After Dr. Luz Calvo was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2006, she and Dr. Catrióna Esquibel, her partner, searched for an explanation.
Drawing on their experience as ethnic studies professors—and as Chicanas—they started examining the effects colonization has on a culture’s diet. Their findings? The all-American combination of carbs, sugar, and processed foods was making Latino immigrants sick, and repeating a harmful pattern they could trace throughout history.
Latin American food culture has been eroded by colonizing forces: Spanish missionaries forcing Mexicans to start eating bread and cheese instead of corn and beans, to white reformers in the 1920s who told immigrant Mexican mothers that feeding their children tortillas would lead to a life of crime, to Coca-Cola’s current obsession with marketing toward Latino youth. All has been to the detriment of both Latino health and culture.
I talked to Calvo and Esquibel talked about their new book, Decolonize Your Diet, the Latino Paradox, and what we can learn from Mesoamerica when it comes to agriculture.
How did your research lead you to write a cookbook?
Luz: I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2006. I had been a vegetarian for fifteen years, and I thought I was really healthy. The whole diagnosis came as a real shock, but more than that, the whole process of treatment and chemotherapy just undid me.
I really lost my way and a lot of that was manifesting emotionally for me around food. Like, Where did I go wrong? What should I be eating? How can I prevent the cancer from coming back? I came upon a study of Latinas and breast cancer where they studied San Francisco Bay Area Latinas with breast cancer. They found that immigrant, foreign-born Latinas had a 50 percent lower risk of breast cancer than U.S.-born Latinas.
We started doing more research into Latino immigrant health and found out that it’s very well known in the public health literature that immigrant Latinos, when they first arrive in the U.S., have better health than middle-class white Americans. Those first ten years their overall mortality rate, infant mortality rate of children born to immigrant mothers, all these statistics are really strong, which is very surprising given health disparities in this population. There are literally hundreds of studies about this dichotomy. The more educated Latina you are, the higher your risk of breast cancer.
We started thinking, Well, what if it’s diet? We started researching Mexican ancestral foods, the foods that people in rural Mexico are eating, and finding that it’s really a plant-based diet. Meat is used only as a condiment. It’s not the cheese-laden food that you find at the typical Mexican restaurant here in the U.S.
We looked at particular foods that our grandparents talked about, nopales (prickly pear cacti), tlacoyos (corn cakes), and wild greens like verdolagas (purslane), and found that they all have anti-cancer properties. We came across studies that put indigenous groups on a standard American diet to see what happens to them, and then put people on an indigenous diet and see all their health measures improving.
What is the indigenous diet?
L: People have ideas about Mexican food and the Mexican diet but they don’t actually look and listen to communities, and look at the foods. We get caught up in these kinds of narratives about what Mexican food looks like, or what traditional foods are.
If you look up tamales on Wikipedia, it’ll say that tamales are usually made with pork, beef, and chicken. Yes, for the past 500 years they’ve been made with pork, beef, and chicken, but thousands of years before that they were made with many other things, like seeds, chilies, fruits, and pumpkin. We’re not looking at tradition as one fixed thing from the past that we should try to get back to, but at how, in the past, there was this immense diversity of foods that’s narrowed in recent years. We want to get back to [that] diversity of food—hundreds of varieties of beans, squash and corn: white, red, blue, and black corn
Catrióna: The Mexican-American-Mesoamerican diet, which is really corn based, was built on women’s labor. Women would soak the corn, grind the corn, and spend all day so they could make tortillas to feed the family. That labor made it possible, but we don’t want to return to a system where women are 100 percent responsible for maintaining the food system.
What are some examples of food colonization in daily life?
C: I teach a class called “Decolonize Your Diet,” and I talk about the Spaniards arriving in Mesoamerica. One of the first things they tried to change—in addition to religion— was the way people ate. They introduced wheat and tried to make eating bread something that was seen as more valuable than eating corn. They outlawed amaranth, and in South America they outlawed quinoa.
I tell my students to think about how the dominant powers are invested in controlling what their subjects eat, and then to take that concept from the 1500s to our contemporary era and ask themselves, ‘What are the powers that be wanting us to eat right now? Where are all the food subsidies going? How is that influencing what we’re eating? Who’s benefiting and who’s suffering because of that?’ For students, drawing those connections is really powerful, and it gives them a tangible way to analyze relations of power.
You say that is a structural issue, not an individual one. What would you like to see change?
C: At a community level we’d like to see more community gardens, more access to healthy foods in communities of color. We live in Oakland, so there are food deserts where we live. At a practical, immediate level, that needs to change.
In terms of how food is produced, the food system doesn’t seem sustainable. We should embrace some of the more indigenous ways of growing, such as multicropping as opposed to monocropping, not using so many pesticides, and reducing our dependence on pesticides to grow our food. GMOs are a big issue, not even so much for health reasons, but in terms of the farmers’ rights to be able to grow food on land the way they always have and save seeds.
We see these issues as interconnected between Mexico and the United States, especially because of NAFTA. We feel like we’re living in a generation where corn, which is the basis of Mexican civilization, is under extreme threat of contamination by GMOs.
What’s something an individual can do?
L: Think about food security for your block, or neighborhood. If everybody’s growing something on the block, and sharing what he or she has, then you’re more able to survive outside of the industrial food system, at least partially.
Students start eating things that are readily accessible to them, like chips and Cheetos. They are being actively seduced into eating these foods, and it’s so much part of the culture that it’s hard to get them to stop. I don’t try to get them to stop. Instead I’m just trying to get them to eat healthy foods in addition—squash, corn, berries, foraged greens. I think that’s really the way to go.
C: Our students who don’t know how to cook, we start by teaching them how to cook a pot of beans. From there, you can have burritos the next day, and then have tostadas the day after that. It’s really easy and really healthy. Beans are one of the healthiest things you can eat—they’re good for your blood sugar and cholesterol.
L: Healthy foods are powerful, but advertising is targeted toward our students and their generation. There have been studies done on how much soda advertising is directly targeted toward Latino youth, and it’s disproportionate to the percentage of the population. I don’t blame the students. They’re the recipients of these systems that are pushing them towards these less-than-optimal food choices.
C: One thing that we’re really against is shaming, because that’s been used against our communities. There were Americanization programs in the 1920s, where teachers came into the homes of Mexican immigrant women and said, if you’re feeding your child a corn tortilla, that’s going to lead to a life of crime. They were going to go to school, see sandwiches, be jealous, and that would lead to theft. It was about shaming people’s food, and any immigrant communities—not just Latino communities—are exposed to food shaming when they come to this country: What are you eating? That’s disgusting. I can’t believe you eat that.
You think, I want to eat what everyone else is eating, but what everybody else is eating is not necessarily what’s good for you. That’s why I think education is so important: the foods that immigrants brought to the country are often inherently healthy.