As Latin food culture evolves, what is fusion and what is appropriation?

Krista Linares is a dietitian nutritionist and founder of Nutrition Con Sabor.

You’ve probably seen the viral videos of “Mexican corn salad” (esquites) or “spa water” (agua fresca) and the resulting pushback as if our cultural foods and drinks are suddenly acceptable to people because they are “high”. Growing attention has been paid to cultural appropriation in the food space lately. In the Latin food space, Latinx chefs and food makers have pushed back against non-Latinx foodies’ claims that they are “elevating” or “discovering” Latin heritage foods. In health, Latinx dietitians and nutritionists have questioned the process by which cultural foods are named “superfoods” and then stripped of their cultural identity (think chia seeds, quinoa, acai, etc.), as well as the non-food trend. Latinxs makes “healthier” versions of Latin foods that were already very nutritious to begin with (like a low-carb tortilla, whereas corn tortillas are a rich source of fiber, vitamins, and minerals).

Not surprisingly, when Latinx voices point out these issues and the effect they have on the community, dissenting voices quickly jump into the discussion. Critics of this speech will point out that Latin cuisine is inherently fusion cuisine – not only indigenous foods and Spanish foods, but also foods and flavors from the Middle East, Africa, Asia and, at this point , even foods from the United States. Calling cultural appropriation Latin food is gatekeeping, they will say, and ignoring the long history of cross-cultural dialogue that gave rise to the Latin food we know today.

What they fail to recognize in these arguments is the long history of food colonization and the long-term ripple effects it has had on the Latinx community’s relationship with food. Moreover, it confuses fusion, which is more like two-way and mutually beneficial collaboration, with colonization and appropriation, which is more likely to be one-way and exploitative.

The history of colonization and food in Latin America

Today’s Latin cuisine has a lot in common with pre-Hispanic food culture: especially the emphasis on staple crops like corn, beans, squash, tomato, and chili peppers. But today’s Latin cuisine has also seen a lot of changes since that time, starting with the impacts the Spaniards had on food in the Americas through colonization. These effects include the introduction of European foods such as pork, olives and olive oil, wine and wheat, as well as European cooking techniques such as frying foods in oil, points out the author Rebecca Earle in her book, Jthe Corps of the Conquistador. But the effects of colonization on food were not just the foods the Spaniards brought with them. They pressured the native population to eat more like them in order to be more “civilized” and used food culture as a way to impose Christianity, Earle wrote. Amaranth, for example, was once a major staple crop in Mesoamerica, but was banned due to its association with indigenous religious ceremonies, according to Sophie D. Coe. The first American kitchens. Additionally, Earle writes that only wheat could be used in communion, instead of indigenous carbohydrate sources like corn or cassava. Indigenous peoples were mandated to assist in the cultivation of European crops, even though these crops were not well suited to local farming methods.

The effects of colonization on Latin food go beyond simply introducing wheat and pork and decreasing the use of crops like amaranth. It has affected the way we perceive our food, and therefore the way we perceive ourselves.

As a registered dietitian, I frequently hear my clients express concern that corn is devoid of nutrients and that they should replace their tortillas or other masa products with something “more nutritious”. It is easy to see the connection between this misconception today and the colonial pressure to reduce the importance of indigenous cultures in favor of “more civilized” European cultures.

Are people who cry cultural appropriation rigid traditionalists?

When we point out the cultural appropriation of our food, calling esquites “street corn” or criticizing a “healthy version” of a traditional recipe, for example, are we really saying that Latin cuisine is fixed and definitive, unable to evolve further? No way. Like all aspects of culture, food is constantly changing. Moreover, food is as much a creative activity as painting, music or drawing. It is to be expected that people are constantly trying to create something new in the food space.

What we are fighting is an approach to our food culture that echoes the original effects of colonization on food in Latin America. These would be changes that do not come from the creativity of the community, but rather from a top-down approach where an organization or group tells the community how our food should be.

This includes the implications that our food is not nutritious or unhealthy (as in the countless examples of “healthier” Mexican food), or that our cuisine should be “high” (which sounds a lot like the colonial discussion of civilized foods or not).

It also includes taking pieces of our food culture and using them for profit and gain that does not benefit our community and removes that element from the context of our entire food culture. An example of this would be chia seeds and cocoa being dubbed “superfoods” and all the money made from their health claims, very few of which are circulating within Mexican or Mexican American communities.

How is fusion different?

Cultures that interact with each other will inevitably influence each other. Many other cultures have influenced Latin cuisine, with African cuisine being the other most important influence on Latin cuisine, alongside Spanish and indigenous cuisine (although it must be recognized that this also carries a history of violence and of colonialism). And these influences will continue to expand. Southern California is growing rapidly in both Latin and Asian communitiesand multicultural Latinx/Asian Households, for example. The fact that this affects California food culture makes sense! This interaction between cultures is beautiful and should not be confused with appropriation or colonization.

Additionally, amalgamation may occur out of necessity in immigrant communities. Immigrants can prepare dishes they already know, using ingredients they have access to in their new community. Over time, these changes eventually lead to variations in this food culture. So if fusion in food is different from cultural appropriation and colonization, how does it play out in the food space? A useful set of questions to ask yourself if you’re unsure where a food trend lies include:

  • Where does the change come from? Fusion usually starts at the community level and builds, whereas appropriation and colonization may be more likely to start at the organizational/corporate/government level and move downwards. Example of appropriation/colonization: Health researchers promote enchiladas made with whole-wheat tortillas when corn tortillas are more commonly used and have similar nutritional benefits to whole-wheat tortillas. Merge example: Eloteros is starting to offer new toppings like Hot Cheetos and this trend is taking off on social media.
  • Who benefits? Example of appropriation/colonization: A non-Latinx food blogger is the top Google search result for a traditional Latin recipe, giving them substantial ad revenue and sponsorship opportunities. Merge example: NOTThe on-Latinx food blogger features a recipe from a Latinx creator on her blog and offers proper credit and compensation.
  • Are the creators or are they members of one (or both) of the cultures concerned?
    What is the message behind the change? Appropriation and colonization often use alarmist or sensationalist health claims, or use language around civility/respectability (“high”) to justify change. Fusion is usually presented as just for fun, experimenting with flavors, or arising from access to ingredients.
    Example of appropriation/colonization: A health website recommends replacing cream with Greek yogurt for its nutritional benefits.
    Fusion example: A local restaurant adds yuzu to their ceviche recipe for flavor.

In short, the cultural dialogue that leads to fusion cuisine requires the voluntary participation of both cultures. Benefits should also be extended to community members. Fusion is almost always the result of the inspiration and creativity of a community member, whereas appropriation and/or colonization is usually one-way and often justified in the language of morality or propriety.

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