If you’re anything like I was, when you hear the word vegan, your mind is not necessarily flooded with images of black and brown folks. I associated vegan with skinny carefree white women. I say, skinny, not to shame them or myself, but to contrast from a body type that I was familiar with. Basically, I did not think of myself. I did not see people like me within the vegan community.
When I was reintroduced to veganism in 2006, I was sitting in a Philosophy class at San Francisco State University surrounded by white classmates that asked, “why would anyone still eat meat?” I knew that the simple fact that they would even ask spoke of their privilege. Although on that day, I wasn’t exactly sure how. I just recognized the feeling. My classmates probably would have engaged in some dialogue but, I did not quite understand my discontent with their comment. I just knew that at its core it was because their reality was different than others.
They asked, “Why would anyone still eat meat?”
I began to reminisce of family gatherings, surrounded by food that I associated with love and my culture. I loved the texture of lengua and the aroma of a bowl of menudo. I was already stripped of my mother’s language by not being taught Spanish: a remnant of the social injustices from years prior. And, now, I asked myself, “Was I going to choose to erase another part of me, another part of my mother, another part of my culture?”
Despite my reluctance in 2006, in 2013, I finally decided to become a vegan. I was at my unhealthiest and could no longer deny the health benefits of a vegan diet. Adopting a
vegan diet was not as hard as I imagined. I held steadfast to my beans, fajita veggies, avocados, and tortillas. I looked forward to my grandmother sending me home with some of her nopales. I was doing alright as far as diet was concerned but the struggle with my identity as a latinx vegan continued. I was not willing to completely immerse myself in the vegan community. A common phrase of mine was, “well, I’m not a PETA-approved vegan.” Actually, I still say it from time to time. The meaning is ambiguous but it was a way to separate myself. There was something stopping me from completely identifying myself as a vegan: my latinx roots.
How do I bridge a gap between being vegan and latinx?
In 2016, the shift finally began. My understanding deepened. It started when I first read Will Allen’s, The Good Food Revolution. In the first few chapters he began describing people’s movement away from farm life, some of it due to access, affordability, fair wages, and the judgment of a college-educated person versus a farmer. As time passed, people stopped learning about food by helping their mothers and fathers on the farm or in the garden. Whether it was because they were denied access to land or could not afford to maintain their life on a farm, people were looking for a way to improve their life situation. Allen’s book was an eye-opener. It struck a nerve but there were still some missing links in my latinx vegan journey.
Eating meat was still part of my culture, right?
In October 2016, I attended the Coalition of Vegan Activists of Color (COVAC) conference organized by Liz Ross and Linda Alvarez. One of the presenters was, Chema Hernández Gil and he gave a presentation on, “Colonization & Capitalism: The Mesoamerican Plant-Based Diet.” He explained how cows, pigs, and other animals were not native to Mesoamerica. The carne asada and carnitas that I believed to be part of my Mexican roots are actually another demonstration of how native people adapted their foods after colonization. Just as the colonizers forced Christianity in place of indigenous spirituality and religions, they also affected the food practices of native people. In the book/cookbook, Decolonize Your Diet, Luz Calvo and Catriona Rueda Esquiebel highlighted that, “Some foods, such as amaranth in Mesoamerica and quinoa in the Andes, were outlawed because of their use in indigenous religious ceremonies.” During colonization, our connection to our foods was interrupted. The people of Mesoamerica were not necessarily vegan but their diet was abundant in foods such as beans, squash, and corn. These nutrient dense plant-based foods were the cornerstones of their diet, not animal meat. While there are still traces of our ancestors in our religion and in our food, our culture took on a new form. The COVAC conference provided me with a deeper understanding of my latinx culture. It taught me that my indigenous roots were plant-based. In fact, many indigenous cultures were plant-based. Unlike I had assumed, having a plant-based diet was not a “white thing.”
Plant-based was an Indigenous thing!
Yes, meat is a part of our past and part of our present but if we look back into our history, our roots are planted in the earth. As meat production increased all around us, we were all lead to believe that meat was an even bigger part of a “superior” diet. Any food knowledge that may have been passed down from our grandmothers was drowned out by new “education” and highly processed foods. This is where we are now. Grocery stores filled with aisles of products that only resemble food but lacking all the nutrients our bodies need. Health conditions such as, heart disease, diabetes, and obesity on the rise. Our bodies are craving for us to reconnect to our roots, to reconnect to the earth, and to reclaim our health.
So, why would anyone still eat meat?
The problem with this question is that it only addresses the individual rather than the food system that has been implemented over the years. Yes, there are some people that choose an omnivorous diet for pleasure. But, we must also address the food education people are receiving, the misinformation from schools and doctors, the lack of accessible and affordable plant-based whole foods, and the life circumstances in which people live. As vegans, we cannot only argue against the violence and injustice towards non-human animals. We must also argue against the violence and injustice towards disenfranchised communities because this is a part of our reality. Our compassion for animals cannot exclude compassion for people. I believe a vegan diet is the most optimal diet for our health, the safety of animals, and the longevity of our earth, but the question is not, “why would anyone still eat meat?” The question is,
“why isn’t a vegan diet a viable option for everyone?”
And, “how can we change that?”