Mexican-American Researchers Reclaim Heritage to Radically Change the Way We Eat

‘Decolonize Your Diet’ Luz Calvo (right) garnishes desserts with Adilia Torres (left) during a fundraiser dinner for the East Bay Meditation Center on April 2016. Photo: Facebook public profile. Used with permission.

Like many cultural practices, what we eat and consider healthy is part of our surroundings, which are also the result of myriad cultural, historical, political and economic influences. Inspired by this concept, two researchers from Cal State University in the United States, Luz Calvo and Catrióna Rueda Esquibel, created the project and cookbook ‘Decolonize Your Diet’ to underscore the way eating habits connect with empires and to illuminate the wisdom of communities abandoned by modernity.

Calvo and Rueda Esquibel collect strategies from ancient Mexican culture and Chicanx (Mexican-American) traditions:

Decolonize Your Diet will walk with you as you reclaim your culture by sharing recipes, cooking techniques, and discussions of ingredients. We believe that food is medicine and we share information about the health benefits of ancestral foods, herbs, and teas. We encourage you to talk to your elders, relatives, and traditional healers in your community to learn from their wisdom and knowledge. We honor cultural knowledge by contributing what we know. We encourage you to do the same […] As US-born Latinos/as, we have much to learn from the way our ancestors ate. Eating our ancestral foods can help us prevent and treat the diseases that result from adopting the Standard American Diet. […]

Health was a very important motivation for Luz Calvo to start researching food intensely after being diagnosed with breast cancer. For Calvo, that was the beginning of a commitment to eating clean, whole organic food and make every meal “an opportunity to prevent cancer from recurring. So far so good!”
Global Voices spoke to Luz Calvo to know more about the project and some other inspirations behind ‘Decolonize Your Diet’.
GV: What is ‘Decolonize Your Diet'?

Luz Calvo (LC): We are theorizing decolonization from the point of view of Mexican American (our preferred term is Chicanx) peoples. Decolonizing our diets means that we are trying to reconnect with healthier ways to nourish ourselves. This means connecting to our ancestral knowledge—knowledge that has been passed down for thousands of years in the Americas. We research pre-Hispanic era foods in order to better understand the wealth of indigenous food knowledge that is the root of much of contemporary Mexican cuisine. So to us, decolonizing our diets is a political stance, one that rejects white supremacy and Eurocentrism as the organizing narrative of “healthy” food and recognizes the cultural knowledge held by our immigrant communities.

GV: Where did the idea come from? What inspired it?

LC: There are a lot of reasons that we felt compelled to write this book. We’re Ethnic Studies professors in the business of teaching culturally relevant history to Cal State students. We found that many of the models of healthy eating emphasized the Mediterranean diet, which is really just the Greco-Roman model of western civilization. We wanted to emphasize how the native foods of America had a profound influence on cuisines all over the world. All the chiles, tomatoes, corn, potatoes, squash, many of the berries, most of the beans in the world all originated in indigenous American cultures.  So we wanted to shift the focus to show how a Meso-American diet is traditionally healthy: with a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, plant-based proteins, and an amazing array of flavors.

GV: Why do you think we need to decolonize what we eat? In what way is it colonized?

LC: A lot of people think that eating healthy means eating to lose weight, or going without. One student told us that she had tried and tried to eat more healthy, to eat salads instead of her regular meals. “I failed,” she said. This student, a child of Mexican immigrants, had internalized dominant US culture’s narrative about what constitutes healthy eating (largely eating salads and being skinny). There is a misconception that Mexican food is inherently unhealthy. However, the diet of rural Mexico is rich in fruits and vegetables: corn, beans, squash, chiles, nopales, and wild greens are all central to the rural Mexican diet. Once this student examined her diet by reading ingredients and tracking the content of the foods, she realized that the tamales, vegetable soups, salsas did not need to be eliminated! Instead, she cut out the sugary drinks like soda. She talked to her family about alternatives, such as water and unsweetened or lightly sweetened agua frescas. As a young mom, she has continued to practice healthy eating following our principles. And she is raising her son on home-cooked Mexican meals!

Through our research, we have come to understand that most ancestral diets (pre-1950s) were healthy, including the Meso-American diet. We find it objectionable that doctors will often recommend a “Mediterranean diet” to their Mexican patients, without understanding that the beans, corn, and vegetables that are central to the Mexican ancestral diet is just as, if not more, healthy.

GV: What other ways of colonization can be seen in daily life?

LC: The United States is a settler colonial state so pretty much every system and institution is implicated in the ongoing colonization of the land and dispossession of indigenous peoples. Schools are set up to tell history from the point of view of European settlers.  Capitalism as a system imposed a logic of extraction and profit. Most of us have lost any kind of direct relationship to the land and the cycle of life. Our water and our air is polluted. We are caught up in a endless spiral of extraction, consumption, and disease. Our relationship to Mother Earth needs healing.

GV: What other projects exist online with these same goals?

LC: Many other folks have been working on this project for a long time, including Decolonial Food for Thought, Decolonizing Diet Project, Devon Abbott Mihesuah, and many indigenous chefs in the US and Mexico.
Recipes from their cookbook “Decolonizing Your Diet: Mexican-American Plant-Based Recipes for Health and Healing” (published by Pulp Press in 2015) as well as events organized or made in collaboration with ‘Decolonize Your Diet’ can be found on their Facebook page and Calvo's Twitter feed.

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