500 years after Spaniards invaded my ancestors’ land, I ask myself: am I decolonized? I can’t say I am. There’s a lot of unlearning to do. I work towards decolonizing my mind by rediscovering the foods of my ancestors, one bite at a time. If the idea of diet as a lingering effect of colonization seems a little odd, please read on.
A couple of months ago, I attended an event in San Jose titled “Food is Medicine,” and we discussed the diets of my indigenous ancestors. The title reminded me of the track, “Be Healthy” by Dead Prez, whose lyrics say, “Let your food be your medicine.” Luz Calvo and Catriona Esquibel, Bay Area professors, shared their wisdom on how to “decolonize the Mexican American diet.”
When Latinx immigrants first arrive in the United States, they typically live three years longer than white Americans, despite having less income and access to health coverage. This is known as the Latinx health paradox. When U.S.-born Latinx assimilate, health issues worsen and mirror outcomes seen in U.S. whites and in other communities of color.
What underlying causes bring about these disparities within a generation? Part of the answer may be as simple as food.
Decolonizing the Mexican American diet refers to unlearning the knowledge and lifestyle that Spanish conquest in Mesoamerica forced on indigenous communities. Prior to Spanish colonization, the indigenous diet was mainly plant-based. Spaniards brought a diet full of oil, sugar, white flour, and meat. And they perceived indigenous food as “famine food.”
This perception is wrong and problematic. Indigenous communities had fertile lands rich with crops such as avocados, corn, tomatoes, and berries, and a food culture rooted in sustainability. Our current, profit-motivated food system produces much waste. Production of a quarter pound of beef can use over 450 gallons of water. The majority of corn we grow gets used to create animal feed and biofuel. Feeding animals with crops like corn uses more land, water, and fossil fuels than people eating fruits and vegetables directly.
Given this history of colonization in the food system, how can I make a small impact on myself and the planet? I decided to change how and what I cooked.
I bought the “Decolonize Your Diet” cookbook and switched more to a plant based diet. The other night, I made dinner with chayote, a squash native to Mesoamerica and a staple in the Aztec and Mayan diet. Its ancient medicinal qualities? Treating kidney disease and hypertension with its leaves. The word chayote derives from Nahuatl, an Uto-Aztecan language spoken by indigenous communities in Mexico and Central America. To prepare the fruit, I had to peel it first, and that extra effort made me grateful for the plant, the soil, air, water, and people who helped it grow. Each bite connected me to my ancestors. The taste: resilience.
A resilience that pushed me to be the first in my family to graduate from higher education.
A resilience that strengthens our communities to be fully whole
A resilience that has survived colonization for over 500 years.
We must rethink food and our food system. My journey to a sustainable future starts with exploring what my ancestors ate. Through cooking, I keep their knowledge and spirits alive. Food is our medicine for creativity and liberation. By decolonizing our food, communities of color further tap into our ancestral resilience as we approach 2017.