Being Vegan & Latinx Made Me Feel More Connected To My Roots
October 14, 2019 originally published in Elite Daily
(Photography from Bridget Badore)
This essay is part of Más Que Suficiente, More Than Enough, an Elite Daily series that celebrates the parts of Latinx culture that make each writer proud of their identity. In this piece, writer Amy Quichiz explores how going vegan intersected with her Peruvian and Colombian roots. Para leer este ensayo en español, desliza hacia abajo.
During lunch one day, when I was a freshman at Syracuse University, I caught one of my only Latina friends staring at my plate. She asked me if, since I was studying women’s and gender studies, I’d ever looked into being vegan. “What is that?” I replied. She explained how veganism and feminism could be related — likening the necessity of animal liberation to women's. It was an interesting concept, but there was one issue. I asked her, “But how can you be vegan and be Dominican — how do you talk to your family about it?”
I thought about all the Colombian and Peruvian dishes I grew up with. My Peruvian side ate a lot of seafood, and my Colombian side ate a lot of meat — la bandeja paisa, lomo saltado, and ceviche were staples I grew up with. I couldn’t see myself removing these foods from my life — they were so significant to my family and to my culture.
I put going vegan out of my mind until I made a new friend, who was Cuban, who taught me about how bad the meat industry is for the environment and for people living near factory farms. He told me to watch Earthlings, a horror documentary about how animals are treated in slaughterhouses. When I finished it, I decided immediately to go vegan — without thinking about what my parents would say.
When I came home that summer, I told my parents I was vegan. “¿Y qué es eso, no vas a comer mi comida?” my mother said, stressed. I knew where she was coming from — I had just came out as bisexual one week before, and was now sharing another side of my identity. My mom told me how her mother never knew how to cook, and how she'd never learned, either, which might've explained why she was nervous about my veganism. I asked her how she'd learned to cook in the first place, and she said, “YouTube, viendo los videos de Cocinando con Wendy.” We discovered that Wendy, who makes YouTube videos about cooking Peruvian food, also cooks vegetarian meals.
I told my mom that being vegan means cooking the same dishes without meat — lentil soups, or rice and beans with plantains — and with more vegetables or different milks. With time, and Wendy's help, my mother loved cooking vegan meals. It meant so much to me knowing I'd come home and she'd have a meal prepared with vegetables she'd never used before. She’d never seen eggplants until I went vegan — now, she uses them all the time.
Convincing my father that veganism wasn’t difficult to adopt was another story. One afternoon, I came home from the supermarket with quinoa and he laughed, saying when he was growing up in Peru, they ate quinoa with apples every day — sometimes, even for all three meals because there was no money for meat. I asked questions: What did you eat in Peru? What tools did my grandmother use to cook? What’s our family’s food history? I started to learn about how my indigenous ancestors called quinoa “the mother grain” and ate primarily plants. Even if meat was eaten, it was understood as a gift from pachamama.
CREATING A SPACE SPECIFICALLY FOR VEGAN PEOPLE OF COLOR HAS HELPED ME PRACTICE MY VEGANISM IN A WAY THAT'S CLOSE TO MY ROOTS.
Despite how significant food is in Latinx culture, I thought my veganism was unconnected from my heritage when I started my transition. But as my conversations with my family helped me understand this connection, my interactions with other vegans showed me how important it was to acknowledge these intersections. Activists in my on-campus group would protest factory farming by pretending they were animals in cages — without thinking about how insensitive this was to incarcerated people, who are disproportionately people of color. I knew vegans who'd cast judgment on people who used animal products in culturally significant ways, while still supporting groups like PETA (who've long been criticized for falsely comparing speciesism, the belief humans are superior to animals, to racism and homophobia). And as my peers implied that going vegan was "super easy," I thought back to my community in Jackson Heights, Queens — a food swamp, where the only food available without a car is from fast food restaurants or a gas station. I started to question my veganism — who was it for?
My conversations with my father marked the beginning of decolonizing my veganism, and making the practice culturally relevant to my family, too. My parents even got to the point of telling their friends how delicious vegan meals can be. I was super proud of this moment: Seeing my mom actually excited to cook new dishes, learning new vegetables, and being connected to our Colombian and Indigenous Peruvian roots.
My reasons for choosing to be vegan changed drastically from my freshman year of college to my last year in undergrad. I went from being vegan to protest animal exploitation, to then fighting for factory farm workers’ rights. I started learning about food apartheids, where residents don’t have access to fresh food, and how the meat industry perpetuates environmental racism.
That’s why, after graduation, I decided to start Veggie Mijas, a collective for plant-based women and non-binary folks of color, in January of 2018. Originally, it was an Instagram page where people could share recipes, tips on being vegan on a budget, and the benefits of being plant-based for people of color. Now, we have 12 chapters across the country, and we've hosted events like farm sanctuary trips, beach clean-ups, and more. We also created the first vegan cookbook filled with South and Central American dishes, all from women of color.
Creating a space specifically for vegan people of color has helped me practice my veganism in a way that's close to my roots. I create dishes with my partner that resemble Latinx food like sancocho soup or papa la huancaina. I always question where my food is coming from, ask my parents for their input, and use my friends as a support system for understanding these connections. And in making my veganism relevant to my culture, I've learned about how my ancestors, too, expressed their gratitude for the Earth and the food it provides. Food, for me, is something spiritual. Being vegan has shown me that it's possible to honor the Earth in the ways those who came before me did — and that loving the land is loving myself.