the Arts and has exhibited her work in local, national and international venues including MOCA, LACMA, the Whitney, the ICA Boston, and the Serpentine Gallery in London. She is co-director and founding member of Slanguage Studio. Her ongoing project, Prison Gourmet (2010-present) is a multi-media project informed by prisoners’ recipes made from commissary food items. She recently received an Art Matters award to continue its development. 




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