By Natalya Suttmiller
“Food is our common denominator and serves as a profound vehicle to inspire curiosity about another culture.
We can learn so much about each other through the foods we eat if we do so mindfully.”
The words above come from Vibha Gupta, an emergency room physician, mother, and founder of the nonprofit No Immigrants No Spice (NINS), a platform that presents the narratives of immigrants by sharing their lived experiences and contributions through the common language of food.
During the early days of the Trump presidency, Dr. Gupta was taken aback by the xenophobic rhetoric and policies targeting immigrants. Working in the emergency department, she saw how fear of deportation led undocumented patients to delay seeking medical treatment. The downstream effect was devastating, she recalls. “Folks with heart attacks, strokes, and diabetes presenting so late that they were left with permanent disabilities or even death.” Gupta herself is a first-generation Indian-American, and thus the atmosphere of hatred felt personal. “What is left out is how much immigrants contribute, bringing their foods, entrepreneurship, work ethic, and ingenuity to create our social fabric.”
NINS was born out of what Gupta calls “an act of sublimation,” whereby she channels her outrage into positive action. In 2019, she started selling shirts that said “No Immigrants No Spice” after laughing at that very punchline from a Trevor Noah comedy skit that poked fun at how bland American food would be without immigrant contributions.
As T-shirt sales grew, Gupta created a nonprofit that showcases stories connecting food, spice, and immigration using videos, social media campaigns, and vibrant cultural events full of food, dancing, and storytelling. Launched pre-pandemic, BBQ Without Borders was an event that brought together immigrant chefs who shared with audiences their own takes on barbecue along with stories of their lived experiences. During the pandemic, NINS created the Covid-19 Community Relief Fund, which provided rent support to undocumented restaurant workers. More recently, NINS collaborated with Good Good Eatz on an Oakland Fruitvale district walking tour showcasing immigrant-owned legacy restaurants. They’re also collaborating on a video they expect to title “Mango Stories,” and are planning to launch a campaign to promote mangos on June 1.
“Whether it’s social media, merchandise, or live events, we always ground everything in our mission: to flip the narrative and uplift the voices of immigrants,” says Gupta.
NINS also raises funds and donates to organizations that provide direct services to immigrants around the United States and the Bay Area, such as the National Immigrant Justice Center, Pangea Legal Services, Al Otro Lado, CALMA, RAICES, Postpartum Justice, East Bay Sanctuary Covenant, Immigrant Families Together, and others.
“While the narrative has been shifting, there’s still work to be done,” Gupta says. “I hope NINS can help push the dial towards something more honest and humane.”
Natalya Suttmiller is a storyteller, photographer, and adventurer who uses holistic methods that thread connections between people, places, and food.