I can still smell the masa, and hear the sizzle of the arepas on the griddle. My tias (aunts) are talking and laughing, clapping their palms together to formulate perfectly plump, round patties while my papi (dad) is off picking oranges or mangoes in the grove for our morning juice. This is how I remember my summers spent on our family mango farm in the countryside of Venezuela—my paternal patria (homeland). As we cooked arepas in the tile-lined kitchen of our finca (farm) in the early morning, the ever-so-slight smell of manure roamed the air. Before long the roosters would start crowing, waking up the rest of the animalitos (little animals), and signaling the beginning of a new day.
I haven’t been back in nearly a decade. But I try to take arepas with me wherever I go. Not literally speaking, of course. Though I’ll never forget my shock at finding a bag of harina P.A.N.—the white corn meal base of the arepa—at a cultural foods festival in New Zealand, which I proceeded to buy, pack, and bring with me back to Australia where I was based at the time. I was excited to make them for my roommates in our newly appointed home. It was a way for me to share my culture with others, and in the process, reinforce it within myself.
For many young Latines growing up in the United States, we know our traditional foods to be a point of sharing, joy, laughter, and community. In addition to bringing families together, be it around the kitchen or the dining table, our traditional meals keep us rooted in our culture through the ancestral ingredients we use, the conversations they spark, and the memories created in the process. The smells, flavors, and energy fortify as they’re carried down, from one generation to the next. It is a culture, however, heavily influenced by meat, something I stopped eating at the age of twelve despite my father’s concerns. And although it has been fun finding new and creative fillings for the arepas, which are often traditionally eaten with various types of meat, one aspect did get lost in my meatless venture: community. Around me, a burgeoning vegan movement was overwhelmingly white-washed, with an emphasis on unseasoned raw foods. Was this really what I had to look forward to?
Around me, a burgeoning vegan movement was overwhelmingly white-washed, with an emphasis on unseasoned raw foods. Was this really what I had to look forward to?
I thought so—and I wasn’t alone. Daniela Medrano, who is a member of Veggie Mijas, a collective founded in 2017 to bring together self-proclaimed “activistas de la tierra” or Earth activists, has been meat-free for a large portion of her life. After witnessing firsthand the meat-making process in Mexico, where her parents are from and where her father was a butcher, a traumatic event led Medrano—who was born and raised in Chicago—to cut meat from her diet entirely. “It was kinda hard for my family to buy into the idea,” Medrano told Atmos. “They thought it was just going to be a phase.”
But, when her family realized that her mind was set, she and her mother managed to work together to honor Medrano’s wishes while keeping their cultural roots intact. “A lot of people think going vegan means you have to lose something…and that’s one of the things that’s scary for us—that we could lose a big part of ourselves because food is so important to [our] culture.”
It was, in part, this fear that led her to seek out like-minded individuals, but opportunities to connect with people who shared both her appetites and her lived experience were few and far between. “I started off just looking up different vegan or vegetarian events in Chicago, and every time I showed up to these spaces, I didn’t see myself reflected…there weren’t many folks that looked like me. There weren’t many folks that were cooking like me either. My food was too seasoned for them, it was just too much,” she said. When she finally came across Veggie Mijas, which began as a crowdsourcing Instagram page for plant-based people of color to share their cultural recipes with a vegan twist, she was happy to see there was already a chapter in her city. “It was just a beautiful opportunity to meet people from Colombia, Peru, and Puerto Rico that were veganizing their food. And we had a lot of similarities in our food styles, but they were also unique. That was even more of a reinforcement that this is the space I need[ed].”
One of Medrano’s favorite dishes to cook is gorditas, which translates to “little fat one” in English. Similar to the arepa, Mexican gorditas are extremely versatile corn tortillas made with pockets in the middle for stuffings of your choosing. Medrano typically opts for gorditas at family gatherings as they “satisfy everyone in my family. We don’t have to fight about what’s going to be the star dish.” When she was younger, she would eat them with beef, but now she’ll make them with beans and vegan cheese while reminiscing about past holidays, Mexican nineties music, and her time in Mexico. She also loves them for their name, which in many parts of Latin America is used as a term of endearment. “When we hear [that] word, it has such a negative connotation,” she said. “And I think fatness is beautiful…it’s representative for me of [the fact that] vegans come in all shapes and sizes.”
Medrano has seen first-hand how food impacts quality of life. In Chicago, for example, a lack of access to fresh foods is affecting the health of not only her community, but also the people she loves. “We see our families suffer with preventable diseases that are food-related, like high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes,” she said. “It’s hurtful to see our communities lose folks at such a young age.” Through Veggie Mijas, she hopes to bring nutrition-centered bilingual workshops and cooking demonstrations to the community. “Even if it creates a small ripple for us… to inspire folks to eat more fresh foods, that’s already a win.”
Like Medrano, Daniela Torres, another member of the Veggie Mijas Chicago chapter, has been forced to reconsider her relationship with treasured family dishes. Growing up in Oak Park, a predominantly white neighborhood outside of Chicago, she felt isolated from her Peruvian ancestry. And so, at home, Torres, who has been vegan for five years now, kept her veganism under wraps for a while. “[In] my family, and probably most Latine culture, they think it’s a diet move like, Oh you’re trying to lose weight,” she said. “Or [they think of it as] a very temporary, very white thing to do.” So, when her family eventually realized she was leaving ingredients out of meals, she finally confessed. “It’s not a diet. I consider it a journey,” she told them.
“A lot of people think going vegan means you have to lose something and that’s one of the things that’s scary for us because food is so important to our culture.”
Torres is an experienced cook. But even so, committing to a plant-based diet without compromising on her ancestral recipes was not without challenges. “Going vegan for me was [a process of] unlearning,” she said. “I didn’t know anything about vegetarianism or veganism. I was raised to eat meat and cheese. My parents and my family were sad [when I became vegan] because I would always make Peruvian food after school. But, I was like, I want to hold onto that.”
So, she started veganizing some of her favorite Peruvian dishes. In the fall, that’s Locro de Zapallo—a lesser-well-known but extremely traditional Peruvian stew with a butternut squash base. For Torres, cooking is about experimentation and blending the traditional with the modern to create something new, yet nostalgic. Veggie Mijas has offered her a platform to share her plant-based takes on cultural foods with a wider community. Together, they hosted the Manteniendo Nuestra Cultura, or Maintaining Our Culture, Potluck. “It was an opportunity for everyone,” she said.
The event brought together vegan enthusiasts from across the Latine diaspora in Chicago, a bountiful gathering of community, cultures, and best of all, delicious foods. Torres hopes it’s just the beginning of many more events like it. After our conversation, she’s headed to a pop-up night market hosted by Buena Social—a plant-based social club in Chicago—where she’ll find everything from vegan tamales to empanadas to croquetas. It’s a small community, she says, but its roots run deep.
I can’t help but imagine just how different my meatless journey would have been, had Veggie Mijas been around when I was younger. I’ll, of course, never know, but one thing is for sure: the collective is helping pave the way for younger generations of Latines to honor our bodies, our planet, and those who came before us—all the while creating a movement our community can be proud of. By breaking down stereotypes of what it means to be plant-based today, Veggie Mijas is ushering in a new era of vegans cocinando pa’ la (r)evolución—cooking for the (r)evolution.