Comedores Sociales in Puerto Rico

This post is dedicated to the work of the Centro para el Desarrollo Politico, Educativo y Cultural (CDPEC). The CDPEC organizes the comedores sociales in Puerto Rico – “social dining rooms” or community kitchens that serve food through a grassroots approach. The work of the CDPEC demonstrates the use of food as a vehicle to sustain and promote social justice. Aside from the comedores, the CDPEC  engages in a variety of initiatives that seek to promote autogestion (self-management) to, in their own words, “break the distance that exists between the ideas that promote social change and the people through contact work and popular education” (my translation).

(Click photo for a Vimeo on their work)

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I learned about this work through Giovanni Roberto, organizer at the CDPEC. We were part of the panel at Cocinando Justicia (Cooking Justice).  Loisaida, Inc hosted the event on April 30, 2018. The conversation was moderated by Huascar Robles, author/journalist/producer of Catatonia podcast.

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The panel in action, with Huascar Robles (Left) and Giovanni Robert (Right). 

Huascar led the discussion with thought provoking questions about food security in Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, the deleterious effect of the political situation, and the importance of grassroots work to counteract government inaction. Giovanni shared stories of personal and political transformation of some of the people he has met through his work, showcasing the power of food to build bridges and inspire change. On the lighter side, we also learned new recipe ideas, such as quinoa con gandules, as a healthier alternative to rice.

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 Serving food through donations (Photo from Comedores Sociales Facebook Page)

The work of people like Giovanni and his fellow corillo members at the CDPEC is often lost amidst the stream of bad news that continue to emanate from the island. The island has been in a recession for more than a decade. Many continue without electricity almost nine months after Maria. Austerity measures are tightening the conditions even more, in order to pay the $70 billion debt to Wall Street.  Just the day after our panel, the island had a national strike that ended with tear gas. The protest was in opposition to school closings, increases to university tuition and cuts to pensions. In the face of this continued economic pressure and frustration, many continue to leave the island. In short – good news are needed, as well as examples of successful models of autogestion. I will continue to follow the work of the CDPEC. I invite you to do the same and support them in any way you can.

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Supporting investment in Dominican gastronomy: An invited talk

Last week the Fundación Sabores Dominicanos hosted its third Foro Gastronómico, titled, “Emprende e Innova. The forum hosted APEGA Sociedad Peruana de Gastronomia, along  with local and international experts to discuss the culinary innovation in the country. I am honored to say I was among those experts, participating via video to share the talk titled “Importancia de la cultura alimentaria y políticas públicas relacionadas con la alimentación en la diáspora” [The importance of food culture and public policy in the diaspora].

The talk was a brief summary of the work I have been doing with the Dominican diaspora in New York City, focusing on the restaurant sector. During the spring 2017 semester, I worked with students to interview chefs, cooks, and restaurant owners serving Hispanic Caribbean food in the city. Most of the interviewees came from Dominican restaurants. During debriefing meetings with the students, the first thing they noticed was how these respondents were enthusiastic about their product, describing the food served as “de primera” (first class) or “la mejor” (the best). One of the most highlighted quality of the cuisine was its home made quality – that is, the interviewee’s claims that they were able to replicate the food made at home. My previous interviews and conversations with the Hispanic Caribbean community in NYC reveals that attempting to recreate mom’s or abuela’s cooking is a tall order to fullfill! As explained by one of my Dominican interviewees,

Si yo salgo a comer, nunca es a salir a comer comida dominicana, porque no sabe igual. Sabe como, I don’t know, no es el sabor…Yo prefiero salir a un restaurante puertorriqueño que a uno dominicano […] pero es porque yo no crecí comiendo la comida de sus países. Aunque sí son similares, pero no me sentiría como: “Ah, mi mamá pudo hacer esto mejor”. (Ríe). Para mí me siento más cómoda en un restaurante puertorriqueño o cubano.
[If I go out to eat, never is to eat Dominican cooking, because it does not taste the same. It tastes like, I don’t know, it is not the flavor. I prefer to go to a Puerto Rican restaurant over a Dominican one […] but it is because I did not grew up eating the food from those countries. While they are similar, but I would not feel like, ‘oh, my mom could have done this better (laughs). I feel more comftable in a Puerto Rican or Cuban restaurant]. 

Dominicans were certainly not alone in this feeling. Puerto Ricans and Cubans also disliked most of the restaurants serving their heritage cuisine, with a few exceptions.  

Seeking to keep the cuisine as a recreation of home-made dishes also prevents it from being elevated beyond inexpensive establishments, under the low status label of “ethnic food” (see more on this here). My culinary adventures (also known as “participant observation”) in many restaurants in Dominican Republic reveal the possibilities of this cuisine. Take, for example:

Canelones Tainos from Restaurante El Higuero:

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Cannelloni pasta made from yucca with vegetable, chicken or beef filling (Photo: Higuero Restaurant Facebook Page)

Quipe crudo de zanahoria asada from TIME Vegetarian Kitchen:

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Roasted carrot quipe (Photo: TIME Vegetarian Restaurant Facebook page)

 

 

Investing in the development and dissemination of the national cuisine can provide economic and cultural benefits beyond motivating culinary tourism. As the Peruvian case demonstrates, gastronomy can be used as a tool for economic and community development. The sector provides an excellent venue for social projects that can lift people out of poverty, and can also contribute to public health. One brief example is the initiative, PescaVentura, sponsored by APEGA Sociedad Peruana de Gastronomia, where kids learn about the benefits of eating fish,

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Photo: APEGA, “PescaVentura”

My gratitude to the Fundación Sabores Dominicanos for the opportunity to be part of the Foro Gastronómico.

To learn more about the amazing work of these culinary associations, visit their web pages at http://saboresdominicanos.org/ and http://www.apega.pe/index.html

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The research presented in this post was made possible with the support of the City University of New York (CUNY) Diversity Projects Funds, which facilitated the interviews with Dominican restaurants in NYC, and the CUNY-Brooklyn College Tow Faculty Research Travel Fellowship, which supported my travel to Santo Domingo in May 2017. The research is part of my book project, Eating in Movement. Stay tuned and subscribe to this blog to learn more about this and other upcoming publications. 

Weathering the Storm: A note of the event

On September 30th, 2017, Brooklyn College hosted the event, Weathering the Storm. The event started with the keynote address from the Mayor of San Juan, Carmen Yulín Cruz. She arrived to the venue to a standing ovation, in a basketball ball court full with fellow faculty, students and community members, including this group that proudly displayed the flag and sang a quick parranda to the mayor during the Q&A.

I was given the amazing opportunity to chair the lunch panel, “Feeding our people” which presented an interdisciplinary look at the food crisis post-Maria, through the perspective of Puerto Rican historian Cruz Miguel Ortiz Cuadra (University of Puerto Rico – Humacao) and public health nutritionist, Uriyoan Colón-Ramos (George Washington University).

Prof. Ortíz Cuadra shared his experiences during the immediate aftermath, analyzing the development of the food crisis, as things started to grow scarce and the lines for everything got longer. Prof. Colón Ramos shared results from her ongoing research assessing food aid in the aftermath of Maria, including looking into the FEMA boxes. In her presentation, Colón Ramos reminded us the importance of the nutritive quality in foods during times of crisis, especially in a context where obesity and diabetes is prevalent.

My panel was followed up by two more afternoon conversations. The first, “Race, Sex, and Disaster Response”, was a roundtable discussion bringing in psychology experts from the island and NYC, to discuss the emotional stress from the hurricane, not only in Puerto Rico, but also among the Diaspora community, waiting to hear from their loved ones. The second panel, “(Re)building Resilient Communities”, ended the event with a look to the future.

Events like this one have been happening across the city, and many other locations in the United States. They have served as a reminder of the ongoing crisis in Puerto Rico, tending to Mayor Yulín’s pleads, “no nos olviden” (do not forget about us). The events also serve to shed a spotlight on the underlying factors that led to the crisis, including the political situation of the island, a topic that becomes harder to avoid.

My gratitude to Brooklyn College Professors Reynaldo Ortíz-Minaya and Liv Yarrow for their amazing work of putting this event together, as well as the support from the Mellon Foundation and the City University of New York.

See this link for the complete program of the day’s event and the complete video of Mayor Yulín’s talk; and this link for a short article published by Brooklyn College reviewing the event.

Living & Eating Comida Criolla in NYC: An invited talk

This past week I had the pleasure to return to one of my alma maters, Florida International University, to share my ongoing research with Hispanic Caribbean cuisines in New York City. I was hosted by Prof. Jorge Duany, Director of the Cuban Research Institute and Professor of Anthropology at FIU. The talk, titled Living and Eating Comida Criolla in New York City, shared results from field interviews I conducted with Dominicans, Puerto Ricans and Cubans in the city. The talk focused on the Cuban experience in NYC, as an opportunity to gather feedback from the Cuban perspective in Miami, FL:

The talk led to a fruitful conversation with the audience. Such conversation got started with a question on the distribution of Hispanic Caribbean restaurants in New York City, an interesting issue I have partly addressed in a previous post. This motivated questions about the cuisine authenticity, in light of the emergence of high-end restaurants, where these cocinas criollas are being reinvented with a higher price tag. Members of the audience also shared memories from their own migration histories, enriching my ongoing analysis of the Cuban American experience.