The following is a guest post by Professor Sarah Fouts, American Studies, University of Maryland, Baltimore County, sharing the online premiere of El Camino del Mole a New Orleans, which you can watch below. This is the second film in the AFC’s Homegrown Foodways Film Series: Baltimore and New Orleans, a collaboration with Dr. Fouts, Andy Dahl of Nutria Productions, and documentarian Fernando López. You can watch the first film, El Camino del Pan a Baltimore, here, and on the Library’s YouTube channel, where both films are now available. Click on the below video to watch El Camino del Mole a New Orleans!
El Camino del Mole a New Orleans traces the story of Ivan Castillo from his kitchen where he produces (mostly) traditional Mexican foods to the stage where he performs in drag as Ivett Donnelly. I first met Ivan in 2011 when he worked as head chef at Norma’s, a Honduran restaurant in New Orleans. Ivan, originally from a small town in Veracruz, had to adjust his Mexican spices and learn Honduran dishes like baleadas and pollo con tajadas to appeal to the Honduran clientele.
By 2012, Ivan hosted drag shows in Mexican restaurants across New Orleans, organizing events like Miss Gay Latina. Curious about these performances and his adaptive cooking, I first interviewed Ivan later that year in his house. After the interview, Ivan showed off his collection of dresses he wore during his drag performances. Pointing to a red sequin gown he said, “That’s my Celia Cruz dress.”
By day, Ivan worked in multiple restaurants always with the dream of opening his own business. By night, he served as a pillar for the LGBTQ migrant community—putting on shows while helping his LGBTQ community with housing, healthcare, mental health, and immigration issues. He forged his own family through his LGBTQ community and he used his cooking to help fund these causes. These themes that celebrate the flamboyance, care, and food culture of Ivan, and of New Orleans, are at the heart of this film.
By 2017, Ivan’s dream of opening his own restaurant became a reality. With his partner (both business and romantic), Gilberto, Ivan opened a Mexican food stand, Antojitos Garibaldi, in a flea market where they hired members of their LGBTQ family to work. That same year, Fernando and I began documenting Ivan’s crew through an oral history project called “La Pulga.” Throughout this time, Ivan continued with his LGBTQ pageants and Fernando began photographing as he emceed as Ivan and performed as Ivett.
In 2022, when Fernando, Toya Ex Lewis, and I received funding through the Whiting Foundation to launch Project Neutral Grounds, we again turned to Ivan. He and Gilberto joined a cohort of eleven New-Orleans-based street food vendors to share and connect their stories. By that time Ivan and Gilberto had expanded their business, opening their own brick and mortar restaurant in Kenner, Louisiana.
As part of Project Neutral Grounds, we did a cooking demo with Ivan and Gilberto, during which we were particularly moved by Gilberto’s story about green maize plants. While Ivan prepared a pot of mole sauce, Gilberto told the story of cultivating the plant in his backyard and the importance of wrapping the tamal with the green corn husk to give it more airiness. The combo of Gilberto’s sweet tamal and roasted chicken provides a perfect accompaniment to Ivan’s spicy, rich mole. We were compelled by how their story blends these cultural traditions with their work with the LGBTQ community.
The AFC’s Homegrown Foodways Film Series provided the opportunity to further develop Ivan’s story. We brought Andy Dahl, of Nutria Productions, to New Orleans in March 2023 to do the film shoot, which was bolstered by Fernando’s B-roll from the cooking demo and from Ivan’s pageant later in April.
For the launch of El Camino del Pan y el Mole film series in Baltimore on November 9, 2023, we brought Ivan and Gilberto to Baltimore to connect with José Vargas (of the first film, El Camino del Pan a Baltimore), and his family for the screening. It was their first time on a plane, their first time peeping at the autumn leaves, and their first time seeing the films. “I prefer it to be a surprise,” Ivan said when I asked if he wanted to preview it beforehand. After the films, Ivett Donnelly performed as Paquita la del Barrio, a feminist ranchera musician also from Veracruz whose outspoken lyrics criticize machismo and traditional gender roles. The crowd roared.