Jessica Ordaz

Out of the 332,403,650 people that live in the United States, approximately 9.7 million practice vegetarianism, including one million vegans.[1] Although these numbers show that only about .3% of Americans are vegan, as food historian Jeffrey Pilcher argues, “Food matters, not only as a proper subject of study in its own right, but as a captivating medium for conveying critical messages about capitalism, the environment, and social inequality to audiences beyond the ivy tower.”[2] In other words, food history reveals societal ideologies about identity, class, and culture.   

For this reason, my current scholarship has shifted from histories of migrant incarceration to the politics of food, seemingly unrelated topics but connected via my research interests on racial capitalism, Latinx history, and movements of resistance. In July 2021, I conducted a preliminary research trip in Mexico City to start investigating the topic of my current book manuscript. I ate at delicious vegan restaurants throughout the city and could not believe how many options there were. It had only been about ten years since I visited the city as a vegetarian, and back then the vegetarian restaurant options were slim, and the mock meat was mediocre at best. Enthusiastic to see the growth in options, I highlighted many of these businesses on my Instagram page. Since I am the Denver Metro co-organizer of Veggie Mijxs, a national collective designed to “create sacred spaces for folks where they can share their experiences with food or having a plant-based lifestyle through an intersectional lens,” I often showcase vegan recipes.[3]

However, two kind strangers gave me a reality check. I had created a list of some of my favorite vegan restaurants thinking about the taste of the food and the ambiance of their locations. How naive. My post had over 737 likes and these two individuals were the only ones to mention that three out of the six businesses I highlighted were known for violating labor rights. This included “wage theft, tip theft, overtime pay theft, worker abuse, and discrimination based on skin color and social class.” I was mortified. Of course, I should have thought about working conditions before amplifying these restaurants, which I knew nothing about other than I enjoyed the taste of their food. I start with this anecdote precisely because it highlights how veganism can and has become depoliticized, trendy, and mainstream, topics I discuss in my forthcoming book. I believe veganism should be conceptualized as intersectional, anti-capitalist, anti-racist, anti-carceral, and committed to feminist and abolitionist futures. This was a good reminder that veganism is something to be practiced as much as theorized. 

On Language 

Although plant-based eating has been practiced throughout the world for ages, it was not until 1944 that Donald Watson and Elsie Shrigley, founders of the United Kingdom’s Vegan Society coined the term, vegan.[4] They defined the term as “a way of living that seeks to exclude, as far as possible and practical, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing, and any other purpose.”[5] The term veganism might have started from a privileged white-centered place, but I argue that communities of color have been engaging with questions of animal, human, and plant relations for centuries. The commodification of plants and other food sources was a key part of the European colonization of the Americas. The subsequent expansion of settler colonialism and empire building transformed indigenous foodways, including foods that are vegan staples today.

There are many reasons people go vegan: the environment and climate change, compassion for animals, in protest of factory-farming, from an anti-capitalist position, and for one’s health and well-being. My research suggests that the oral histories and experiences of Latinx vegans are essential to creating knowledge about food history. Influenced by the existing literature on veganism from authors of color, my upcoming scholarship will center the voices of BIPOC writers such as A. Breeze Harper, Julia Feliz Bruek, Aph Ko, and Syl Ko.[6] Amplifying vegan voices of color helps decenter a mainstream vegan movement that is often framed as white and middle and upper class.

Veganism is commonly viewed as a white lifestyle and practice. While the term has Eurocentric roots, as Aph Ko explains, “the animal rights movement swallows up and digests whole histories of animal advocacy that existed before the term vegan was ever coined.”[7] My research seeks to decenter this idea by examining Latinx vegan experiences and theorists of color. Syl Ko reminds us that “de-centering whiteness essentially means we need to take seriously non-white theoretical constructs and frameworks and use these to change our understanding of the world, others, and ourselves.”[8]

Intersectional vegans, although not always BIPOC vegans as the story I started with suggests, point out multiple and often linked forms of oppression. People who center labor stress that “cruelty-free” as a synonym for vegan is a misnomer. A product might be animal-free but how was it produced? By whom and under what conditions? As Julia Feliz Brueck points out, “nonhuman animal-free products made from plants by exploited field laborers or through child labor, clothes made by exploited factory workers, and many products that we use and even depend on would not be commonly accepted as “vegan” if human rights were also automatically part of veganism.”[9]

My Food Journey  

My relationship to food has been shaped by childhood memories of playing in agricultural fields and eating staples from Michoacán, Mexico, and the United States.[10] I grew up with two sisters and parents who worked as migrant farm workers picking cherries, apricots, berries, and grapes throughout northern California. Due to the nature of their work, I came of age in a household with unlimited access to “imperfect fruit” from the fields.[11] My parents also worked sorting walnuts, almonds, pistachios, and canned tomatoes in canneries throughout the state. Observing my parents work long hours in fields across Lodi, Modesto, Paterson, Tracy, and Stockton, gave me a front row seat into the politics of food, class inequality, and intersectionality. These experiences allowed me to read the food choices my parents made as strategic and creative. They were resourceful in ensuring my sisters and I never went hungry regardless of their financial circumstances.

Since life was centered around work, my parents did not always have the time to cook elaborate meals during the week. During the school year, my sisters and I ate hot lunch program foods, which included free or reduced-price meals for low-income students. My older sister remembers “[looking] at the other students’ lunchables with envy because th[ey] w[ere] a status symbol.”[12] For dinner, we had quick and easy meals, or what my young sister calls “struggle foods,” which included dishes such as spam with potatoes in salsa del pato and eggs with sausage. The most common drink at the table was Tampico. Lee Ann Epstein writes that the “lack of food accessibility [has] resulted from systemic processes of “industrialization” which resulted in Mexican American families consuming “colonized diets consisting of processed (fake) foods, such as white bread, bologna, and shrink-wrapped cheese, or existing in the forms of genetically engineered corn, soybeans, and wheat.”[13] This was the case for my family. However, we had better quality food on Saturdays because there was either a party or an event that included scratch made foods. My mother cooked meals such as chile rellenos, tortas de papa, enchiladas de pollo, albondigas, caldo de pescado, chilaquiles, mole, ceviche, pork in tomatillo sauce, or barbacoa. Carne asada was a must at family gatherings. When family members and acquaintances have made jokes about not eating meat, they often cite the fact that meat is expensive and commonly viewed as a symbol of ‘having made it’ for working class families. My intersectionality prepared me to understand these criticisms and the working-class politics behind these remarks.   

The summers were not that different as my parents worked year-round. Until I was about ten-years-old my sisters and I spent the summers at work with my parents. Sandwiches filled with bologna and cheese were the norm. We started staying home when my older sister was old enough to take care of us. As adolescents, we enjoyed eating cups of noodles, hot dogs, burritos, and popsicles.

However, we had the best access to food when we traveled to see family in Mexico on an annual basis. Since food was cheaper, we ate very well.[14] “That’s when we ate the best,” my older sister recalls. We ate fresh foods from local markets and had scratch made food regularly. The price of avocado toast today is outrageous. Yet, I grew up visiting my grandmother’s house which featured a rather prominent avocado tree. Throughout the years, she would make us cuchitos or fresh tortillas rolled up with salt and avocado.

I share this personal food history because when I transitioned to a vegan lifestyle in 2018, I understood the politics of food within the context of corporate agriculture, factory farming, and capitalism’s income inequality. Despite the often-mainstream focus on veganism as a diet choice or latest celebratory trend, veganism is an ideology and practice linked to various forms of inequality. For many vegans of color, veganism is connected to their experiences with race, class, and other structural oppressions. Unfortunately, as Aph Ko reminds us, “Exclaiming “We are all vegans” is a way to employ post-racial rhetoric to violently silence activists of color who are trying to organize around their own experiences.”[15]

A History of Latinx Veganism 

According to a Los Angeles Times article published in 2020, veganism has become increasingly popular among a growing Latinx community. Patricia Escarcega argues that although “Mexican vegan cooking has its own cultural underpinnings…its recent popularity overlaps with the ascendance of veganism around the globe.”[16] She emphasizes that “the epicenter of the Mexican vegan explosion is in Southern California, where in the last several years, weekly vegan food fairs in cities such as Los Angeles, Long Beach, Santa Ana and Ontario have been meeting a growing demand for plant-based Mexican vegan cooking.”[17] While these cities are some of the most vegan friendly in the country, my research will show that eating plant-based foods is not only ancestral (rather than a new trend) but that Southern California is only one of many places where Latinx veganism is practiced. 

The various threads in veganism, animal liberation, health, and the environment are topics that have been of concern for Latinx folks for centuries. While issues such as climate change have invigorated people to make certain choices about what they consume, especially since we know it disproportionately affects BIPOC communities, ideas and relationships with our surroundings have a much longer history throughout the Americas. 

My exploration of plant-based foods and veganism is grounded on the premise that food is political. My forthcoming work tentatively titled Plant Based Foodways in the Americas: From Indigenous Fare to Latinx Veganism will start by examining the history of pre-colonial foods throughout the Americas, critically interrogate the links between food and decolonization, and chart the various identities that have formed among a new generation of Latinx vegans. This book is organized into three sections. The first section provides a history of various indigenous foodways and ways of relating to the natural world. Acknowledging the vast differences across geographic location I separate the histories of North America, Mesoamerica, the Caribbean, and South America and include discussions on indigenous relations to various plants, fungi, and animals.

The second section will chart major transformations in industrialization and its effects on food production. I center on the changing history of mercados or markets in Mexico City as a case study and highlight the changing relationships to foods, plants, and animals across the city. Lastly, this section explores the shifting relationships Latino/a migrants had with food in the United States during moments of heightened industrialization and food displacement at the turn of the twentieth century. The final section explores themes and topics up to our current moment. I use archival sources from the Vegan Society in the UK to critically read the foundation of the term veganism, explore the Food Not Bombs efforts taking place at Enclave Caracol in Tijuana, Mexico, and make connections between anarcho punk culture and veganism. 

Lastly, I am interested in reading veganism through a gendered and queer lens. As Carole Counihan asserts, “Gender is part of a bigger story of human relationships, alliances, divisions, hierarchies, and power, studying gender is fundamentally an interrogation of equality in the food system.”[18] Thus, I center the voices of various Veggie Mijas members and discuss examples of gendered divisions of labor within veganism. An intersectional lens is necessary when exploring the history of food, or we risk losing sight of key questions about colonization, capitalism, labor, gender, sexuality, and race.

Author

Jessica Ordaz is an Assistant Professor of Ethnic Studies at the University of Colorado Boulder. Her first book, The Shadow of El Centro: A History of Migrant Incarceration and Solidarity, was released in March 2021. Her second project will explore the multifaceted history of veganism and plant-based foods throughout the Americas, focusing on colonization, food politics, and social justice.

Notes

[1]https://allyallsfoods.com/vegan-statistics-usa/.

[2]Jeffrey M. Pilcher, The Oxford Handbook of Food History (2012), xvii.

[3]https://www.veggiemijas.com/mission.

[4]Delicia Dunham, “On being Black and Vegan” in Sistah Vegan: Black Women Speak on Food, Identity, Health, and Society, ed. A. Breeze Harper (2020), 43.

[5]Julia Feliz Brueck, Veganism in an Oppressive World: A Vegans of Color Community Project (2017), 2.

[6]A. Breeze Harper, Sistah Vegan: Black Female Vegans Speak on Food, Identity, Health, and Society (2020); A. Breeze Harper, “Vegans of Color, Racialized Embodiment, and Problematics of the “Exotic,” Cultivating Food Justice: Race, Class, and Sustainability, ed. Alison Hope Alkon (2011); Brueck, Veganism in an Oppressive World; Aph Ko and Syl Ko, Aphro-ism: Essays on Pop Culture, Feminism, and Black Veganism from Two Sisters (2017); Aph Ko, Racism as Zoological Witchcraft: A Guide to Getting Out (2019).

[7]Aph Ko, Racism as Zoological Witchcraft, 114; Aph Ko, Aphro-ism, 76.

[8]Syl Ko, Aphro-ism, 42.

[9]Brueck, Veganism in an Oppressive World, 4.

[10]Jessica Ordaz and Em Alves, Brujeria Veganx, Episode 2, November 2021, https://www.brujeriaveganx.com/episodes/episode-2-vegan-transitions.

[11]Author interview with Angela Ordaz, 11/29/20, phone.

[12]Author interview with Belinda Perrera and Angela Ordaz, 11/29/20, phone.

[13]Lee Ann Epstein, Mexican-Origin Foods, Foodways, and Social Movements: Decolonial Perspectives (2017), 112.

[14]Author interview with Angela Ordaz, 11/29/20, phone.

[15]Aph Ko, Aphro-ism, 18.

[16]Patricia Escarcega, “Mexi-Vegan Cooking is Mainstream in Southern California,” Los Angeles Times, June 26, 2020, https://www.latimes.com/food/story/2020-06-26/mexican-vegan-los-angeles-escarcega.

[17]Patricia Escarcega, “Mexi-Vegan Cooking is Mainstream in Southern California,” Los Angeles Times, June 26, 2020, https://www.latimes.com/food/story/2020-06-26/mexican-vegan-los-angeles-escarcega.

[18]Carole Counihan, “Gendering Food,” The Oxford Handbook of Food History, ed. Jeffrey M. Pilcher (2012), 100.