Skip Nav

How Latinxs Can Reclaim Ancestral Foodways

5 Ways to Decolonize Your Diet and Embrace Latinx Ancestral Foodways

tmp_ZXzGnX_37d3ce04acd38445_pexels-givingtuesday-9826014.jpg
A lot of things have happened, historically speaking, to distort and traumatize Black and Brown people's relationship to food and food accessibility. Even the way that food is presented to us now, for instance, is based on our socioeconomic status, education status, where we are located, and more. Access to "good" or holistic food depends on the above factors.

There has long been an association between the foods Black and Brown people consume with poor nourishment and low-class eating. Common Latinx kitchen staples like rice and beans are dubbed a "poor man's diet." So-called African American cuisine, with roots in Africa and the Caribbean, gets a bad rep for high cholesterol and then some.

What is rarely talked about and missing from Western discourse is that Black and Latinx diets are rich in nutrients by nature and have long been used as indispensable tools for healing and medicinal practice. Southern American "soul food" as well as West Indian cuisine are packed with tons of legumes, a plethora of leafy greens, an abundance of root vegetables, and plenty of whole grains. In other words, when it comes to veganism, "we been here."

"The connection between race and class has made it so that white people, historically and generally speaking, have had more access to the "good" foods," says Gabriela Álvarez-Martinez, a student of food and plant medicine and the founder of Liberation Cuisine. "There was a moment in time when foods like rice and bread were all stripped of their whole grain material to make them white and in turn were considered a better product."

Not only has the gradual processing of our foods altered what we eat, but the whitening of it over the course of history has equally impacted how we associate with our foodways and who gets to benefit from it. "It's really funny because Latino people go to the doctor and are told that rice and beans aren't healthy, but today, a white vegan is commended for living off of rice and beans because of how cheap it is on the dollar," chimes Yadira Garcia of Happy Healthy Latina, a certified natural foods chef and educator of Dominican descent.

Image Source: Yadira Garcia

Contemporary veganism and the plant-based trend – overwhelmingly in connection to white people – punches down on communities who still consume meat, fish, and dairy. Not only is it often with no regard to what social variables might be at play, like food deserts and economic status, but it fails to offer historical nuance to more original or native diets. Popular discourse doubly misses at pointing out that people source sustenance depending on their region.

"Eating meat with every meal was introduced to Puerto Rico (where my people are from) relatively recently," says Álvarez-Martinez. "Pig, our most popular meat, is not native to the Caribbean. Cows are not native to the Caribbean, but we have a ton of coconuts that provide milk. There was a time where our diet was predominately vegan or pescatarian, we just didn't call it that. Our traditional diet is basically gluten-free, another diet associated with white people, with lots of root vegetables and rice, which was also later introduced."

Image Source: Claudia Pericon

While colonization and migration introduced foreign foods and products, what bears mentioning is Black and Brown peoples' historical relationship to water, land, and animals. "Our ancestors were not consuming meat the way we are now. Their relationship to the animals they ate is not the relationship many of us have today. They were raising their chickens and had a more intimate connection to land stewarding and husbandry," says Garcia, adding that what it all boils down to in this whole food business is "social justice, food equity, and understanding."

If there's one thing the pandemic taught us, it's that necessity is the mother of reinvention. With limited access to the outside, quarantine and the coronavirus forced many of us to rethink our relationship with food and how we might access and even prepare it. Conversations relevant to farming and natural vitamins and minerals continue to trickle down our daily timelines. And while no one develops a green thumb overnight, we know now that we have more access to the things we love than we might collectively understand. Here are five ways we can begin to shift our connection to our foodways and why the magic lies in how we prepare to feed ourselves. •••

Eliminate Shortcuts

Our pantries are no stranger to prepackaged foods and processed seasonings. One basic way to begin repairing our relationship with the foods we eat is to be hands-on with how we flavor what we put in our bodies. Garcia is a fervent disciple of preparing meals from scratch. A key part of scratch means crafting her sazónes using the ancestral pilón, for instance, and plants like garlic instead of the powder. "When you mash garlic in a pilón, you're actually opening up the allicin of it. That means you're making it anti-inflammatory and bioavailable. Did my 99-year-old great grandmother Ta-Ta know that? No. But that's what she was doing."

Each One, Teach One

The Black proverb "each one, teach one" meant that when one Black person learned how to read, it was that person's duty to teach their neighbor the same. While many of us come from large and tightly knit families, not all of us had access to perhaps some of our most important elders. Being born of the diaspora means being inherently displaced, and for that reason alone it becomes all the more imperative to gather what we know about our foods, why we eat what we eat, and pass that on. During the pandemic and at the height of quarantine, Álvarez-Martinez started a "Cook Club." From there grew an online community of home cooks who would gather weekly to chef it up, swap family recipes, and engage in storytelling.

"We took turns sharing recipes that we love, especially those that came from our elders or ancestors and were are part of our culture. Folks would not only share recipes, but the stories behind these recipes and preparation techniques that had been passed down to them. It was really beautiful. We were cooking, eating, learning, and witnessing one another at a time when sharing was nearly impossible," says Álvarez-Martinez. "Passing down our traditional recipes and how we make them our own is a political act, because A) cooking for yourself is a form of self-reliance and self-preservation and B) storytelling and inserting ourselves in history, when the media and books don't is one way to resist erasure and pressures to assimilate."

Grow Your Veggies

Not everyone has a relationship or access to land, and not everyone can just develop a green thumb overnight. But there are small everyday things we can do little by little to heal our relationship with the food that sustains us. "Anyone who has a window can have a few plants and start with growing herbs," suggests Álvarez-Martinez. "And if you have access to a yard or a community garden, you can grow more fruits and veggies."

Garcia agrees that window farming is not only a great way to begin feeding yourself, but is an act of resistance: "Not only do I connect community members to urban farms and community gardens, but then I teach them – right on their window – how to grow some cilantro, some oregano, some basil, some herbs, right? You don't have to know everything, but you just have to do something."

Maybe you don't do the actual growing, but you support others in growing? Álvarez-Martinez shares that "[Community Supported Agricultures] are a great way for people who want to support sustainable farming, but not do it themselves. Plus, being in community with other growers is the best way to learn how to grow your own food."

Rethink Adobo

When we talk about sazón, Garcia brings up an excellent point: "We're talking about oils and plants and spices, because adobo does not grow on a tree. When thinking about some of the ways that our foods are made now, it's not just about the way we make it, but the way that we also season it. There's certain shortcuts, again, that I won't take. I'm not going to be eating vegetables to just throw mad salt on it. Remember, when we cook with our hands we honor our ancestors."

Creating her various sofritos in the company of others allows Garcia to create family dialogue around how we flavor what we eat. "I love to create sofrito with community members because we get to talk about how we season our foods. This is one way to begin rethinking our relationship to vegetables and fruits and herbs and how we consume them. Versus the way that factories and companies have made us think about natural foods."

Disassociate Whiteness

By now we know that attributing whole foods and plant-based material to whiteness is, at best, ahistorical and, at worst dangerous as it perpetuates the narrative that says Black and Latinx people are unhealthy and continues to strip us of a level of dignity. Even our relationship and consumption of meat is more sacred than understood.

"Indigenous people have been in deep relationships with animals, hunting them in ways that are sustainable, and eating them as part of a healthy diet. There are ways to live in harmony with animals and we should not create value systems that can become exclusive. I think we each have an opportunity to look at how our diet impacts our bodies, our communities and the earth," says Álvarez-Martinez.

Garcia doubles down on repairing how we associate with food. "We're very disconnected from our food system as a whole and our food experience. Our ancestors, in working the land and raising the animals themselves — a lot of times the animal was used sparingly. And when they went to use the animal, they used all the parts of it," she says. "So we might have also been using that animal to make ends meet. At that point, we're not always consuming the animal either. So our relationship to land and our relationship to food really has changed over time."

Image Source: Pexels/ GivingTuesday
Latest Latina