When my beret-wearing, avocado-loving cousin visited my family from Los Angeles for the holidays, he came with a special announcement: he no longer ate meat. To my traditional father, the announcement was proof of “rampant Americanization” and to my cousin, eating a plant based diet meant that, at best, he could eat rice and cilantro leaves at Christmas dinner.
For the entirety of his stay, mealtimes were inevitably turned into interrogations regarding his newfound lifestyle choice. “But, chicken doesn’t really count, right?” and “Why do you have to be so complicated?” were so often tossed around that I was quite impressed by how well my cousin kept his composure. Although I often shushed my parents from further playful torment and was an advocate for making sure there was always a vegetarian alternative for him, I was faced with a realization of my own: Latinos, really, really love their meat.
As a proud Nicaraguan who has lived most of her life in the United States, my national pride manifests itself in two ways–my Spanish speaking and my love of (as my favorite Nicaraguan food YouTuber puts it), la gastronomia Nicaraguense. Like most Latin countries, meat is an essential part of our traditional dishes and is often the spectacle at most holiday tables. Even foods that don’t necessarily contain meat can be traced with lard or are simply meant to be vehicles to consume more meat.
I would be lying if I said that I didn’t give my cousin some intense side eye when he would go on his long rants about how eating meat was unhealthy while simultaneously eating a heaping plate of cheese-drowned spaghetti. I would also be lying if I said that despite being a meat eater, I ate a diet with a food pyramid balance so impressive it would make an elementary school nutritionist gleam with pride. From tagging my friends with stereotypical vegan memes that gave me headaches to cringing at the mention of vegan alternatives to traditionally carnivorous dishes, I definitely had an inherent meat bias. While discussing the topic of meat, a question passed my mind that was both divisive and extremely superficial: “How can you be Latino and not eat meat?”
Despite the fact that I was clearly (not-so-secretly) judgmental, I’d thoroughly read the pages of a Meat Industry exposé book (while humming “In the Arms of an Angel”) and recognized the large scope of the meat industry’s environmental footprint. I knew meat was bad for the environment, and, with the copious amounts of pig fat I consumed, bad for my body too. A discussion with my cousin reminded me that many of our traditional Nicaraguan dishes had strong indigenous roots and that indigenous peoples native to our countries weren’t traditionally insatiable meat eaters. The questioning of a norm that was so deeply ingrained into my daily life prompted me to investigate more about ethical eating and the impacts of the animal industry on the environment. Aside from gaining respect for a movement I so often teased as a trend and learning more about ethical eating, I came to the conclusion that a single aspect does not define somebody’s identity, especially the ever-changing circumstances of culture.