When you become a vegetarian in a Latin household, you have to understand you are not just embracing a new lifestyle, you are also undertaking the task of acclimating your family to a new culture. For many Latinos, being a vegetarian is as foreign and exotic as Burrundi.
“Que eso? Un baile nuevo? “
They may have heard of it, but will probably have a completely different notion than you of what that means.
For years, I mean years, this was the conversation in my grandmother Tata’s kitchen:
Tata: Has comido?
Tata: Hice bistec
Sandy: Tata, soy vegetariana
Tata: Se me olvido! Pues mija tengo pollo y pescado tambien en la nevera
Sandy: Tata, no como ningun tipo de carne
Tata: Pero, tu te vas a mas a morrir de mal alimentacion. Eso no es sano.
This occurred every single time I would go visit her! No fail. I sometimes thought I should just record my responses because it was the same conversation with every other older Latino that would offer me food. While she doesn’t get it, she at least backs off now after the first “no, thank you.” Of course, this make me feel crappy, because I am denying my grandmother the opportunity to feed me her food, and I know it must break her heart.
For Latinos, Meat=Nutrition
I grew up in New York City. In fact, my parents had a meat market in the city. (Pls leave Freudian analysis out of this lol). As a good immigrant kid, I started working at the bodega as soon as I could walk, and this gave me a really good education on Latino’s relationship with food – which is really quite complicated and very reflective of what we have gone through as people.
We love meat. We really do. For my grandmother, and many like her, eating meat means you are giving your body the “ultimate” mega nutrients to stay healthy and strong.
How many of us remember being a kid, sitting at the table, not being able to eat another morsel. A parental figure always offer you the same compromise: “Eat a few more pieces of the meat, and that’s it.” They never forced you to finish the vegetables or rice, it was always the meat.
I’m sure this relationship to meat is historical reason and probably to poverty in some way. (I’m Cuban, and I can’t even count how many stories my family has that revolve around either not being able to get meat, or the witty ways they used to obtain it. I’ll leave that for another post). However, for me, our attachment to meat has a lot to do with our lack of education in this area.
I’m the first one to recognize that traditional diets tend to be quite balanced. However, in an era where meat is widely accessible and mass produced, and all of our dishes taste the same because we are using the same seasoning (which, btw, has MSG) we are no longer eating a traditional diet. How we are using meat in 2010 is quite different than how it was used in 1910…and lets not even touch upon the subject of quality.
Anyway, once you become a vegetarian, be ready to repeat yourself constantly. I would also encourage you to use this opportunity to educate your family. My mom died of stomach cancer, and to this day my biggest regret is not having taken her on the educational journey I had just begun a year before she had gotten sick. I’m quite positive that if her eating habits had changed, she probably would still be with us today.