Krista Linares is a registered dietitian nutritionist and founder of Nutrition Con Sabor.
You’ve probably seen the viral videos of “Mexican corn salad” (esquites) or “spa water” (agua fresca) and the resulting pushback as if our cultural foods and drinks were suddenly acceptable for people because they’re “elevated.” There has been increasing attention paid to cultural appropriation in the food space as of late. In the Latin food space, Latinx chefs and food creators have pushed back against non-Latinx foodies’ claims that they are “elevating” or “discovering” Latin heritage foods. In the health space, Latinx dietitians and nutritionists have questioned the process of cultural foods getting named “superfoods” and subsequently being stripped of their cultural identity (think chia seeds, quinoa, acai, etc.), as well as the trend of non-Latinxs making “healthier” versions of Latin foods that were already very nutritious to start with (like a low-carb tortilla, when corn tortillas are a rich source of fiber, vitamins, and minerals).
Unsurprisingly, when Latinx voices point out these issues and the effect it has on the community, dissenting voices quickly jump into the discussion. Criticisms of this discourse will point out that Latin food is inherently fusion food–not only of Indigenous foods and Spanish foods, but also of foods and flavors from the Middle East, Africa, Asia, and at this point even foods from the United States. Calling out cultural appropriation of Latin food is gatekeeping, they’ll say, and ignoring the long history of intercultural dialogue that gave rise to the Latin food we know today.
What they fail to acknowledge in these arguments is the long history of colonization through food, and the long-term ripple effects this has had on the Latinx community’s relationship with food. Furthermore, it conflates fusion, which is more like a two-way collaboration and mutually beneficial, with colonization and appropriation, which is more likely to be one-directional and exploitative.
The history of colonization and food in Latin America
Latino food today has a lot in common with pre-Hispanic food culture: in particular the emphasis on staple crops like corn, beans, squash, tomato, and chile. But Latin food today has also seen a huge number of changes since this time, starting with the impacts the Spanish had on food in the Americas through colonization. These effects include the introduction of European foods like pork, olives and olive oil, wine, and wheat, as well as European cooking techniques like frying foods in oil, author Rebecca Earle highlights in her book, The Body of the Conquistador. But the effects of colonization on food were not simply what foods the Spanish brought along with them. They applied pressure on the Indigenous population to eat more like them in order to be more “civilized” and used food culture as a means to enforce Christianity, Earle wrote. Amaranth, for example, was once a major staple crop in Mesoamerica but was outlawed because of its association with Indigenous religious ceremonies, according to Sophie D. Coe’s America’s First Cuisines. Furthermore, Earle writes that only wheat could be used in communion, instead of Indigenous carbohydrate sources like maize, or cassava. Indigenous people were mandated to assist with growing European crops, even though these crops were not well suited to local agricultural methods.
The effects of colonization on Latin food go beyond just introducing wheat and pork, and decreasing the use of crops like amaranth. It has affected how we view our food, and thus how we view ourselves.
As a dietitian, I frequently hear my clients express concern that corn is devoid of nutrients and they should replace their tortillas or other masa-based products with something “more nutritious.” It’s easy to see the link between this misconception now, and the colonial pressure to deemphasize indigenous crops in favor of “more civilized” European crops.
Are people who call out cultural appropriation rigid traditionalists?
When we point out cultural appropriation of our food, calling esquites “street corn” or critiquing a “healthy twist” on a traditional recipe, for example, are we really saying that Latin food is set and final, unable to further evolve? Not at all. Like all aspects of culture, food is constantly evolving. What’s more, food is as much a creative pursuit as painting, music, or drawing. It’s to be expected that people will constantly be trying to create something new in the food space.
What we are pushing back against is an approach to our food culture that echoes the original effects colonization had on food in Latin America. These would be changes that don’t come from the creativity of the community, but rather from a top-down approach where an organization or group is telling the community how our food should be.
This includes implications that our food is not nourishing or not healthy (like in the countless examples of “healthier” Mexican food), or that our cuisine needs to be “elevated” (which sounds a lot like the colonial discussion of what foods were civilized or not).
It also includes taking bits and pieces of our food culture and using them for profit and gain that doesn’t benefit our community and removes this element from the context of our entire food culture. An example of this would be chia seeds and cacao being dubbed “superfoods” and all the money being made off their health claims, very little of which is circulating within Mexican or Mexican American communities.
How is fusion different?
Cultures that interact with one another will inevitably influence each other. Many other cultures have influenced Latin food, with African food being the other most important influence on Latin food, alongside Spanish and Indigenous food (although it should be acknowledged that this also carries a history of violence and colonialism). And these influences will continue to expand. Southern California is seeing rapid growth in both Latin and Asian communities, and multicultural Latinx/Asian households, for example. The fact that this will affect Californian food culture makes sense! This interaction between cultures is beautiful and should not be confused with appropriation or colonization.
Additionally, fusion may arise out of necessity in immigrant communities. Immigrants may make dishes they are already familiar with, using the ingredients they can access in their new community. Over time, these shifts eventually give rise to variations on that food culture. So if fusion in food is different from cultural appropriation and colonization how does that play out in the food space? A helpful set of questions to ask yourself if you’re not sure where a food trend falls include:
- Where is the change coming from? Fusion typically starts at the community level and builds up, whereas appropriation and colonization may be more likely to start at the organizational/corporate/government level and move downward. Appropriation/colonization example: Health researchers promote enchiladas made with whole wheat tortillas when corn tortillas are more commonly used and have similar nutrition benefits to whole wheat tortillas. Fusion example: Eloteros start offering new toppings like Hot Cheetos and this trend takes off on social media.
- Who is benefiting from this? Appropriation/colonization example: A non-Latinx food blogger is the top Google search result for a traditional Latin recipe, giving them substantial ad revenue and sponsorship opportunities. Fusion example: Non-Latinx food blogger features a recipe from a Latinx creator on their blog and offers appropriate credit and compensation.
- Is or are the creators a member of one (or both) of the culture(s) involved?
What is the message behind the change? Appropriation and colonization often use alarmist or sensationalist health claims, or use language around civility/respectability (“elevated”) to justify the change. Fusion is usually framed as just for fun, experimenting with flavor, or born out of access to ingredients
Appropriation/colonization example: health website recommends swapping crema for greek yogurt for the nutrition benefits.
Fusion example: local restaurant adds yuzu to their ceviche recipe for the taste.
In short, the cultural dialogue that leads to fusion food needs the voluntary participation of both cultures. The benefits should be extended to community members, as well. Fusion is almost always the result of a community member’s inspiration and creativity, whereas appropriation and/or colonization are usually one-directional and often justified through the language of morality or propriety.