“No, I don’t eat meat anymore.” I can hear the collective gasps from my grandparents as my grandma hovers a piece of pork above my plate; she looks like she’s about to faint. Immediately the questions begin, my grandparent’s voices overlapping with fear.
In Latin families, especially Cuban ones, food is a marker of our culture. It is a symbol of who we are, as we gather around the table to share and bond, an instrument used to bring the family together.
Food is the way in which we show our love for one another. So when I declared to my family that from now on I would be a vegetarian they took it as some sort of betrayal. How could I eat my abuelita’s famous pallomilla or my mother’s chicken soup? How could we cook together when I couldn’t stand the thought of eating a living animal much less helping in its preparation.
At first, the news spread like wildfire, the latest “chisme” (gossip) spreading from person to person. My aunt lamented how I was giving up delicious meat-based meals like “pan con lechon” or “ropa vieja”.
I was constantly reminded about what a large part food played in my culture and traditions. And in the eyes of my community, I was giving that up, giving up a part of myself. For the longest time, I thought being a vegetarian was something only white people did. Until I said ‘why can’t I do it?’
Family is vital in my culture, we are each other’s rocks, which can result in Latin parents being incredible worry warts over nearly everything. My transition brought on a new overwhelming concern for my health. As if by changing my diet I was inviting all sorts of illnesses. My father force fed me iron pills and vitamins the first month I was a vegetarian and my mother scurried along the grocery store aisles for protein substitutes. My grandparents insisted I visit the doctors to check if my iron and protein levels were ok. It irritated me to no end, but at least they were finally accepting my decision.
Truth be told, at first, I felt like a burden at every family meal as everyone scrambled to make a separate meal for me. I felt guilty not eating the delicious yet sadly meat-based meals my family made and I missed cooking with them.
Before becoming a vegetarian, I didn’t realize how prevalent meat was in my diet, virtually every meal consisted of either beef, chicken, or pork with a carb side. Vegetables are almost non-existent in Cuban food, when I first transitioned eating vegetables took a lot of effort. I didn’t know how to adapt to an almost entirely different routine and I had no one to turn to for help.
I began creating what I named “Veggie Cuban Favorites”, and replaced the meat product in my favorite meals with vegetables or other meat substitutes. Instead of “pan con bistec” I had vegetables with sautéed onions and little fries. Instead of garbanzo soup with sausages, I ditched the meat and added spices like black pepper and cayenne. Instead of meat picadillo, I picked up some soy and tofu picadillo at the grocery store and cooked alongside my parents again.
My advice for anybody in a Latin family (or any family where meat and food are important in your culture) is to just stick with it. At the end of the day, although I didn’t have the same support and ease into transitioning into the vegetarian lifestyle as others did, my decision was important to me. I’m not betraying my culture just because I decided to do something different, in fact, I am shaping a new type mindset in my community about the impact of the food we eat.