First generation American finds strength through online bake shop, queerness

by Sophia Lee

Growing up in Clarksville, Tenn., Lease Carmona was the youngest of three children, all born to an Afrolatin family. With their mother being Dominican and their father being Puerto Rican, Carmona had to develop a strong sense of self even if it wasn’t who they were meant to be — it was who they had to be while living in a small, Southern community.

This resiliency brought them to their current role as the owner of a quaint, online bakery in Louisville. Knead Some Love (KSL) is a Dominican, queer owned vegan and soy-free bakery for people looking for cozy and warm treats delivered right to their door. The bakery started in 2018 and has only taken off since then. Carmona has many hopes and dreams for KSL’s future but when I met up with them and their daughter (who will be referred to as “tiny viking”), we delved into the rather complicated history of this small town baker’s humble beginnings.

Carmona was raised by a mother dedicated to education and a military father. Their mother immigrated to New York from the Dominican Republic sometime between the age of 11 and 13. In moving to the states, her goal was educating herself and her children. Carmona’s mother started by ensuring that all of her children were fluent in English.

Not being able to speak Spanish left Lease feeling as though their mother had lost touch with their heritage. She felt she had to hide part of herself and her children in order to “make it” or “come up” on her own in the US. During their childhood, Carmona said she became used to not seeing their father very often as he was deployed often for long periods of time. While he was away, their mother spent her time raising three children and pursuing a PhD in psychology.

“Although we never learned to speak Spanish, I figured out how to connect more deeply to my Dominican side through something I know best — baking,” Carmona said.

They added that their mom is more of a cook than a baker. The family would always get boxed baked goods from the store and Carmona would reinvent them for dessert. They eventually fell into baking completely from doing this so often.

They soon learned that their grandmother baked all the time as well. They have used their passion for baking to connect to their grandmother, despite having lost her when they were very young as well as a language barrier.

Carmona said they chose to attend Sullivan University for their bakery and pastry arts program but soon realized that classroom learning just wasn’t for them. Between high costs and high expectations, Carmona made the decision to leave schooling behind. Though they didn’t obtain a degree while studying, they did develop a relationship fueled by hegemonic manipulation. For a long period in Carmona’s life, they were unable to go out with friends, do things they were passionate about, or even have a personality. Things only picked up when the two decided to marry. 

“We were married, but we weren’t ever really ‘together,'” Carmona said.

Being raised in a small town, they realized that marriage, college, and kids felt like checkboxes on a long and tedious list of life. They never knew they had other options until this point in their life. Although the relationship was unstable and toxic, they were able to find their way out of it with a little extra something that they didn’t have before — their now 4-year-old daughter, tiny viking. Although she came at a weird point in their life, they wouldn’t change the outcome for anything in the world.

Since then, several parts of life have changed for Carmona. The end of the relationship allowed them to become a lot more in touch with themselves, discovering things that they had never even realized possible before. This demise marked the beginning of their queer journey to finding out who they really are and who they want to be.

Carmona said they identify as “non-binary” for others but they don’t necessarily fully identify or feel as so. They just are who they are, and that’s the tea. Literally, they started taking low dose T last year to help them get more in touch with their inner femininity. Sound strange to you? Well, it makes perfect sense to me. Originally, they thought that maybe they were a trans man but grappled with it so much that it felt forced. They just knew that they weren’t a woman and felt like the only other option was to be a man but they shortly realized that was not fitting either. Through all of this, they have discovered the divine femininity that they love but also that masculine energy as well. And they are incredibly happy to have found that balance finally — loving their tiny mustache and lower voice. 

Though they are thrilled about where they are with their queerness, they’re still grieving the fact that they didn’t get to grow up with a sense of who they were. Growing up, Carmona was a very hyper-femme person. They loved the way they looked but didn’t feel like that was exactly who they were. Last year is when they realized it was more of a performance than a feeling. And we all know gender performativity can be a gift as well as a curse. Before finding themselves, makeup and clothing felt like a chore or something they were supposed to do. Since then, they have started using makeup and other accessories to feel more like their real self. 

“I knew it [the gay] was always there but I didn’t have the language to describe it or identify it,” they said,

While going through this self-discovery, baking and patisserie kind of got lost, unfortunately, but they returned to baking after having their daughter in 2018. Tiny viking was born with dairy and soy allergies, which inspired the idea for KSL. They used their old textbooks from school to reinvent regular things into vegan treats. It’s not about making money for them. It’s more about sharing a part of themselves with their community.

They want people with these types of restrictions (soy, vegan, dairy, etc.) to be able to experience the simple delicacies in life like a muffin, cookie, or brownie. Sweet and savory breads have been the go-tos for the time being but Lease seeks to keep KSL a bakery with a very laid back, cafe feeling, serving primarily small treats like cookies, breads, and small cakes. Some of their favorite things that they have made are pumpkin cookies because they love the warm and cozy feeling pumpkin gives you. I mean that’s why we all love fall so much, right? 

It took a lot for Carmona to figure out the legal parts of the business but they found some guidance from people around them luckily. They even found a queer accountant to help them with the tax aspects of it all. Eventually, they were able to figure out all of the licensing stuff pretty much on their own. However, as cute and delicious as the treats were, KSL circa 2018, slowly became a failed attempt. At that point, they were doing more freelance baking than anything. They said that it felt more like a chore than something they loved. They had many moments where they had to stop, reset, and take a break. 

Though it had previously made them slightly miserable, Carmona decided to give it another try in 2021. It was very important for them to show their daughter that you can do things that you love and want to do while also being a parent. So, they started to take baking seriously last year so as to not let their wonderful personality fade into parental oblivion. This is also when they started doing pop-ups and collaborations more but there have been many times where they have just had to say no. They stand strong in the idea of never putting business above family but this has caused some problems along the way. They said that people don’t take them seriously often because of this value. 

One of the daily affirmations they tell themselves is “I am allowed” and it has helped them become much more comfortable with saying “no” or “I can’t” to people. It has allowed them to exist how they want to exist and do things that might make others feel uncomfortable or upset. That mantra applied to the bakery and their queerness. Having two older sisters, Lease has had some difficulties with their family since their queer journey began. Though seemingly accepted, there has been a lot of confusion and pressure in every way. When asking them if there was a “coming out” for them, they replied very directly. “No.” Carmona said they feel no need to “come out” because their journey has been about them and for them. It wasn’t a “coming out” for them, it was them coming in-to themselves. It’s not something they feel the need to explain or present to everyone because they feel complete and satisfied just the way that they are. Although it is absolutely no one’s business but theirs, this has caused some distance for them and their family, unfortunately, but the love is still there both ways.

They also discovered another piece of themself that had been suppressed for far too long. Last year, at the age of 25, Lease was finally diagnosed as neurodivergent. When finding out, they stated that it was, again, something that they always knew was there but had yet to allow themselves to come into. They got so good at masking it because growing up they felt as though they weren’t allowed to be neurodivergent openly. They have had to create a version of themselves that is “trained” or tweaked to make others feel comfortable. This new addition to Lease’s identity does impact their life on a daily basis but they don’t allow it to overtake their life. 

Although they have always been more of a shy, reserved person, they absolutely love being around people. But when it gets to be too much, they have learned to allow themselves to set boundaries and give themselves accommodations. It may make some people upset but I think it’s a technique that will allow KSL to go very far. Having finally come into who they truly are, Carmona feels that they are good representation for Hispanic, queer people here in Louisville. Especially since there is a severe lack of Dominican and Latinx voices being raised up within the queer community, and there is little to no representation being displayed as well. They also stand strong as representation for survivors of abusive relationships. 

“Not being in fight or flight all the time makes life very, very different.”

They said as they elaborated on the topic. Carmona has become an incredibly strong person through it all but it’s important to remember that they’re strong, not because they chose to be, but because they have always had to be that way.

After starting up again last year, things have been slow moving for the bakery. Covid has made things complicated for the small bakery, yet again, causing KSL to remain at-home for the time being. They do plan to continue to stay in Louisville and grow the business slowly. The ultimate goal being to remain at-home for about 2 to 5 years to save for a brick and mortar. Despite the process is incredibly discriminatory, they have faith. The bakery has remained small for a while but has been catching the attention of many as of lately. This came as a shock to Carmona. They said they often still feel like it isn’t real but they’re slowly seeing how far they’ve come to finally exist outside of their bubble 

On top of being a business owner, a parent, and a bad ass survivor, they also have been sober for over 3 years and has big hopes for KSL’s physical entity to be a sober safe space for queer people looking to commune over tea and treats. Though the idea is definitely necessary, we also discussed the difficulties of developing a queer social group while sober living. For the most part, it has just been them and their daughter but not for a lack of trying. Even though they work several odd jobs, have a child, and experience the occasional burnout, they still crave personal social interaction almost all the time. Whether it be after dropping tiny viking off at school or while dancing in their kitchen at 2 a.m. while baking alongside their kitchen witch, they are desperately seeking community. 

Currently, they are not just doing KSL, but also working part-time at Glow Worm Play Cafe. They found community through online groups, one of which was created by the owner of Glow Worm. also side-hustle insurance billing from home and teach preschool music. How does one find so much time? They say they love the flexibility that the “hussle life/side gigs” have provided. It means they can say yes/no to anything they want. They also stated that they may be working with some local coffee shops to provide baked goods for them at some point in the near future so be on the lookout!

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