A Mesoamerican Re-Discovery

by Jorge Perry Bautista

In 2016 when my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, I was stunned. The entire year for my mother was consumed by treatment, chemotherapy, and emotion. I became her caretaker. I took my mom to most of her appointments (my aunt helped me out a lot and would take her as well). I took careful notes on what the cancer doctor told us. I did the shopping and cooked for my mother. Since my mom was always, and still is, the cook for our family, the whole world felt upside down for her. She was completely depleted.

I turned to research at this point in life, to think about exactly what my mom ate and what I ate. My research led me to some interesting findings about breast cancer in Latinx communities. First, I found that Mexico has some of the lowest rates of breast cancer in the world. Second, a study published in 2005 found that breast cancer rates among immigrant Latinas in the Bay Area were significantly lower than US-born Latinas—but the longer Latina immigrants lived in the US, their risk for developing breast cancer increased. Also, curiously, learning English was associated with a higher risk of breast cancer among the immigrant women. I started wondering what accounted for these differences. Something in the US, something about acculturating to US culture, contributed to these increased breast cancer rates. As I continued my research, I learned that these statistics were also true for many other diseases and health concerns.

That’s when a light went on for me.

What if the diet of rural Mexico and Central America, a diet that is ancestral and plant-based (beans, corn, squash, wild greens, nopales [prickly pear cactus], fresh fruit, nuts, and seeds) was protecting folks from the diseases associated with life in the US, such as diabetes, heart disease, and some cancers?

With this new theory, I started to research the health benefits of certain ancestral Mexican and Central American food. I started to pay more attention to the Mesoamerican diet that I mostly grew up with, and discovered that foods from the pre-Hispanic era (before colonization) were among the healthiest foods on the planet, and that many of the less healthy aspects of Mesoamerican cuisine came about as a direct result of colonization—the introduction of wheat, beef, cheese, cooking oils, and sugar. Before colonization, Mesoamerican food was steamed, grilled, or cooked on a clay skillet known as comal. Meat was eaten only in small quantities. My ancestors gathered and ate wild herbs and greens. They cultivated hundreds of different varieties of beans, squash, and corn, not just the few varieties available at most grocery stores. In terms of corn, in particular, my ancestors created a rich and sustaining cuisine that included yellow, white, red, blue, and black corn, made tamales, tacos, atoles, tlacoyos, and more.

Thus began my quest to change my diet. This hasn’t been easy, because one of my goals, since watching my mom go through everything she went through, was to become vegetarian; yet I still find myself eating meat, but not as much as before. But as we began our Lenten journey together reckoning with climate change, what Rev. Penny and Audrey Abrams had to say inspired me once again to try and become vegetarian. Audrey was not part of the service, but afterwards she asked if she could practice a speech that she will give at the Youth Climate Action Summit in San Jose. She talked about how being vegan is a great way to protect our environment. As I listened, I realized more and more how I need to get to a place where I am not consuming meat any longer. Seeing my mom fight breast cancer and hearing from Audrey reminds me that not eating meat (even if not 100% vegan) is not only improving our health but the environment as well.

For me, this start of our Lenten season thinking together about our response to climate change is not about fear and anxiety, but is being replaced with gratitude, the connections to Mother Earth, to my ancestors, to ancestral knowledge, to my own spirits, and to the new life all of us are trying to build together for a better world.

Peace and Blessings!