Rachel Diego: "Regional Food Heritage”

a smiling young college student with long dark hair stands by a rippling pond with a rocky waterfall in the background


Title: Food Heritage in Latin America post-colonial, Indigenous Heritage, Community Health, Culture preservations

Description of proposal:


 To look at food through two of the various lenses that Latin America has.

The intent of this research is to understand food heritage in these communities in Latin America. The societies/ communities that will be explored are Southern Mexico specifically Oaxaca and Yucatan. These regions are home to various indigenous communities that have influenced and created the food in that region.  I will also be exploring Coastal Colombia (Choco region, Valle de Cauca, Magdalena department, as well as Bogota and Medellin having large black populations migrate to those cities and create restaurants). This will allow me to compare how the African communities’ contribution has affected the food that is part of Coastal Colombia and Costa Chica of Mexico, as well as explore African descents contribution from two different geographical locations.

3-4 pages describing

a.    The guiding question or questions you are hoping to explore

How did colonization impact food in Latin America? What does food look like today with the introductions of “Western” Commodification of food? What foods has not crossed transnational borders?

b.    The society or societies you are hoping to explore your question or questions and why this society and cultures are good places in which to engage in independent exploratory, adventure learning.

I am hoping to explore Mexican and Colombian societies to understand African and Indigenous communities’ influences on the food of those parts of Latin America as well as their impact to the nation as a whole and contribution to the overall national culture(s). Food is a living and always change form of history that describes the stories of families and communities In Mexico I would specifically focus on Yucatan and Oaxaca to explore the various indigenous influences in these areas because there are prevalent indigenous groups in Oaxaca and Yucatan that still have Mayan roots in their cuisine that have survived through colonization. I would also hope to explore Costa Chica region in Mexico because they have the most dense African descendant  population in Mexico and that has had an influence on the food of that region. These communities’ contribution to food and culture often goes unacknowledged.

I chose coastal Colombia because I wanted to know the effects of colonization on food at another geographical location with a different population because they are treated differently in these countries. In Mexico people of African descent are a smaller number in comparison to Colombia’s African descent population. Despite this both populations are concentrated along the coasts of these countries due to their closeness in ports from when they were actively used in colonial times. Geographical locations matter in terms of what native food is used in the cuisines of that region. In Colombia, Afro-Colombians have constitutional rights, whereas Afro-Mexicans do not which affects the acknowledgement they receive in regards to food and as individuals living in that country. Afro-Colombians are seen as a distinct culture within the national identity of Colombia where AfroMexicans are not because mestizaje is the greater mostly only acknowledged identity in Mexico. I find it important to see how both countries have dealt with these communities and also their differences and contributions to both countries and cultures. I also chose regions of southern Mexico because they seem to be overlooked. In the U.S. when Mexican food is presented or sold it tends to come from only the Northern areas that are very close to the U.S. Mexican border. Once food crosses the border the recipes are also changed by the new population that is consuming it. I believe these places are more than willing to offer their insight to people who are willing to learn and hear their experiences. There is a lot of history that people would like to share to those who are willing to listen. I would like to go to Colombia as well because their food isn’t as popular in the U.S. in comparison to other ethnic foods.

c.    How you can envision yourself living and learning In the society you have identified

I speak, read, and write in Spanish which will allow me to communicate more easily in some of these regions. I also believe learning an indigenous language (ex. Yucatecan maya, or Zapotec in Oaxaca) will greater benefit me in engaging with these communities gaining more knowledge and better understanding. I am aware of some cultural understandings and ways of being with communities in Mexico and Colombia, given my Latinx background. I also know my identity will challenge me in a way because I am currently limited to the Latinx-U.S perception. This experience will allow me to fully immerse myself in societies that only speak Spanish/Indigenous languages and challenge my understanding which will give me a new perspective on their culture and society. Although there are parts of my identity that will help me connect with these communities there is also some challenges I will face being part of a subgroup that does not entail everything these communities do. My understanding of these communities is still limited as an outsider. I grew up with a mix culture, my parents’ culture and the way I have developed while living in the U.S, going to these communities will expand what I know about my own culture as well as other Latin American communities within in their countries and subgroups since these communities are outliers from the national identity of mestizx which tends to be the main identity for both nation states. I would also like to volunteer in organizations that work to better these communities like Africa A.C. and SURCO in Oaxaca, Icco cooperation in Colombia.

d.    What you hope to learn.

Differences in diet from various communities and how it is different than those in cities (or how they have brought their diet to the city with the example of migration to Medellin and Bogota from the Afro-Colombian communities ). Each community has their different perspectives and relationship to food. They all have their difference of being and relationship to the land. With certain ethnic groups having connection to the land that dates far back while others were displaced on to the land.

Understanding that food heritage is preserved over time despite the adversities whether that be colonization for erasure of your culture in indigenous groups or being completely displaced. As well as what crops were adopted by colonizers (ex.cacao) and what were taken away as well as what crops were adopted that were brought by colonizers but integrated with previous practices.

I hope to be able to learn why food dishes are the way they are. I believe that food is a gateway to history and culture. I want to know if the style that has developed in these regions was shaped by the availability of ingredients in that region as well as ethnic groups adding their own touch to the dishes.  Whether that be changing the practice in how an ingredient is cooked or used etc.  I want to trace the origins of multiple regional dishes, understand why certain ingredients are used and if there’s a purpose behind it. I would like to explore what ingredients African and Indigenous communities brought to food.

While food dished from Western Europe are often praised, Latin American foods don’t receive the same appraisal and are often thought of as just cheap food. There is so much labor that goes unnoticed in Latin American cuisine and strongly influenced by a history of mestizaje where various cultures mix together to create something new with the components, but with this idea it tends to erase African and indigenous roots and brands it as everyone’s and doesn’t acknowledge these communities.

 I am also interested in learning about ethnic groups that came to different regions and how they incorporated their ethnic dishes into the society and how they were able to normalize it while including their ingredients into dishes that already existed. I want to know if certain dishes have resurfaced in certain areas and if they are gaining popularity once again as well as I want to learn more about their African influence. Are certain dishes more popular because of their flavor? Or because they are more sustainable? Or because it is cheaper to use these certain ingredients?

Comparing past dishes to modern dishes could give us insight on how they developed. In order to understand the development of dishes in different regions I intend to explore and ask critical questions such as: what are the roots of food dishes in this region? Why are they popular? How has colonization influenced their development?   Questions like these will offer a deeper insight the effects of colonization in these regions. What dishes have remained untouched?

e.    How you intend to share your experience with the Fairhaven community when you return.

.Socially we are positioned in a society that values eurocentrism and doesn’t allow access to recognize African and indigenous roots. If given this opportunity I would be incredibly grateful. Community is very important to me and understand the sense of unity that comes with it. As well as the component of sharing. I would want to advocate for more education on this topic of food and accessibility of this type of information by presenting it to the Fairhaven community and potentially do a class about it when I return. My findings could potentially help keep this knowledge alive and bring it to the Fairhaven community or potentially be involved in a cooking class here at Fairhaven or go in as a guest speaker.

Personal statement up to 1000 words

1.        Why is this grant particularly appropriate for you to be doing it now and how might it change your life?

As a student I always ask questions to fully understand material and get more information than what is presented to me. This grant will allow me to explore questions that I have been wanting to know more about for years. I grew up in a household where culturally there is a lot of food. Whether I realized it or wanted it to food has impact and influenced my entire life. To the point where I have interest in it in college and have started the process to create an ISP on Blackfeet food practices and wellness. My uncle would create popular regional Mexican foods. My dad is more familiar with European like foods. I think in a way they both tend to mesh together whether it was by force or by influx of migration. I want to see if it’s possible to be able to trace the origins of multiple regional dishes, understand why certain ingredients are used and if there’s a purpose behind it. I have considered questions like these online and the information I found was very limited. It would greatly affect my life because I have always been intrigued in the differences in food. Being in the multicultural club in my high school I began to realize how some dishes from other cultures were different or similar due to history of these places because of trade or colonization of the same colonial power. History is a subject that I am passionate about and don’t get tired of learning. Food to me is a live history of that place and in a way is journey in time of how it came to be in that place. As I have gotten older and met other people I noticed the difference of how different Mexican food is regionally. Soon enough my curiosity led to find out how food in other countries within their regions is different as well because of their environment, native foods and people that have come and interacted and stayed in that region and contributed to what is the food that there is today. I don’t think a lot of people consider that every country has a vast cuisine that isn’t just limited to what the U.S. knows about a few handful of their regional dishes if any. Even then ethnic food gets changed to appeal to the American palate. The reason I want to go and learn about food is because food is an important staple in everyday life. Depending on what country and region people are from they all eat differently. I want to be able to explore why that is the case because of the effects of colonization.


2.      How will make full use of the grant to challenge yourself to think about the world and yourself in new ways? What factors have prepared you to immerse yourself in discomfiting circumstances? How is your project right for you?

 The grant will expose me to communities that are more vulnerable in these countries. It will allow me to see complexities and differences of people from the same nation. For example, looking into the communities in Mexico but also the black communities within Mexico and Colombia to compare and identify similarities or differences. Even though I am Mexican and this is part of my culture this will challenge what I know of my culture because it will give a new perspective on these communities that I have not been very exposed to. This project is right for me because I have been curious in food since I was little because of the influence of my family and experiences I have had in my life. My dad and uncles have always worked in restaurants, so I was always around food. My father would tell me that his dad and uncles were also a chefs/cooks back in Mexico. I have always been the type of person to ask many questions. My parents own a restaurant and my dad is the chef. Seeing my dad create dishes made me curious as to why certain ingredients were used whether it be because they tasted better together or more. As I have gotten older it has changed but the core of it is the same. I believe with food you can learn history and the journey of how it came to be. I believe the project has a lot of intersections in what I have interest in. As well as allow me to learn knowledge from those who don’t tend to be big sources in standard academia despite having thousands of years of knowledge (in regards to indigenous communities)


3. Describe the extracurricular work, job experience, or volunteer activites

that have been important to you. Why have they been important?

Moving from a diverse place to a not so diverse place made me realize how much I value, appreciate, and love learning different cultures around me. Through the multicultural club I was in high school I made many friends of different cultures and I myself got to do what I enjoy doing which is learning about other cultures customs and foods.

I joined MEChA and Latinx Student Union at Western and this has challenged my identity and what I stand for while allowing me to learn other Latinx cultures while deepening my understanding and focus and liking in the various forms of social justice.

4. Describe any experiences you have had living, traveling or studying abroad. Have those experiences affected you?


During my times travelling I have always felt that the amount of time I’ve had at those destinations was never enough because there was so much to see and taste in just one city. I went to Mexico for less than a week and was unsatisfied with the amount of time because I felt like everything was rushed. When I went to Italy I was not as excited for the food because from my experience the U.S. has a fixation on Italian food.  Being in Europe made me realized how much more Western European food is valued because it is seen with prestige. Going to Europe showed me how much U.S. culture is willing to learn and partake and appreciate European food, culture, and art in comparison to Latin America due to how these countries are talked about politically.


5.  Describe any factors that would limit your ability to take full advantage of the opportunities provided by the adventure learning grant.


My overall transcript might play a factor in the grant.  I had difficulty at WWU and it took a toll on my academics. I have since taken time off and rethought my academic standpoint in what I would like to achieve. I have grown and figured out how to navigate since. I have met with DAC and have accommodations as well as meet weekly with an SOS advisor to keep me on track. I have managed to re integrate myself back into WWU to start again this quarter.