Sandra Gutierrez considers chipotles, tortillas, and guacamole to be more than the foods we love. They are symbols of America’s cultural and culinary change. As the former culinary editor of The Cary News and author of North Carolina-based cookbooks, including the award-winning “The New Southern-Latino Table, ” Gutierrez documented how Latin foods and flavors became as American as apple pie.
Gutierrez sees cuisine through a sociological lens, as an expression of home, culture and connection. She was included in the 2017 Smithsonian exhibit “Gateways / Portales,” which explored the nature of the Latin American community through local institutions such as the church, the media and, of course, the kitchen. She has spent three decades advocating for equality by “making waves with food”. In this edition of Voices In Food, Gutierrez teaches us how to use lifestyles as an agent of change.
The term “Latinx” is used by young audiences. It brings us together as one group. I was born in Philadelphia and grew up in Guatemala before coming back here. Latin America – I prefer this term. I belong to both.
There are 21 Latin countries. Diversity is part of us. No two countries share the same food. I have Mexican friends, Peruvian friends – we come from different cultures, different histories, different circumstances that pushed us out of our countries. We didn’t immigrate here en bloc and we like to be different. We celebrate our difference. Making everyone the same to embrace diversity is ridiculous. This is why it does not happen naturally. Why do we have to speak the same language, be the same height? That does not make sense. We need equal rights, but celebrate our diversity.
My husband and I were among the first Latinos to move to Cary, and it was tough. We couldn’t find any Latino products in the South, not even jalapeno. Black beans? Impossible. I once saw cilantro, but they called it Chinese parsley. My uncle in Miami would send dried black beans, annatto seeds, annatto, corn husks for the tamales, all the ingredients I needed.
“The world has been ruled by men for quite a long time. Women care about the next generation in ways that men don’t. We can see the problem, feel the anger and the pain, but we don’t get locked into this struggle over who is right or wrong.
But our neighbors didn’t know what to do with us, a very educated Latin American couple living in a good neighborhood. Even today Americans in the Deep South don’t know what to do with people like us. Even the most progressive and liberal Americans who believe in diversity are uncomfortable with Latinos at their level, those who are established, educated. Latinos who are poor, uneducated, whom they may look down on are OK.
What brought us all together is the food. The ingredients came together long before people came together. Even before the Spanish, Native Americans and Latin Americans got married, our ingredients had already mixed together.
Back in the 90s, as a food editor, I was invited to all of those church dinners, and the first Latin ingredient I saw in Southern cuisine was chipotle – smoked jalapeno. Had chipotle cornbread, chipotle barbecue sauce, chipotle potato salad. Then I have seen people use avocado and other Latin American ingredients in their everyday dishes. I wrote about the authentic ways they were used, combined with southern foods, and that’s what introduced me to the South Latino food movement.
Food has a lot of power. Before it was politically correct to talk about diversity, before fairness was a word, I was making waves through food. Respect for eating habits has been lost, and it is something that many of us have tried to save and empower, especially in this country. In eating habits are many of the solutions and lessons that history has left for human beings. You can be an activist through the foodways.
Food activism begins in the kitchen. We have the power to decide where our family’s money goes even when we only buy ingredients. Do we choose processed and prefabricated foods that poison us with insecticides and pushed by lobbyists in Washington, DC, or do we give our money to organic farmers bringing us nutritious foods that don’t travel far and solve many social problems? ? Do we decide whether we perpetuate the horrible food our children eat at school – which is garbage – or do we control what we eat?
I have been in this profession for 34 years. I opened the door for young food activists to find their voice. What makes it so exciting is that the new voices allowed to speak out and come forward are female voices.
“There is a lot of talk about cultural appropriation in politics today, but food is the best way to bring us together, to erase the boundaries of class, race, culture and politics.
The world has been ruled by men for quite a long time. Women care about the next generation in ways that men don’t. We can see the problem, feel the anger and the pain, but we don’t get locked into this struggle over who is right or wrong. With women, different races and different generations try to come together. We believe in the fight for new Latinos who come with different cultural backgrounds. This is what I think is necessary and what I think is exciting.
As diverse writers our next goal is to prove our worth, to uplift the generations that live after us, not only from our own race, gender, class and culture, but others. It’s time for us to open it up to everyone.
My granddaughter, Aurora – I want her to feel proud, to learn the food of her Guatemalan and Cuban ancestors, to feel proud of the southern eating habits and to celebrate this diversity on her plate . She will be a Southern Latina with a completely different set of recipes.
There is a lot of talk about cultural appropriation in politics today, but food is the best way to bring us together, to erase the boundaries of class, race, culture and politics. We don’t have to do it by preaching or engaging in heated debates about who is right. We do this by meeting at the table.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.