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“What do you eat, lettuce and dirt?”
Those were the kinds of comments that Erick Castro, who lives in Queens, New York — in the 'hood, as he affectionately calls it — started to get after going vegan two years ago. He said no one seemed to understand why he was doing this.
About 3 percent of Latinos in the U.S. are vegetarian or vegan, according to the Vegetarian Resource Group. This is not far from the national average for adults, 3.5 percent for females and 3.2 percent for males.
Culturally speaking, however, for some Latinos veganism might feel as far away as the nose hair extension trend that hit the internet earlier this year.
Confessions of veganism at the next holiday dinner might be met with comments like: “Vee-gan, ¿Que es eso?” or “Are you trying to starve yourself?”
The staple meals of many South American and Caribbean countries center around meat and dairy products, and for a vegan this is a next level challenge, especially during the holiday season.
Flan, the custard of the gods? Off limits. So is pretty much every main course dish on the table.
But being vegan and still holding on to one's cultural roots doesn't mean generic tofu salad with a Southwestern flavor. While the narrative on environmentally responsible and cruelty free diets is still dominated by Anglo voices, Latinos are making strides and taking ownership of the vegan lifestyle.
Castro, of Puerto Rican descent, is doing just this.
The founder of Instagram's How to be Vegan in the Hood gave NBC News the hot-take on how one Latino does vegan.
“I said to myself, I’m going to make this Instagram to show people I personally know, people that live in low-income communities that you don’t have to be White, you don’t have to be rich, to be healthy,” he said.
The Morning Rundown
When Castro began educating himself about veganism, his worldview changed drastically.
“People take food as a hobby...I see food as a medicine," he said, and prevention is the best cure.
“You’ll take these pills and you’ll still be sick," he said. "I’d rather people prevent getting to that place instead of getting there and trying to climb out.”
Latino adults are almost twice as likely than non-Latino Whites to be diagnosed with diabetes by a physician, according to the U.S Department of Health and Human Services, and 40 percent are more likely to die from the disease.
For Castro, eating healthier, plant-based foods are a good way to try to prevent these types of conditions.
However, his family did not understand this dietary shift at first.
When Castro told his grandmother he would not eat chicken anymore, she laughed and did not believe it would stick. Erick’s arguments made no sense to her since, “her grandfather lived until 120 and he ate chicken his whole life.” She went as far as sneaking pieces of chicken onto his plate thinking he would “cave in and eat it.”
“When I first said I was gonna go vegan they were like, ‘What is that word?’ Nobody in the hood, none of my super Puerto Rican aunts, they didn’t know what the word vegan even meant. It was sort of difficult to explain. It definitely took a while.”
Change came when Castro began cooking vegan meals for his family and friends. The holidays are a prime time for exposure.
“I try to do things that people have everyday but just make it vegan so that they can see that ‘Wow, I can still eat this and it won’t mess anything up. I can go vegan.”
His family has begun to look forward to his culinary creations and he enjoys surprising them with dishes that they would have never guessed were vegan.
It's not without its minefields.
“It’s a really hard topic, because tradition is something that you always want to carry,” he said. Food is a way to preserve culture and a connection with a family, a community left elsewhere. A certain smell, a taste, can quell, even if momentarily, pangs of homesickness. For some, food helps preserve identity in an environment that can often be more hostile or unfamiliar.
Castro believes in the importance of tradition but “we still have space to create new traditions and evolve.”
Things are also different now; the chicken his great-grandfather was eating until he was 120 was probably raised in his backyard, said Castro.
He argues that veganism is not a rejection of culinary heritage, since one can use vegetables to keep some of the same taste going.
He uses pasteles, a traditional Puerto Rican dish that is similar to tamales and is eaten during the holidays as an example. These usually have a meat filling, but can be substituted in order to make them vegan.
Coquíto, a coconut eggnog that is a staple during the Puerto Rican holidays, is not vegan, but recently Castro made “Brokquito...the broke version of coquíto.” According to him, you couldn't even tell it was vegan.
With the support of his girlfriend, Rachel, his culinary co-creator, Erick wants to start a non-profit to provide free vegan meals to schoolchildren. “I want to be able to show these kids, that if you do the right thing now, you can live way longer and feel way better your entire life.”
Food is at the intersection of economics, health and cultural preservation. While these factors may make considering veganism more difficult, proponents like Castro say it's worth exploring.
Some of Castro's recipes can be found at his Instagram site.