There’s this misconception people tend to have around Latin cuisine, that it’s fried, loaded with starchy carbs, filled with beef, along with other processed meats, and smothered in grease and fat. It’s delicious, but by no means healthy. But the truth is, there’s a lot of ingredients used in Latin food that’s actually quite nourishing and today are considered to be super foods, such as maca root, chia seeds, cacao, quinoa, spirulina, beans, lentils, and collard greens – just to name a few. These are the rooted vegetables our ancestors used to prepare foods, which is why there’s been a movement among Latino Americans to decolonize their foods in efforts to embrace alternatives to Western medicine, use plant-based foods to heal, and reclaim their ancestral food knowledge.
“Decolonizing foodways is a process of connecting to the land, native ingredients, and ancestral dishes,” says Jocelyn Ramirez, a Mexican and Ecuadorian American vegan cook, yoga instructor, and founder of Todo Verde, a food business with the mission to create delicious and healthy plant-based food options by using Mexican and South American flavors. “It may look like taking packaged/processed foods out of a diet and focusing on dishes that are centered around native fruits, vegetables and herbs.”
Todo Verde provides catering, food demonstrations, cooking classes, and healthy eating consultations. They also sell their own agua fresca and juices at various cafes and markets.
It was Ramirez and her families’ health problems that inspired Todo Verde. “I started to think about food a little more intentionally about seven plus years ago, when I started to see the health of my family deteriorate, including myself,” says Ramirez. “I was suffering from thyroid issues, my father is diabetic and had been diagnosed with throat cancer, and my mother was dealing with high blood pressure and high cholesterol.”
According to the American Heart Association, heart and cardiovascular diseases remain the leading causes of death for Latinos. The risk of diabetes is 65% higher among Latinos compared to white, non-Latinos and among Americans who experience strokes, 72% of Latinos suffer from high blood pressure. This is largely due to diet.
Ramirez started to read and research more on healthy eating and soon discovered the decolonizing foodways, a movement that has continuously grown in the states, particularly among Latinos in California. It was there that she learned about the power of consuming a plant-based diet, which inspired her to leave her career in higher education two and a half years ago to start Todo Verde.
“This movement is important to me because it’s reviving knowledge that has been passed down through generations and allowing for creative space to create current versions of the same dishes, with access to local ingredients and new techniques,” Ramirez says.
The movement of decolonizing food has also made its way to the east coast with Puerto Rican- American chef Gabriela Alvarez, founder of Liberation Cuisine, which is based in NYC.
“Colonization is the process of people settling on land that belongs to indigenous communities,” says Alvarez. “In the Americas these settlements were sustained by free labor of African slaves, many of whom worked in agriculture. African and indigenous descendants are now statistically living in food apartheids. Decolonizing food must therefore be rooted in connecting with the land. We can grow, use medicinal herbs, spend time in nature. We can educate ourselves and stand by fair farming practices.”
Alvarez’s mission behind Liberation Cuisine, was to create a food business that would offer chef services, catering, and cooking workshops for people in social justices and wellness spaces. The meals would contain ingredients that are sustainable, plant-based, and healing. She also uses this as an opportunity to educate folks on the history behind Latin food.
What a lot of people don’t realize is that a lot of the not-so-healthy ingredients in Latin food were actually introduced by the Spanish to the Indigenous natives and African slaves working the land. It was colonization that brought ingredients such as beef, dairy, or bread into the Latino diet. The Africans and the Indigenous were consuming mainly plant-based meals and using foods they were growing and harvesting themselves on the land. This is what decolonizing food leaders like Alvarez want fellow Latinos to know.
“With colonization, Manifest Destiny and the idea that people of European ancestry were superior were generally accepted. As a result, European languages, culture, beliefs, traditions, and food are generally valued above those from other parts of the world,” says Alvarez. “Decolonizing means, rethinking curricula, looking at what recipes we accept as national cuisine and which ones we don’t, noticing what ingredients we consider valuable and who we accept as “experts” and giving credit to the generations of people that created the cuisines you enjoy or profit off of.”
The movement provides an opportunity for Latinos to seek a healthy, more nourishing diet and lifestyle while still being able to honor and embrace their Latino culture. It also allows for one to create a deeper connection and understanding of their ancestral roots.
For Ysanet Batista and Merelis Catalina Ortiz, the two Dominicans behind Woke Foods, decolonizing food has been a way for them to pay homage to their African and Indigenous Taino ancestors. Woke Foods is a NYC based food business that makes vegan dishes inspired by the founders’ Dominican roots. It’s also in many ways a political movement.
Batista had been cooking for years and in recent years started to recognize the intersection of food, health, and race. She noticed how our current food system was negatively impacting the health of Black and Latino communities, leading them to develop health conditions like heart disease, diabetes, or cancer. As a result, Woke Foods was created in March 2016 with Ortiz partnering shortly after. The two came together on the idea that food is a social justice and how it can serve as both medicine but can also be traumatic.
“The name Woke Foods came from our friends sharing and thinking about the phrase, “Stay Woke,” being used in social justice spaces to stay aware of how our politics and systems impact people and more violently people of color,” says Batista. “We realized amongst ourselves that we also needed to stay woke about our foods because of unfair labor practices in agriculture and the food industry, the chemical and pesticides added to our food, the fast food developers build in low-income communities, etc.”
Batista and Ortiz want Latinos to understand that veganism and plant-based diets don’t have to be expensive and are not exclusive to white hipsters or hippies.
“History shows that our black and brown ancestors were the stewards of the many lands in this world and have been growing vegetables, grains, and fruits, and lived off these foods,” says Ortiz. “Today black and brown people are still growing and using foods to heal our bodies.”
Woke Foods’ motto is “Awakening the healing traditions of Dominican food.” They provide services that include everything from catering, cooking classes, and this year they’re launching their meal planning program, where they teach clients how to make healthy, vegan meals from scratch. These meals include everything from vegan sancocho, vegetarian asopao, vegan pasteles, moro de gandules using farro herb pilaf, vegan pastelón, and more.
“Decolonizing food is a way to stay connected and reclaim our ancestral roots. Black and brown people are continuously being targeted and killed all over the world, and food is one of the tools for this violence,” says Batista. “The leading cause of death for Black, Native American, and Latinx people ages 25 plus is due to illnesses linked to our diets … decolonizing our food is a way to free our people of these illnesses through the medicine of food and the land.”