From poetic street art to veganism, Johanna Toruño and Amy Quichiz are leading a new form of activism in New York City aimed at empowering women of color, “by any means necessary” as Ms. Toruño says.
Without the spotlight of traditional media attention, the two women, who identify as queer, have gained a national following. Thanks to social media and word of mouth, they have become forces to be reckoned with.
Characterized by her overalls with a “Hood Feminist” enamel pin, Ms. Toruño, 28, is a visual artist and founder of the “Unapologetically Brown Series,” a collection of posters that she installs in neighborhoods throughout New York City.
Through a people-of-color-only collective known as Veggie Mijas, Ms. Quichiz, 23, leads a movement to recreate what she believes are the traditional ties between communities of color and a vegan or vegetarian diet.
The two Latinas, who are partners, say they are channeling their life experiences to reclaim a place for more women like themselves.
“I want to create content that is honest in telling a story for us, by us, in our gaze,” said Ms. Toruño, a native of El Salvador. “For too long, other people have been telling our stories. There’s a white gaze in front of who we are. It’s an unhealthy depiction.”
Adorned with colorful flowers and images of powerful black and brown women, her posters are intended as an ode to women of color when they encounter them in the streets.
One poster, which she installed recently on the Lower East Side, has a poem that reads: “My melanin, a love letter from my ancestors reminding me I am the heiress to the greatest gift I could ever receive: the crown of the sun reigning on my skin.”
Ms. Toruño takes her art to the streets because she says it is the most accessible and public platform there is. “If gallery institutions are not going to give me the space, that’s fine, I’ll make the streets into my own gallery,” she said.
With more than 50,000 followers on social media, she still blushes every time a fan shows appreciation for her work in person. As she was installing a 12-by-18 poster on an Essex Street building recently, a white teenager in a passing car lowered her window and shouted, “I love you! I follow you on Instagram.”
Covered in tattoos and wearing her signature golden hoop earrings, Ms. Toruño smiled and thanked the young lady.
Moments later, a white man asked Ms. Toruño if she had permission to put the poster on the building. “No,” she said. “I don’t want that here,” he replied.
She took a few more steps and found another spot for her poster. Mission accomplished.
Ms. Toruño, who is vegetarian, said her early life was on a much different path.
“I was incarcerated as a teenager,” she said. “It just didn’t set me up to do well. “When you have your freedom taken away from you in that way, you lose a lot of your identity.”
But she feels her past has led her to produce some of the most honest work for other people.
“I’m a queer woman of color, creating my own lane in this world,” Ms. Toruño said. “My identities give me my perspective. People can connect with that and that’s beautiful, when you can make something people can connect with.”
Her vegan partner, Ms. Quichiz, is a health educator who wants women of color to revolutionize their dining tables by going back to their ancestors’ roots of a plant-based diet.
“Being vegan, for me, is a form of activism, especially when we concentrate on folks of color,” Ms. Quichiz said, while eating rice, beans and maduros at Los Arrieros, a Colombian nonvegan restaurant in Jackson Heights, Queens, her barrio.
Ms. Quichiz, the daughter of a Colombian mother and Peruvian father, started Veggie Mijas as a simple blog when she was a sophomore at Syracuse University, alongside Mariah Bermeo, a friend and sorority sister. Their purpose was to show students how to cook vegan food, fast, and on a budget, an to challenge the idea that being vegan is too complicated.
But it turned into something much bigger: an online platform where vegetarian and vegan women of color across the country can share recipes, meet and organize potlucks.
“Veggie Mijas is important because there needed to be a space for folks of color to get together and talk about something that wasn’t introduced to our families in the first place, that we don’t have much information on, or it’s not accessible to us because we don’t have restaurants around us,” Ms. Quichiz said as she cut an avocado in half.
Ms. Toruño and Ms. Quichiz met last year at New York City’s Pride Parade and started dating in October.
“I’m mad inspired by her,” Ms. Toruño said. “She has created a community where people come and share meals and I think that’s really sacred.”
Giggling, Ms. Quichiz said she also found inspiration in her partner.
Wearing the colorful statement earrings Ms. Toruño gave her, Ms. Quichiz says, “I was inspired to turn Veggie Mijas into a women of color collective after seeing how she has used social media in order to bring so many people together.”
Though they both use different mediums, they share a common goal: empowering women of color by providing a space for them to feel valued and heard.
“The people that you surround yourself with and the relationships you make have a huge influence in your livelihood,” Ms. Toruño said. “We feed off of each other’s energies and ultimately, that’s the energy we’re bringing to the streets.”