A Vegetarian in the Land of Meat
Photo by Noemi Gonzalez
For some time, I was referred to as “la vegetariana,” meaning The Vegetarian, by one of my good friend Sarah’s dad.
About a year ago, I was promoted from this name to “la periodista,” The Journalist. Now, he refers to me and my other best friend Gabee as the Veggie Tales.
What started out as a drawn line to distinguish Gabee and me from the rest of our meat-eating friends became a form of endearment four years later. (“Veggie Tales” is one of Sarah’s favorite children’s shows.)
My journey as a vegetarian has been an interesting and hard one, but most of all, it’s been educational. But the real tribulation — the one that still makes my stomach flip — was coming out to my Mexican family and the Hispanic community.
It’s still a process.
Meat, at least in my family, is the basis of our culture. It is the roots of our Mexican descendants. From the taco stands on every corner of the streets of Guadalajara, Jalisco, where my grandparents live, to my godparents’s famous tacos and birria (sheep stew), on the menu at most family-friend parties, there’s only room for meaty meals.
But six years ago, before any white flags were raised, a silent war of gestures and subtle comments ensued between my parents, their friends and myself.
Through tears and heartaches, I’ve made it through. But in the process of coming out to my parents, something unexpected is taking place: a change in attitude from not only my parents, but also from our family-friends. The look was once of confusion and even some frustration blended in with some anger. But now that look is changing.
From tribulations to acceptance, this is my story of coming out to my Mexican family as the anomaly I represent in our culture.
Six years ago as a scrawny fourteen-year-old kid, I entered freshman year of high school with the mindset of wanting to change the world. Of course.
It was then that I came out to my parents as a vegetarian. Wearing my Rocket Dog flats, skinny jeans and my Roxy black hoody, I stepped into the world of activism. My passion for human rights unfolded, and my need to understand global environmental issues has yet to be quenched. But it was in a room in Old Main of Tolleson High School’s campus reserved for cooking classes where I met the person I am today.
I’m not sure when, but at some point throughout the year, we were given permission slips for the optional choice of watching “Earthlings.” I got it signed, simply telling my Spanish-speaking mom it was for a movie. Neither of us knew what I was getting myself into.
Photo courtesy of The Activist Club at Tolleson Union High School
The advisor of the club sat with her back facing the screen the entire time, as other students and I watched wide-eyed at the mass slaughter of different animals. Instantly, it slaughtered the people we once were.
We saw countless cows’s throats slit, dogs thrown alive into dumpsters to be squashed to their untimely death, minks de-skinned conscious and piled on top of one another while they did their best tonot squirm.
I was a mess.
My entire Mexican-based culture was based on myriad meat recipes, with each meal representing a sense of pride for the cook. To me, it had become an unsatisfied hunger
I had for a different lifestyle. I could no longer dismiss a fact that once made up my world: the idea and belief that eating a once-living creature only satiates physical hunger, not my moral appetite.
After watching “Earthlings,” I was angry. I was shocked. I was weak.
I decided to act. I was brave and completely unstoppable, I thought to myself.
I couldn’t have been more wrong. Nothing could have prepared me for what was to come.
I don’t remember how I told them, but when I told my parents I was a vegetarian, you’d think I had spoken blasphemy. My mom was so angry about my choice that she threatened to chastise my advisor in front of the school administration, arguing that it was because of this woman that I could no longer accept a common diet. I was angry in return. I had no credibility in the eyes of my family.
Come pollo. Antes te gustaba. (Eat some of your mom’s chicken. You used to like it.)
¿Y se te hace chorizo? (How about she makes you some chorizo?)
Antes te comias la carne muy agusto. (You used to eat meat quite comfortably.)
These are some of the comments my dad peppered me with throughout the week. All I had was silence as my weapon. He would offer me his food. He would make jokes. My mom was different. She was just mad. There’s nothing scarier than an angry mom.
Despite Spanish being my first language, everything I wished I could tell my parents was lost in a whirlpool of nonsensical translation. There was no way I could explain to my mom that the pain growing inside me was too much to bear. My mom didn’t understand and was too exhausted from slaving away at work all day to learn new recipes just for me.
In Spanish there’s an adage that says, “Estas entre la espada y pared,” meaning, “You are between the sword and the wall.”
The sword was the selfishness I felt for worrying my mom because I refused to eat. The wall was my conviction.
Photo by Noemi Gonzalez
The sword won. I lasted a vegetarian for a little over a week. It was soon time to go back into hiding in my small, stuffed closet of a bedroom.
But as I walked back into the closet, my friend Gabee (who also came out at the same time I did) didn’t face a crowd of annoyed meat-lovers. She comes from a completely different
Hispanic background. She’s a Chilean among a group of Mexican-American friends.
As a pescatarian — meaning she eats seafood but no meat — she said, “I wouldn’t say the reception from my family was negative, but it wasn’t entirely positive, mostly because I think they didn’t quite understand my drive and interest behind a no-meat diet.”
“But my mom has always been super cool about it even if she doesn’t agree completely with my decision,” Gabee added. “Like when I was just figuring out what I could and couldn’t eat and where to shop, she’d drive around and pay for sometimes pricy options.”
My case may be isolated. But I think the reason why Gabee and I had such a different experience is because of our different cultures. Mexico nurtures meat. It is the product indicative of wealth, or at least, of being well-off. Perhaps my diet offended my family. Maybe I came off as rude. All in all, everyone seemed to feel threatened by my choice.
Two years later, for my sixteenth birthday, I approached my mom and came out to her once more.
I was growing up, and I told myself I needed to start taking control over the life I wanted to have. She grimaced and just nodded. I figured because it was my birthday — no one would argue with me.
I came out to my dad. To my sister. And then to family friends. My family had become used to the anomaly I was. I was nothing like my beautiful, gregarious sister completely susceptible and welcoming of her culture. I wanted different things. I enjoyed other cultures. I welcomed everything, but I think that as I did so, family friends saw it as something funny. Their reaction mirrored my parents’ response.
As a Catholic, I have two godparents from my First Communion. My godfather carried me in his arms when I was just a few months old. But as much unconditional love we all have for each other, their background is not just a Mexican one; it’s also a culture of hunting. Hunting for sport.
My Godfather taught me to shoot a shotgun at age 10. I would go fishing with him, my dad and his sons. I remember nothing more but wanting to be just as strong as all of them.
I remember sitting ashamed in their cramped kitchen as he sat there, looked at me and asked why I was doing this. I answered honestly: It’s conviction. It’s my new reality. It felt wrong for me on so many levels to eat meat.
His response was one of conviction, too. He told me in Spanish: Animals were made for man. It was God’s way. They are meant to be eaten.
I retorted automatically: Exactly. In our bible it says that animals were made for man. We have the choice of what to do. And this is mine.
I received even more criticism. I wasn’t doing this because I wanted to change other people’s way of living. If anything, I just wanted them to understand. The funny thing is that women seem to be more open to the idea, while it’s the men in our family who pounce.
To write this piece, I spoke with my editor about why this might be. She brought up the idea that it could be that meat represented asense of vitality to them.
Here’s my theory: It’s no surprise that Mexico’s underlying culture is one of patriarchy. I was a tenuous sixteen-year-old striving for a life that, I think, may be seen as a threat to the men in my society. My choice, practically stamped on my forehead, was like a signal for protest. It’s as if my choice was a threat. I can understand that.
It was never my intention to change anyone. But I think that’s what my choice signified. It has brought out the worst in people, but it has also brought out the best. It wasn’t long before I came to my mom almost heartbroken, and asked her why no one could leave me in peace with my choice.
I’m not one to cry in front of anyone. But I was very close to doing so. I even thought, if I broke down in front of everyone at a party, it would be easier for them to pity me and forfeit their resistance.
My mom consulted her sister, my aunt Elena in Guadalajara, about my situation. My tía told my mom that it was no one else’s businesses. From then on, my mom simply told people to have peace with my choice. The mindsets began to evolve.
My dad no longer teased me assertively. He began to ask me what we should eat on weekends. When I’d respond with anything, he’d respond back with: Your mom and
I eat anything. It’s you who should choose.
My mom’s hunger for health skyrocketed at this point. She began bringing home magazine’s from her workplace with all kinds of recipes, showing me meals I might enjoy.
The perk of living at home is that my mom still kindly cooks for me. She began cooking a side dish that I could eat. About a year ago, she began to cook vegetarian meals for entire family.
A few days ago, I subscribed to Vegetarian, a recipe magazine. I figured as a 20-year-old, I ought to be able to cook for myself.
Tacos Without the Meat
My four-year anniversary as a vegetarian was this month. With it behind me, my diet has become nothing new.
I am now receptive to bantering from my Godfather, jokes with my parent’s friends, and nicknames from my friend’s dad with whom I hardly ever speak. Most importantly, it’s made our family much more receptive to new ideas.
About a month ago, I went to the birthday party for my godparents’ two preteens. The main course was tacos. My mom often makes the joke that I can eat tacos with cilantro, onions and chile. Her joke was no joke to me. That still sounds mouthwatering.
My mom and I arrived at the party. When I was approached my godmother, the cook, and asked for two grilled tortillas, she told me: We can make some cheese crisps.
I said no. I was having tacos.
At least three people walked by and asked me if they were satisfying. I smiled wholeheartedly. A daughter of one my parent’s friends sat next to me and told me she had tried to be a vegetarian, but only lasted a week.
I asked why she had done it and she said, “I just started thinking about things more. After some thought, it [vegetarianism] finally made sense."
If I could glow, I’d be glowing.
Sure, maybe I was little saddened that she didn’t go through with it. But having someone understand — just understand — why I’ve made such a choice is what perpetuates happiness.
As my Godfather returned from an errand, I went to him and told him in Spanish, the tacos were delicious.
It’s finally my turn to do the joking.
Turning to vegetarianism, to me at least, is a very personal choice. It’s a diet that isn’t versatile. It’s a lifestyle, and in the end, it hasn’t cost my family anything, with the exception of pride.
Reach the writer at email@example.com or via Twitter @NoemiPossible