Intersectional Confessional: Vegans and Vegetarians of Color

Patricia García, Impana Murthy, Gomez Sandoval, Contributing Writers

Courtesy of Creative Commons

Gomez Sandoval

When I was 10 years old I decided to be vegetarian, and it has been almost two years since I have made a transition to a fully vegan diet. I never faced any challenge when it came to eating the way I do as I lived the majority of my life in Los Angeles, which gave me access to the city’s widespread accommodation for all different types of dietary restrictions. Where I’ve found the most difficulty in being vegan is within the context of my own family, especially my Puerto Rican family on my mother’s side.

At the beginning of my experience of being vegan and not eating meat, I feared what it meant for my relationship with my family and the food that is so connected to my ancestry and familial identity. From arroz con pollo to pasteles to pernil, Puerto Rican food uses pork, chicken, and other meats in so many dishes. Whether it be used as a primary protein, a filling, or a flavoring, meat seems to be intertwined in so much of what gives Puerto Rican food its defining characteristics. With this in mind, I found it difficult to navigate fully experiencing my family’s traditions without being able to eat so much of the food. Food is love in my family. It is how people express that they care, it’s how we support each other, and it’s how we pass down what we’ve learned. Rejecting this food, despite my family’s understanding of my reasoning, felt rude and disrespectful, especially when my mom, my aunts or my cousins would make dishes that had such significance to their lineage and history. For a while, I felt stuck between my own perspective on health and the treatment of animals and my family’s traditions.

Slowly, with the support of my family and learning to cook more and more dishes, I realized that Puerto Rican and vegan are not mutually exclusive terms when it comes to food. Using rice, plantains, coconut, potatoes, onions, garlic, oregano, olives and vegetables (sparingly), Puerto Rican cuisine uses so many plant-based foods as the base and flavor in their dishes. So many distinct Puerto Rican flavors and spices, like sazón and adobo, are vegan, and Puerto Rican and Caribbean staples like plantains and yucca are used as the base for many dishes. Tostones, plátanos maduros, arroz con gandules (if you don’t use pork) and tembleque are all traditional in Puerto Rican cuisine and they’re all vegan. Learning from and cooking with my family members in combination with my own expansion of knowledge of how to cook vegan food, I have been able to use both sources to learn and make food that is true to both sides of myself. It has also made me realize that my fear of losing tradition and being offensive to those I love was irrational, since it is the love of my family that has given me the opportunity to make this combination of Puerto Rican and vegan food. I have come to understand that tradition is not limited to what came before, but instead, tradition is malleable and comes from the relationship one has with their past in combination with their own current ideas and values.

Patricia García

Most people assume that being vegan and Latinx automatically closes one off to traditional Latin American dishes. With the public perception of veganism being white women, I understand why this is the case. In fact, I was first persuaded to go vegan after following one of these women on Instagram. She went vegan and quickly encouraged her followers to watch several videos about the cruelty that comes with consuming animal products. After watching one documentary and two speeches on Youtube, I committed to my transition to veganism.

For years, I followed so many of these white vegan women on social media, and they were a crucial part of my journey. Not knowing many vegans in real life, they provided me with a sense of motivation and connection. I never saw myself represented in the vegan movement, however, until two years ago. This is when I began seeing other women like me, brown and proud, that held my same values. These women helped me understand the link between animal exploitation and other forms of oppression. From the women of color collective Veggie Mijas to the incredible work of black women such as Aph Ko and Dr. Breeze Harper, I have learned that veganism can be a powerful tool in the fight for social change spearheaded by people of color. One aspect of this includes maintaining one’s cultural foods while also embracing a more compassionate and healthful approach to these dishes.

In terms of my own culture, gallo pinto con aguacate y chimol is a staple dish for me at home. I also eat pupusas with frijoles or even with vegan cheese, you just have to know where to look. As a Latina whose parents immigrated to the United States from Nicaragua and El Salvador, this is what veganism looks like for me. I am still the first person to try out a new vegan restaurant and love my fair share of veggie burgers and milkshakes, but some vegan arroz con leche is always going to be the vibe. Going vegan has made me appreciate my culture in a new light, encouraging me to explore the multitude of ways that my Latinx identity actually connects to my beliefs.

Now, I am constantly energized by the array of people of color advocating for veganism alongside other social justice issues and making the lifestyle accessible to their communities. Seeing people from different races and ethnicities share how they tie their cultural foods to veganism is also an inspiration. Because of them, I envision all of the potential there is for this movement to include people of all backgrounds.

Impana Murthy

Being a vegetarian is honestly difficult in a city like New Orleans. The culture here is built upon the food. But the food generally isn’t vegetarian. I cannot count the number of times I’ve been to a Cajun-inspired dinner and walked away from the serving station with just “Red Beans and Rice (vegetarian)” and “Bread Pudding (contains nuts)”. Or the number of times I’ve been out with friends and suddenly, everyone has a craving for Cane’s and I end up sitting at a booth with just lemonade (admittedly delicious, but unfortunately not a meal). Or the number of times I’ve been to any of the restaurants downtown that have one vegetarian option on their menu that I am forced to try because it’s the only thing I can eat.

As a South Indian, the tradition of vegetarianism has extended for generations before me on both sides of my family. As I was doing my research for this article, I discovered that India actually has the highest percentage of vegetarians globally. The reason this is possible is because of our cuisine. Our two staple foods are rice and lentils. These two food groups fulfill your body’s need for all twenty essential amino acids, therefore forming a complete protein. In my family, however, it’s not that scientific. We are vegetarian because of our religion, Veerashaivism, which is a denomination of Hinduism. Historically, Veerashaivism preached non-violence towards animals. It also encouraged vegetarianism because it was believed that abstaining from meat would result in an individual being rewarded in the afterlife.

Personally, I decided to stay a vegetarian in college because meat seems to be an acquired taste for me. Both my parents and my friends have tried to convert me to being a non-vegetarian (in order to get that iron and B-12), but I simply cannot get used to the texture (therefore accepting my anemic fate). For now though, I will continue to uphold my family’s rich traditional vegetarian cuisine. Next year, when I move off campus, y’all can expect to come over for rice and lentils!

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