If there is one thing Latinos can all universally agree on it’s that our food game is on point. It doesn’t matter which country or region we’re talking about, we all have delicious food traditions. So in an era where many of us are in one way or another “decolonizing” we’re seeing a rise in the re-imagining of traditional foods. For many, that means eating less meat since pre-Columbian peoples consumed a mostly plant based diet, but an interesting trend noted by vegan chef Lorena Ramirez is that Latinos are excited to try authentic Mexican vegan options but they don’t necessarily want to be vegan—at least not all the way.
“People just don’t want to make that commitment” she said. Despite the Latino communities resistance to going all the way with veganism, she’s grown a steady following of meat eaters looking for tasty ways to improve their diets. When Ramirez had her first daughter, she decided to go from vegetarian to vegan to avoid the transmission of hormones through her breast milk. But it was her own curiosity about authentic Mexican options paired with the questions she’d get about plant based cooking that inspired her to create her blog, Healthy Hyna, where she shares vegan recipes for classic Mexican dishes like mole verde, carnitas, and picadillo.
“I really wanted to keep it true to me because when I first transitioned into being vegan I would type in ‘how to make salsa verde’ into YouTube but then I’d get all these white people trying to teach us how to make vegan Mexican food and I was like yo this is disgusting—just like vegan recipes overall—it’s too healthy for me! I need my sopes and my tacos dorados!” she laughed. Eventually she figured out that searching in Spanish yielded better results, and from there she would veganize the recipes with her own flavor.
“What I try to do with Healthy Hyna is not use complicated ingredients. Well [the ingredients] aren’t really that complicated, but I don’t use anything you have to drive out of the hood for. Those substitutes are convenient but they are not necessary.” she said. It’s pretty clear the demand exists. Her cooking classes have sold out, her social following is growing steadily, and she’s looking for more ways to help Latinos be more conscious of what they’re eating even if they aren’t committing fully to “the lifestyle.”
Her latest idea is plant based health consulting, “A lot of people want to incorporate more plant based meals in their diet but don’t want to make the full transition of going vegan. So that’s where I come in, I’ll send them a kit with recipes, they’ll select 3 of the ones they like and I’ll go to their home and guide them and cook with them,” she says. After that she says customers will have the option to continue ordering 3 vegan meals a day or cut it down to one or two, but the point is that there is accountability for those healthier options. And let’s be real accountability is something the Latino community needs desperately to curb the onset of type 2 Diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease and cancer.
According to the CDC Hispanic people are 50% more likely to die of type 2 diabetes than whites. And I know we all love our chelas but Mexican-Americans specifically are nearly twice as likely to die from chronic liver disease and cirrhosis as whites. Yikes.
With those statistics, it’s clear that if more of us don’t commit to altering our diets (at least a little) we just won’t live as long or we’ll simply survive as what the CDC calls a Chronic Disease Burden to our families. But Ramirez is pretty clear that she’s just doing what comes naturally to her, not trying to crusade for or against something. “I’m not trying to save the world, I’m just doing me. I think a lot of vegans come off like they are trying to save everyone or that they know better. Healthy Hyna is just really brown girl, hood vegan and you just don’t see that enough. When other Chicanas see it they think ‘cool I can relate to this, maybe I can do it too?’ ” she said.
The fact that Ramirez doesn’t fit the vegan chef mold has proven to be her strength as she continues to capture a market that has been perceived as too poor and too hood for the “traditional” vegan lifestyle. But as we see with many entrepreneurs of color being poor and living in the hood is precisely what inspires them to make money moves. When Ramirez got pregnant at 19 her father kicked her out and like many of the best entrepreneurs, she had to figure things out on her own. She moved to her boyfriend’s in El Monte and quickly realized that scraping by didn’t suit her.
“The company my baby daddy worked at got shut down and he had a felony so he couldn’t get another job. So I had to pull up my sleeves and figure out what had to do. I got a job at a Check Into Cash in East LA and I got fired because of my customer service. I only lasted 3 weeks!” she laughed. “I remember coming home crying and walking with my baby in the stroller collecting cans. I was like ‘damn is my life going to be like this?! I deserve more! I don’t want this!’ And so I had to get quick on my feet.”
At 25 she’s come a long way from collecting cans. Today she’s focusing on her Vegan Tamale cooking class, her two girls, and being conscious of what she buys, uses, and how she exists in the world. “I think it all boils down to being in tune with yourself, accepting simplicity. With social media it’s so easy to get caught up in materialism. You want the new shoes, cute clothes, but when you step away and you process it do you really need it? I got to a mental state where I was like if I can eat simple that means I can probably incorporate more simplicity into my lifestyle.” It’s not a bad idea. It’s hard to be ethical in every choice that we make but Ramirez reminds us that “decolonizing,” shopping local, or however you choose to ethically wield your piece of the trillion dollar Latino market should be based not on being perfect, but on being as conscious as you can about things like the environment, the companies you support, and what you put in your body.
For more on simplicity and hood veganism you can read her blog and follow @HealthyHyna on Instagram. You can sign up for her Los Angeles cooking class here.