Valeria Velazquez Duenas looked to doctors when she experienced health issues 10 years ago. After that didn’t work for her, she turned to the community and her friends, where she was introduced to a plant-based diet.
She said eating plant-based improved her health and nearly turned her situation around, similar to others in the Latinx community.
“I think sometimes we have to just build the solutions ourselves in a way,” Velazquez Duenas said.
Los Angeles has a 49.1% Latinx population. With the community comes Latin American cuisine, integral to the L.A. food scene plus everyday life and traditions for Latinx people.
So, why is it that a community with such gastronomical influence is struggling with some of the worst health issues in the country?
More than half of Latinos are expected to develop type 2 diabetes in their lifetime, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. The Latinx community is also disproportionately affected by other chronic illnesses such as obesity, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease and dyslipidemia.
A critical solution to tackling health issues in lower-income communities is through nutritious eating, which may not be accessible or affordable for many.
Velazquez Duenas, the senior manager for farmer’s market programs at Sustainable Economic Enterprises of Los Angeles, said she feels particularly passionate about food security for everyone. She connects eligible families to programs such as CalFresh EBT and WIC (Special Supplemental Program for Women, Infants and Children). She also works with local businesses to create a healthy local food economy.
“I have a real core belief that housing, food, water and clean air should be human rights and fundamental for everybody,” Velazquez Duenas said.
Velazquez Duenas believes that because the community cannot always depend on the food system or government entities, it is important to depend on each other.
She co-founded Across Our Kitchen Tables, with Jocelyn Ramirez and Claudia Serrato, which serves as a culinary hub and safe space for women and gender-noncomforming people working with food or who want to learn from others in the community. Like her, there are other individuals in Los Angeles making an impact through food.
Carlos Ortez, the owner of the vegan restaurant Un Solo Sol, offers Boyle Heights the taste of traditional dishes with a twist.
Everything he sells on the menu is non-processed giving the community both the taste they are accustomed to but with the benefits of eating healthy. Or as Ortez calls it: “being in harmony with mother nature.”
“Our indigenous part will always be questioning how far we have come from that balance. Why? Because the indigenous people from all over the world were clearly more linked to Pachamama [Mother Earth] than modern people nowadays,” Ortez said.
The El Salvador native began studying naturopathic medicine in 1992, which helped him navigate what it means to eat healthily. His menu features classics in the Latinx community such as Nopalitos, Saltado and Pozole with alternatives such as using tofu instead of eggs or mushrooms instead of beef.
He said the origins of many dishes in Latinx culture like pupusas were traditionally made plant-based, but incorporated meat due to colonial influences. Therefore, he doesn’t feel like what he is doing is outside the roots of the community.
Jasmine Hernandez’s restaurant Chicana Vegana sells vegan versions of popular Cali-Mex eats. Chicana is a term used to describe an American woman of Mexican descent.
After becoming vegan for animal rights, Hernandez noticed there weren’t many places in the vegan food scene, especially in Fullerton where her shop is located, that sold Mexican food or food she had grown up with.
She wanted to change that and cater to others in the community who shared her Mexican American experience.
“You can still make fideo soup, you can still make tacos, you can still make huaraches, you can literally make everything,” she said.
Hernandez points out that many in the community may feel that the vegan movement doesn’t always reflect them and their culture. She said many would consider veganism to be “a white and privileged thing.”
Though, with more youth coming into her shop, especially after the pandemic, she feels that more young Latinx people are finding a comfortable space in her restaurant.
“They are able to see themselves in me,” Hernandez said.
Jocelyn Ramirez, the owner of Todo Verde, an LA-based food business inspired by Latin American roots, said her business is about “meeting people where they are.”
Ramirez went from selling aguas frescas in farmer’s markets to owning a catering business and publishing her cookbook, “La Vida Verde.” However, it wasn’t always an easy ride.
Ramirez said she started her business to address the health issues she saw in the Latinx community of East Los Angeles, but also to improve her health when she had a thyroid goiter.
The hardest part for her is convincing people to just try her food.
She said that sometimes hearing or reading the word “vegan” can draw people away from her food. Yet, she points out that eating plant-based was historically common in pre-colonial times.
Her goal is to make foods with colonial ties like carnitas, plant-based, to conserve that nostalgia linked to food.
For people starting their plant-based journey, especially in a Latinx household, she recommends starting with dishes they already know. It won’t be perfect, she said, but “just take it day by day.”