Descolonízate: Decolonizing Our Food After 500 Years of Colonialism
Where I come from, (Borikén, also known by the name Puerto Rico), the mentality surrounding indigenous identity is, unfortunately, incredibly laced with shame. Many Puerto Ricans, even those of us who are aware of and connected to our indigenous ancestry, deal with self-hate and self-rejection of who we are. The reason? We are still a colony, and anyone reading this who knows what it is like to live in a country that is currently colonized, or is dealing with the ramifications of centuries of colonization, knows that when you are in an abusive relationship with an oppressive power (let’s call it what it is), you internalize shame, self-hate and self-blame to the point where it dictates the way you act, feel, and think about yourself.
In practice, this looks like clinging to whatever pieces of our identity feel the most “acceptable.” It looks like passionately defending parts of us that aren’t even ours to begin with, because we were told that is who we are. It looks like adopting the identity we were told to adopt, and forgetting our roots, our ancestors, and many – too many – of the values that they needed us to hold on to. Things like seeing ourselves reflected in all living things, respecting the planet we live on, and understanding ourselves to be interdependent. While I won’t speak to any other heritage but my own (boricua), I hope that this piece offers healing, support, and empowerment to all who read it.
Bearing The Responsibility To Protect
Our ancestors need us to question everything. This applies to the food that we eat and the way that we treat animals. Indigenous tribes across the globe are currently bearing the responsibility of protecting 80% of the world’s ecosystems, and we are constantly under attack. Our ancestors need us to look at the food and reality that we are being presented as “normal” and see it for what it is: scraps. They need us to see the violence that systems like factory farming and meat-based diets are inflicting on the earth that they so diligently took care of. They need us to see animals as equals, and to understand the impact of killing an animal for food. They need us to opt out of mass production oriented farms that till and spray pesticides on the ground that not only feeds us, but also houses countless organisms that we depend on, that the entire animal and plant kingdoms depend on.
Once again, I’ll only be speaking from the perspective of my own lineage: “taíno,” AKA kan jíbaro, AKA boricua. Puerto Rico has unfortunately been a colony for 500 years. This has meant that our sense of identity has been under attack for 500 years. Every single generation that has existed in the past 500 years in this colonized territory has been the subject of violence, displacement, genocide, and the uprooting of the matrilineal system in which women were responsible for about 80% of the tribes’ food, not to mention the passing down of societal roles for all gender identities, that existed in this archipelago long before patriarchy was imposed by the European invaders as a form of oppression. With patriarchy came husbandry (for both, animals and people), and with husbandry came practices like carnism, reproductive abuse, tilling, and eventually, dairy farming.
Decolonizing Our Food
Despite what many voices in the media say nowadays, the practice of tilling and animal farming has been destructive to the planet, as well as, of course, to animals, since long before factory farming was invented. Tying a plow to an animal, in order to open up the soil, for example, is a european colonial practice – very different from the indigenous planting/harvesting practices that our ancestors kept, and with which they were able to prevent soil erosion for centuries, something that many of the ancient civilizations that we study as the greats, such as Kemet/Egypt and Mesopotamia, failed to do. Not to mention, that the practice of confining and/or exploiting an animal (i.e husbandry) was simply not done in Puerto Rico at the time, as it was understood to be unsustainable and unnecessary. There is a lot more to this topic, so if you are interested in learning more about this particular type of takeover in depth, I recommend the book Our Beloved Kin by Lisa Brooks.
While we can’t know what our ancestors were thinking at the time regarding animal exploitation, when we examine what we know about taíno society and culture, it is safe to say that we do not, in fact, come from a culture that valued, exalted, or enjoyed animal exploitation in any way, and that we do come from one that, on the contrary, valued living in harmony with the totality of its environment, and this, of course, includes all forms of animal life. While there is no evidence that our ancestors as a culture were completely vegan, animal meat comprised less than 20% of the food they consumed, and we have reason to believe that hunting was not a consistent part of feeding the tribe (our ancestors possibly hunted when facing things like a bad harvest or other forms of scarcity). There is also evidence that they did not engage in any form of animal farming, or even equivalents to pesticides (the indigenous methods for getting rid of pests that survive in Puerto Rico to this day have to do with repelling, more than they do with killing)
The Paper Genocide
In Puerto Rico, we were the targets of what is now being called the paper genocide. Our people survived many different forms of genocide, but this particular one is essential to our process of decolonizing our relationship with animals, and with the animal-based foods that many of us are eating under the guise of comer criollo, or eating in accordance with our cultural heritage. We were systemically pressured into forgetting who we are, and denied access through censorship to the necessary materials with which to remember where we come from. The introduction of patriarchy upon the Spanish invasion was step 1, because the women in our tribes were in charge of about 80% the food supply, and their own roles in the tribe dictated the roles of the tribe’s children. The paper genocide described in this article was one of the many measures taken to make us what colonizers wanted us to be: supply, service. There are still descendants of people who kept the kan jíbaro (AKA taíno) lineage alive in their families in Puerto Rico. But many of us are the product of generations internalizing what we were told over and over again, first by the Spanish, then by the US: if we wanted to get anywhere – advance as individuals or as a society – we needed to be more like our colonizer.
In the 21th century, while we are still a colony of the United States, this has many implications. Among them, it means that we have learned to see the Standard American Diet as the epitome of abundance. We associate the meat from cows, pigs, chickens and fish with decadence and success, as our populations grow more and more addicted to the animal-based foods from fast food chains, and the rates of chronic illness skyrocket. We see lechón asao (roasted pig on a spit), and chicharrón (fried pig skin) as native foods, disregarding the fact that pigs are not native to Puerto Rico and were brought over by the European invaders. We feed milk, eggs and butter to aging populations to boost their immune function, despite the growing evidence that over 80% of humans are lactose intolerant, and ignoring the scientific evidence that points to the fact that dairy is an inflammatory food. We pass off animal advocates’ cries for justice as extremist while our ecosystems suffer, our animals suffer, and our ancestors watch us make ourselves, the animals, and the environment sick at the hands of colonialism.
We do this because it’s what we consider normal – because it’s what we are being told is normal. And the process of decolonization requires that we allow ourselves to think outside of what our colonized system tells us is the status quo. In a colony, the status quo = what we (our people, land and the animals we share it with) “deserve.” But objectively, we do not deserve the devastation of our ecosystems and animal life; we do not deserve to be fed processed animal products that can only come in through the US merchant marine, and we do not deserve to live in complete disconnection with the land we belong to, or the animals we share it with. Our ancestors need us to realize this. And for those who don’t know, our ancestors are not only human. We are related to the animals and the trees.
What Do We Deserve?
We deserve to caretake the land we are on, to harvest its medicinal foods, and to eat in harmony with the animals and plants we coexist with. Right now, with the devastation that followed hurricane Fiona, the colonial reality of Puerto Rico is glaringly obvious and disturbing. People and animals are being left to die while entire ecosystems are being devastated by different forms of disaster capitalism.
For this reason, initiatives like Casa Vegana de la Comunidad have mobilized to provide free vegan lunch to communities that still have no power, are dealing with consistent power outages, or have no water. This is still the majority of Puerto Rico. Casa Vegana’s focus is the Río Piedras community, which is the subject of negligence and systemic abuses such as gentrification and racial profiling, and whose community-based cultural efforts carry most of the weight of the community’s resilience since before hurricane Fiona.
If you wish to support disaster relief efforts on the ground in Puerto Rico that prioritize the decolonization of our relationship with food and that actively support the health of our community members without exploiting animals, make sure to check out, donate to, and share Casa Vegana’s free vegan lunch initiative. Casa Vegana’s goal is to feed another 600 people by November 1st. Casa Vegana is the only initiative giving out healthy vegan food in the San Juan area. All of the food distributed is made with whole food, plant based ingredients. Casa Vegana is also trying to raise funds to support local agricultural efforts in the process of feeding the community, and therefore simultaneously support the local agricultural decolonization front with our work.
We are, at the end of the day, so much more than what we have been told.