When the Trump presidency emboldened xenophobia, racism, and hateful public discourse about immigration, Oakland emergency room doctor Vibha Gupta decided it was time to do something about it. So, she founded a nonprofit called No Immigrants No Spice, with a mission to flip negative narratives about immigration and highlight the exceptional contributions that immigrants make to the American economy and culture.
Dr. Gupta says, "I started NINS to positively channel my frustration and create something that combines my passion for food, culture, and people. My hope is that this can be fun, transcendent, educational, and above all, helpful."
No Immigrants No Spice (NINS) also fundraises to support organizations working to improve the lives of immigrants, advance immigrant rights, and create humane immigration laws. Since its founding, NINS has raised funds to support Oakland's undocumented restaurant workers, BIPOC family farmers, vulnerable postpartum mothers, and LGBTQ immigrants.
NINS also hosts events and celebrates the diverse flavors and dishes that immigrants bring to our country. Vibha believes that food unites us all, and encourages people to come to the table, try new foods, have complex conversations, and stretch their minds.
Here is our interview with Vibha Gupta, M.D., founder and Executive Director of No Immigrants No Spice.
Where did you grow up, and how did your experience there inform your current day passions?
I grew up in an Indian family in a predominately white Michigan suburb called Okemos. Okemos sits alongside Michigan State University and is proud of its 'all-American' midwestern culture of rolling cow-dotted hills, prolific Taco Bells, and Big Ten frat parties.
However, it's also a place with small pockets of vibrant diversity found in communities of immigrants attracted by the University and a relatively affordable cost of living. In Okemos, South Asian grandmas in saris share public space with bros playing drinking games with red solo cups. This duality informed my character in so many ways and is part of the inspiration behind No Immigrants No Spice.
How has living in the East Bay changed you?
For me, moving to the East Bay felt like coming home. It's a community that's overflowing with creative people from all over the world. Here I am in a community with people from so many diverse cultures and walks of life. Hearing their stories and sharing their food has transformed me and distilled purpose into my work and personal life.
For people who don't already know, how would you describe NINS to them?
No Immigrants No Spice is a platform for community action. Our mission is to shed light on the positive impacts that immigration has on America’s society, economy, and collective culture.
We tackle a wide variety of issues related to immigration ranging from voter suppression to postpartum justice to celebrating #spicypride. Every campaign we run has an educational, advocacy, and fundraising component. All the money we raise via donations or merchandise sales goes directly to organizations advocating for and supporting immigrant communities.
What was your motivation for creating No Immigrants No Spice? Why the focus on food?
I founded No Immigrants No Spice two years into Trump's presidency out of profound anger and frustration. There were images of kids in cages on TV, and entire communities of Muslims were banned from traveling to the USA.
Trump stoked and emboldened a renewed wave of xenophobia in the USA and beyond. He intentionally assassinated the character of broad swaths of immigrant communities to win votes with fear and racism. Trump and his ilk undermined immigrants' immense contributions to American culture, reducing them to villain or victim stereotypes.
I decided to do what I could to flip the narrative and highlight the innovation, ingenuity, and hustle of immigrant communities. I chose to tell these stories through food because the communal enjoyment of a lovingly prepared meal is a universal human joy. We all seek comfort at the dinner table.
Eating together is a foundational element of community building. Complex and often difficult discussions are more easily digested when paired with food. For me, weaving together the sharing of a meal with transformational storytelling feels like the most natural way to address conflict and break barriers.
What successes are you the proudest of in founding No Immigrants No Spice?
I feel proud that this idea turned into something that so many people feel ownership of in their own unique ways. No Immigrants No Spice gives a voice and platform to people who deserve to be amplified.
I feel joy when I see people wearing No Immigrants No Spice swag because I think there's a positive butterfly effect in these words. Whenever I wear any of the gear I end up having an interesting conversation or sharing a story with a stranger, it's been remarkable.
I am very proud that our fundraising efforts provide a little extra support to folks with the potential to give back so much.
Who benefits from the work you do and how?
We've raised money for The National Immigrant Justice Center, Pangea Legal Services, CALMA, Mothers for Mothers, Postpartum Justice, and Community Alliance with Family Farmers. We've also provided some financial relief for Oakland restaurant workers during COVID.
Our social media campaigns impact people who see themselves positively reflected in our messages and content. We host events that enrich people's lives by providing a space to make friends, learn something new about another community, or eat something delicious that creates positive cultural associations.
How is the current xenophobic climate impacting the lives of immigrants, and how is your organization helping address these issues?
The currently xenophobic climate in America has impacted all of us in tangible and intangible ways. The worst thing it's done is create fear on all sides. This fear festered and manifested itself in unnecessary hardships in immigrant communities ranging from incurring further financial burdens to exacerbating healthcare disparities.
I treated a patient in an emergency room who endured severe chest pain for two weeks before he came to the hospital because he was afraid of being deported. He'd suffered a heart attack, and the delayed intervention resulted in irreversible damage. Because of fear, he’s now disabled for life.
No Immigrants No Spice is working to flip the narrative and counter the rampant falsities being reported in the media. We also fund direct service organizations that provide legal aid and lobby for humane immigration policy.
I hope we can help move the dial so that people can live freely and with less fear.
What immigrant stories do you think must be told that are not currently being told in the mainstream media?
So, so many stories aren’t being told. For instance, the folks who fix your smashed windshield for bottom-barrel prices with extreme professionalism at Le Auto Glass on International Boulevard. And, the women migrant workers at La Guerrera's kitchen whose endless hustle and rare abilities create beautiful food and spaces wherever they go.
There’s the incredible story of chef Oumar at The Damel, a Senagalese-born polyglot who brilliantly fuses his experiences living in South America and Africa into the food he dishes out at his food truck and brick and mortar restaurant.
There are so many folks here in Oakland and throughout the United States who demonstrate remarkable grit and hustle in the face of incredible adversity. This is what makes America great.
Where are your favorite places to eat in Oakland, and why?
I love going to Alem’s Coffee for breakfast. It's an Eritrean restaurant that serves up the most amazing Shahan Ful with a side of crusty French bread.
Shahan Ful is a popular African breakfast dish most common in Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Sudan. It's a stew of soft-cooked, crushed, and fragrantly spiced fava beans served with garnishes like green onions, tomatoes, hot peppers, yogurt, feta cheese, lemon juice, and olive oil.
I love that I can roll up this place any day at 9 am, eat a spicy, tangy, delicious warm stew paired with a strong cup of coffee, while sharing a space with Eritrean grandpas chatting in Tigrinya.
I think that Shawarmaji has the best takeaway shawarma in town. They serve up a lavash portion of thin-sliced lamb with SOOO much garlicky Toum (a Lebanese garlic sauce similar to aioli) alongside a constantly blasting killer soundtrack.
Huangcheng Noodle House in Swan’s Market serves up a potentially life-changing bowl of hand-cut noodles in a spicy broth. Then to really treat yourself- you should follow it up with a fruit sandwich on milk bread from the nearby Dela Curo/Sundo stand.
I love going to the Lake Merritt farmers’ market on Saturday mornings. While I chase my toddler I fuel up with Ethiopian coffee, down free samples of Afghan Bolani bread with savory toppings and always make a visit to Fabrice, a French immigrant who sells mind-blowing merguez sausages.
These places all serve delicious food in settings with a family get-together vibe. You'll meet customers, chefs, and business owners with fascinating stories that go so, so, so deep. What's not to love?
What do you think an America without immigrants would look like?
Shop the No Immigrants No Spice X Oaklandish collection for tees that celebrate Oakland's #spicypride. Proceeds from these tees will be donated to organizations working to advance immigrant rights and humane immigration laws.