Jose Luis Villaseñor: The Renaissance Man

Colin Michael Simmons

Colin Michael Simmons

City Pages' People Issue celebrates people making Minnesota a better place.

When Jose Luis Villaseñor founded his youth nonprofit almost 13 years ago, he kept hearing one refrain from well-meaning skeptics.

“People were like, ‘You do too much, Tamales y Bicicletas,’” he recalls, a smile winking behind his wiry beard.

To be fair, they may have had a point. The grassroots organization had lofty, complex, and seemingly disparate goals: empower youth, develop healthy Latino and immigrant communities, promote sustainable transportation, increase access to healthy foods, and improve the environment.

The “how” confused people just as much as the “what” and “why.” What did bikes have to do with organic produce? How did any of this have the slightest connection to immigration reform?

Villaseñor was undeterred. Growing up in Alaska, where his parents helped establish one of the first successful Mexican restaurants in the state, he heard a lot of criticism familiar to children of immigrants. Your Mexican culture isn’t important. Your food is weird. Speak English.

“I thought of things that I was inspired by: camping, being out in the wilderness in Alaska, and biking,” he says.

He was raised by his parents to care for and connect with the earth. “Not through any cool environmental thing, that’s just what you did.” He was also brought up with an awareness that personal empowerment, the natural environment, labor, food—it was all related.

Villaseñor says immigrants are overly burdened by environmental hazards. In south Minneapolis, where Tamales y Bicicletas is based, Latinos are more likely to live in areas where the lead and arsenic levels are higher, and the incomes lower. “Overburdened communities don’t have the luxury to focus on one thing,” he says. “We cannot sit in our silos and say, ‘We only work on immigration reform.’”

So Tamales y Bicicletas addresses food insecurity, pollution, sentiment toward immigrants of color. Their community garden lets them teach urban farming and lay the groundwork for sustainable local food. It’s about education as much as it is fun: Each year, kids take a trip to the Boundary Waters to canoe and sit under some stars.

In the tiny Tamales y Bicicletas bike shop at the corner of Lake Street and 15th Avenue, Villaseñor sets kids up with two-wheeled transportation. He leads group rides around the city, before returning to share a meal at the garden. He also helps them fix those bikes.

But shop hours aren’t just for adjusting handlebars. At this organization, nothing serves only one purpose. Sometimes, the shop is a place for kids to get their minds off of their struggles. Villaseñor refers to it as finding “the broken chain”—a conflict with a girlfriend, a disagreement with a parent—then asking, “What tools do we need to fix the problem?”

“Teaching a young person how to repair bikes is a way to identify a problem, and find tools to solve it,” he says. “I don’t know how many times I can count that that’s happened, working on a bike, or working at the garden.”

There’s a cultural empowerment component at Tamales y Bicicletas, too. Many of the youth who come through the program have been told they’re not important.

“We tell them, ‘Hey, you know what? You’re part of a nation of people that turned a weed into one of the world’s most important crops,’” Villaseñor says. He gestures toward a sign bearing the Tamales y Bicicleta logo: a bicycle wrench and an ear of corn, intersecting like community-fortifying crossbones. “You’re part of that history. You are important.” 

Click here to read other profiles from this year's City Pages People Issue.