Sandra Gutierrez sees chipotles, tortilla and guacamole as more than the foods we love. They’re symbols of America’s cultural and culinary shift. As the former food editor of The Cary News and North Carolina-based author of cookbooks, including the award-winning “The New Southern-Latino Table,” Gutierrez has documented how Latin foods and flavors have become as American as apple pie.
Gutierrez views cookery through a sociological lens, as an expression of home, culture and connection. She was included in the 2017 Smithsonian exhibition “Gateways/Portales,” which explored the nature of 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 foodways as an agent of change.
The term “Latinx” is used by the young crowd. It lumps us together as one group. I was born in Philadelphia and grew up in Guatemala before moving back here. Latin American — I prefer that 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’re from different cultures, different histories, different circumstances that pushed us out of our countries. We didn’t immigrate here as a bloc, and we love being different. We celebrate being different. Making everybody the same to embrace diversity is ridiculous. That’s why it’s not happening naturally. Why do we have to speak the same language, be the same size? It doesn’t make sense. We need equal rights, but let’s celebrate our diversity.
My husband and I were among the first Latinos to move to Cary, and it was harsh. We couldn’t find any Latino products in the South, not even jalapeno. Black beans? Impossible. One time I saw cilantro, but they called it Chinese parsley. My uncle in Miami would send dried black beans, annatto seeds, achiote, corn husks for tamales, all the ingredients I needed.
“The world has been run by men long enough. Women care for the next generation in a way men don’t. We can see the problem, feel the anger and pain, but we don’t get locked in that fight over who’s right or wrong.”
But our neighbors didn’t know what to do with us, a couple of highly educated Latin Americans living in a good neighborhood. Even today, Americans in the Deep South don’t know what do with people like us. Even the most progressive, liberal Americans who believe in diversity are not comfortable with Latinos at their level, the ones who are established, educated. Latinos who are poor, uneducated, whom they can look down on are OK.
What has brought us all together is the food. The ingredients came together long before the people came together. Even before the Spaniards and Native Americans and Latin Americans joined together in marriage, our ingredients had already melded together.
In the ’90s, as a food editor, I was invited to all these church suppers, and the first Latin ingredient I saw crossing over into Southern food was chipotle — smoked jalapeno. There was cornbread with chipotle, chipotle barbecue sauce, potato salad with chipotle. Then I saw people use avocado and other Latin American ingredients in their everyday dishes. I wrote about the authentic ways they were used, combined with Southern foodways, and that’s what made me discover the Southern Latino food movement.
Food has a lot of power. Before it was politically correct to talk about diversity, before equity was a word, I was making waves through food. Respect for foodways has been lost, and this is something many of us have tried to rescue and empower, especially in this country. In foodways lie a lot of the solutions and lessons that history has left for human beings. You can be an activist through foodways.
Food activism starts in the kitchen. We have the power to decide where our family’s money goes even when we’re just purchasing ingredients. Do we choose processed and pre-made foods poisoning us with insecticides and pushed by lobbyists in Washington, D.C., or do we give our money to organic farmers bringing us nurturing food that doesn’t travel far and solves a lot of social issues? Do we decide whether we perpetuate the horrible food our kids are eating at school — which is trash — or do we control what we’re eating?
I’ve been in this business for 34 years. I have opened the door for younger food activists to find their voices. What makes it so exciting is that the new voices being allowed to speak and come forward are women’s voices.
“There’s 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 run by men long enough. Women care for the next generation in a way men don’t. We can see the problem, feel the anger and pain, but we don’t get locked in that fight over who’s right or wrong. With women, different races and different generations try to come together. We believe in fighting for new Latinas who are coming in with different cultural histories. That’s what I think is needed and what I think is exciting.
As diverse writers, our next goal is to prove our worth, to lift up the generations who live after us, not just of our own race and gender and class and culture, but of others. It’s time for us to open it up for everybody.
My granddaughter, Aurora — I want her to feel proud, to learn the food of her Guatemalan ancestry and Cuban ancestry, to feel proud of the foodways of the South, and to celebrate that diversity on her plate. She’ll be a Southern Latina with a completely different set of recipes.
There’s 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 by getting into hot debates over who’s right. We do it by coming together at the table.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.