Editor’s note: This is the first piece in a new series on revolutionary health and nutrition. In this series, we hope to include interviews with alternative healthcare providers such as acupuncturists, midwives, herbalists, and other healers. The goal is to develop a discussion on the role of health in revolutionary transformation, both at a personal level and at a social level.
Dr. Luz Calvo is a professor of Ethnic Studies, a gardener, cook, and political activist in Oakland, CA. Describing their newest project, Calvo and her co-author, Dr. Catriona R. Esquibel, write: “We have a passion for Mexican food. We have a passion for gardens, for healthy food, for food justice, and for people of color reclaiming our histories. All of this has led us to our current project, Decolonize Your Diet. This is a project to reclaim the heritage foods of greater Mexico and Central America as a way improving the physical, emotional, and spiritual health of US Latinos/as.”
In this new series on health, nutrition, and how it all fits into the project of revolutionary transformation, we’ll begin by hearing from Dr. Calvo on what (de)colonization has to do with what we eat, why the Standard American Diet (SAD) is the “standard,” and about the organizing that is happening around the intersections of self-determination, food security, and radical social change.
Michelle Foy: How did you come to this work of decolonizing our diet?
Luz Calvo: There are two tracks that led me to this work. In 2006 I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I had been a vegetarian for 15 years and thought I had been eating really healthy. I went through treatment for the cancer, including chemotherapy. The whole experience shook me to the core. In my rebuilding process, I started looking at lot more in depth at diet, investigating what I should be eating to rebuild my strength and how I could fight a recurrence of the cancer through dietary choices.
So that was one track. The other one has to do with my students. One day I was walking through campus and I saw some of my Latino/a students selling Krispy Kreme donuts. I went up to them. I was kind of teasing them and said, “Hey, you’re selling the colonizer’s food.” They were trying to sell me donuts and I was trying to tell them, “No way am I going to put that in my body.” They showed me the box, saying, “Hey, it says no trans fat, they’re not that bad.” I think that’s when it clicked for me, calling it colonizer’s food and thinking about what it would mean to decolonize your diet.
I was also reading Michael Pollan and Slow Food Movement stuff and I was convinced by a lot of what Pollan had to say. His basic message is, “Eat food, mostly plants and not too much.” His key idea is that we need to be eating real food as opposed to processed food. So much of what people eat anymore is not actually food; it’s more like a chemical experiment.
I agree with Pollan that we need to go back to what our ancestors ate, even in the 1940s, before food became an industrial product. There was this huge change around the 1940s and 1950s, when food became highly processed and also with the advent of factory farming. Thinking about that in a Mexican/Latino context, I started thinking about how my grandparents ate. They owned a Mexican restaurant in San Fernando, where I was born. Everything was made from scratch, and the food was delicious.
I started to do more research and then I taught a special topics class at Cal State East Bay called “Decolonize Your Diet” in spring of 2011. It was an amazing experience. It was mostly Latino/a students, but there were also African American, Asian American and white students. Some of the immigrant students had access to food knowledge, recipes, and ways of eating that were very new to me. So that motivated me even more. I started doing research on less common foods, like chaya, verdolagas, xoconostle, and quelites. I found that many foods in a traditional Mexican diet actually prevent diabetes—like nopales for example. These foods have powerful anti-cancer properties as well.
MF: What kinds of impacts have you seen with the students you work with?
LC: In Ethnic Studies we think a lot about what is knowledge, who holds knowledge, what kind of knowledge is valued. How can we, as people of color, look at the knowledge we hold collectively and validate it? Food is a very easy way in to this conversation, as everybody has stories about food; everybody has foods that they like. Because we are so colonized and because my students, especially, are living a lot on fast food and really cheap food, it provides a way to open up conversations about the impact of capitalism and consumerism on our bodies and communities. We also talk about how we can recover some of the ancestral knowledge that people hold in their immediate families. It’s pretty cool to get students to realize that maybe their great-grandmother has the key to our people’s survival and health. Maybe this great-grandmother knows more than some big professor at Harvard.
It’s good for student’s self-esteem, in a certain kind of way. To validate that their families hold this knowledge. It’s also a good horizontal teaching method, rather than me being the holder of the knowledge, I facilitate the sharing of knowledge.
Also, something I’ve been thinking about a lot—what kind of education and knowledge is valuable to have? As we go deeper into this global economic crisis, it’s actually some of these older, traditional ways of knowing how to survive at a really basic level that are going to be critical. For me personally, I’m trying to get up to speed. I now know how to garden, grow my own food, prepare it, and store it. Those are the skills that are going to be helpful for us to survive as a people going forward.
MF: Can you talk about what Public Health professionals have termed the Latino/a paradox?
LC: For the most part in the United States, health–whether it’s infant mortality, diabetes rates, heart disease, high blood pressure, some cancers—is directly correlated to your socio-economic class. The richer you are, the better your health, the better your chances of living longer. The poorer you are, the more likely you’re going to die early, and your kids are more likely to have health problems. It’s what we know as “health disparities.”
There’s one exception, which has to do with recent Latino/a immigrants. It ends up on every health measure—including infant mortality, overall mortality, rates of diabetes, rates of cancer, specifically breast cancer, and heart disease: recent Mexican immigrants actually have better health on all measures than people in similar socio-economic classes, but more shockingly, better than middle class people. This is what researchers have called the “Latino/a Paradox.” There are literally hundreds of articles on this if you search PubMed (the medical database).
In Mexico itself there’s actually a flat social gradient, which means that poor people in Mexico have equal health to rich folks in Mexico. In a way it’s shocking and in another way it’s not. Poor people in Mexico still eat beans and corn tortillas that they make from scratch. They eat a lot of foraged greens, and squash and whole foods. Rich people in Mexico have access to processed foods and cigarettes. Of course, the people who are immigrating to the US, for the most part, are working class and poor people, a lot of them coming from ranchos, who have been living off the land. They are bringing this traditional knowledge as well as medicinal teas. They know how to cure themselves without using pharmaceuticals.
What’s shocking to me is that all these public health people who are studying this are not even looking at diet. They’re trying to explain this by some kind of cultural explanation: “They’re very religious, they have strong social networks.” To me, this takes away from the fact that people who are recent immigrants are under incredible social stress—they’re living in close quarters, they’ve left their families, they’re undocumented. You would think this level of stress would cause them to have worse health. I don’t see how cultural or social factors could explain these very interesting statistics.
MF: The food and the traditional medicinal practices are providing a certain kind of resilience to be able to weather the extreme stress of migration…
LC: …and racism, repression, and really dangerous jobs they’re working in. As time goes on, the longer these immigrants are in the U.S., they slowly lose these benefits. By the next generation, the benefits have mostly been lost, and certainly by the following generation they’re totally lost, as people assimilate into US culture–eating fast food and cheap pizza. What this teaches us is that ancestral knowledge is really important and we need to un-assimilate ourselves. Assimilation is bad for our bodies.
MF: Your work is specifically directed towards Latin@s and people indigenous to the Americas. What can those who are not indigenous to the Americas learn from the Decolonizing approach to food and health?
LC: Other groups can be doing similar reclamation work. My critique of Michael Pollan is that he’s very Euro American centered. In Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual he has a section on people looking to their ancestry. He talks about traditional Italian, Greek, and other European diets. He doesn’t even mention Mexican food. It’s appalling to me that he would hyper-value Italian food, when Italian food is totally based on food from the Americas, like tomatoes and corn for polenta.
Every culture did have a whole food way of eating if you go back far enough. It’s about reclaiming that. I would be really hesitant to say that there’s this one ingredient in Mexican cooking that everybody needs to eat. Obviously we can all claim multiple cultures in one way or another. Mexican culture is deeply mixed and we don’t all need to go back to a pre-Columbian way of eating, although there’s a lot to learn from that. Colonization brought a lot of oils, frying, and cheese, whereas the pre-Columbian diet was all steamed or cooked in pits, so there was a healthy process to preparing the food. I say all of this and want to stress that I’m not trying to go back to some “pure” before.
For me, ultimately, it’s all about resisting the advanced capitalist food system, which is killing us but is making mega-profits for a handful of multinational corporations that basically own our entire food supply. We need to resist that and we can start in really small, concrete steps, such as growing and cooking our own food.
MF: How are individual food choices linked to a broader struggle for food security in people of color and working class communities? Clearly we know it’s not simply about “choice,” as many poor and working class neighborhoods have limited access to whole and traditional foods. What kind of organizing are you seeing to challenge food insecurity and to take it beyond individual choice to a broader systemic level?
LC: Part of what I’m doing is growing a lot of my own food. We’ve turned our back yard into a sort of permaculture food forest. I’m really committed to helping a lot of people do this. I’ve installed about five or six gardens—raised beds—for friends and comrades.
I’m also working with a couple of community groups in deep east Oakland. We’ve installed two different gardens in the last month, looking at using land in the city to grow food. This is a trend. It’s mostly a trend for people who have more access to start gardens. However, there are working class people, particularly Latinos and Asians, on our block here in Fruitvale who have been growing food in their front yard for decades. I have to say for me personally, it’s one of the most important things I do. To be able to harvest what I grow, then cook it for dinner. It connects me to my ancestors. For me, this is really grounding. It helps me to opt out of the capitalist food system that is so damaging to people’s bodies and the planet. To the extent we can opt out of that system and become self-sustaining, I think that’s an important way for us to build politically.
MF: Thinking about a possible continuum of transformation, the different steps involved in changes towards a decolonized diet on a societal level, what do we need to make it possible beyond the individual, at a community/societal level?
LC: Look at Goldman Sachs, for example, and global finance overall. They are betting on the futures of commodities like wheat, when there are food shortages across the world. I’m somewhat of the belief that capitalism is doing a good job of dismantling itself. The contradictions are becoming so stark. I feel like building our capacity for self-sufficiency at the local level is where we should be working right now. I do see that as being part of this larger paradigm shift. What needs to be resisted is the commodification of things, recuperating things to be sold. For example, the concept of sustainability. It would be a real problem if Decolonize Your Diet were a way for someone to reap profits, as opposed to a way for immigrant communities to empower themselves.
MF: The Standard American Diet–how did we get to this place where disease-causing, life-killing foods are considered the “norm” and what most people in this country eat?
LC: It all has to do with the way capitalism and monopolies formed. After the 1940s, more or less, everybody in America was eating the same thing. Does that make any sense? Instead of expanding the options available to us, it became so limited.
I was raised in the 70s; we were all eating Kraft Mac and Cheese, no matter what culture you came from. Everybody was buying the same food, because it was cheap and convenient, as our parents were forced to work more hours. With all available adults in the family having to work, the amount of time that was available to do things like baking your own bread became out of reach to most families.
Then government subsidizes certain foods, making them available and cheap. And those are the foods that are the worst for you. For example, high-fructose corn syrup, which is put in so many foods. This was not accidental; it was all part of a systematic process that put profits over people.
Another part of it is mono-culture—raising one and only one crop on acres of land requires a lot of pesticides and fertilizers. The nutrition in our food is declining because of the impact on soil from mono-cultures.
MF: Many people who come around to a commitment to whole, traditional foods arrive through personal experiences of disease. I was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis about 5 years ago, when I was 35, the same age that my dad was diagnosed with colon cancer. Ulcerative colitis is considered to be a precursor to colon cancer. All of this was a wake up call for me about what I was putting into my body. How have you seen personal experiences and challenges translate into broader transformation?
LC: Everybody has a story. All my students have stories of family members with diabetes, or they themselves have diabetes. Diabetes is a huge crisis in communities of color across the country; clearly there’s a direct causal link with the Standard American Diet. People connect at a very personal level; it’s a good hook to encourage people to analyze politically how and why we got here.
Then we can open a critique of these broader structures of colonization, advanced capitalism, and gender relations as well. Gender is very tied together with food, with women being forced to cook food for the family and clean up after. When labor is forced and controlled, it ceases to be something that is creative or nurturing. Cooking and gardening are a kind of labor that is not alienated for me. It’s about sustaining life. I can be really creative in the way I garden and what I grow and how I cook. The way an artist creates something that is beautiful. It is work, but it’s really connected to play and creativity. How can we create a society where all work is like that, where it’s creative and not drudgery? Because of the gender relations involved with cooking, for the women who are forced to do it, it becomes drudgery, and that’s why they say, “Let’s go to McDonald’s or let’s get pizza.” You have to start from the ground up. What about starting with valuing that work and that practice?
MF: As a parent, it feels like a constant struggle to fight the marketing, cultural hegemony, and addictive quality of processed, colonized foods. To you, is a decolonized approach to diet and nutrition just as tempting, interesting and delicious, and how so?
LC: You can express your individuality, your culture, your history, your connection to the ancestors through something as simple as preparing a pot of beans from scratch. What happened with commodification and the capitalist system—food was disconnected from its cultural context. Food became something that we ate just to satisfy a hunger pain, rather than part of a whole cultural practice. That cultural practice is really important—how to reclaim that, reintegrate that and revalue that. That’s the work we need to do going forward, to decolonize our diet and reclaim ancestral knowledge.
Dr. Calvo invites our readers to join “Luz’s Decolonial Cooking Club” on Facebook, where she shares recipes, food tips, and articles about food justice.
You can see a recipe for black bean, sweet potato and quinoa chili here.Download this piece as a PDF