personal essay

This Month We’re Celebrating the Afro-Latinx Experience, One Dish at a Time

published Sep 15, 2021
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For many Latinx folks living in the United States, having a dual identity — one foot in and one foot out of the culture — is a way of life. Navigating that can be difficult, but I find that the simplest way to stay true to my Puerto Rican and Afro-Caribbean roots is through food. I love making dishes that I grew up eating that remind me of loved ones. Many recipes were passed down from generation to generation, adapted by the cooks before me and then tweaked again by me to make them my own.

Food is an intimate thing for many, and something that’s almost sacred and ritualistic to people who take it seriously. So when I was approached to guest edit this Hispanic and Latinx Heritage Month project with Kitchn, hundreds of thoughts raced through my mind: How do we feature a variety of foods, cultures, and people with a limited amount of space and time? How do we share how special and important certain dishes are to us? By highlighting Afro-Latinx chefs and cooks, I wanted to make the conscious effort to showcase those who are unfortunately often left out of the food media conversation the most. Granted, I’ve heard my fair share of “listening and learning” from many folks in social media circles, and amplifying others has rightfully picked up the pace over the last few years, but we still have a long way to go.

In many industries, particularly the culinary industry, women of color are constantly at the very bottom of the ranks, often being the least paid and the most overworked. According to CNBC, as of 2020, Latinas earn $0.55 to every dollar paid to white men. Our equal pay day falls on October 29, which, ironically enough, falls after Hispanic and Latinx Heritage Month ends. This means that we have to work further into the year (frankly, near the end of it) just to earn the same pay that white men received the previous year, all while being celebrated by the same companies that don’t pay us enough. A little eye-opening and jarring, right? The double-edged sword of racism and sexism we face in the world is amplified by our melanin, language, and country of origin.

Inequalities aside, we still show up and do the work. We share our pride by staying true to who we are and making room for future generations along the way, clearing out space at the table for everyone to join us. My personal experiences in the culinary industry have molded me into the cook that I am today — especially when it comes to addressing accessibility and gatekeeping in the mainstream food media world. I wanted to share my honest thoughts with everyone and highlight other Latinas who don’t shy away from being outspoken about their work, how difficult it is, and navigating the two worlds we live in. Some of us only speak Spanglish, some of us have never been to our homelands, and some of us identify more with one culture than another. Some of us don’t look how others expect us to look, some of us have to remind others that we fully understand Spanish, and unfortunately some of us often struggle with having to prove our Latinidad and/or Blackness within our very own communities. We shouldn’t be pigeonholed by what determines who we are and what we’re capable of — especially in and out of the kitchen.

So when it comes to cultural dishes, we often find ourselves in the crosshairs of purists. We all know the ones: folks who think that there’s only one way to make a dish (often the way their mama or abuela made it) without considering the many factors that go into how these recipes were even created in the first place. Here’s an example: Before rushing through and immediately determining that something I cook isn’t Puerto Rican enough (an actual subject line from an email I recently received from an internet stranger), take a moment to expand that perspective a bit. What exactly determines this? Who is judging exactly how [insert country here] enough a recipe is? Maybe some of our dishes don’t feature a certain ingredient because we couldn’t source it where we live. Or maybe some of us didn’t grow up eating the same meal you did. Dietary restrictions? Sure. Personal preferences? Of course. My favorite response to the recipe purists comes from cookbook author and food documentarian Von Diaz: “It’s Puerto Rican because I made it.” It’s a tried-and-true mantra I strive to abide by in the kitchen.

In my personal experience, I find that creating dishes I grew up eating and that my parents grew up on is my simple way of staying connected to the island and to my ancestors. My homesickness, often exacerbated by the lack of time or resources available to make it back home, is only compounded by the fact that I can’t find certain items where I live here in Charleston, South Carolina. So when I am able to find something rare — like annatto paste, an insanely green plantain, or a bag of dried pigeon peas — it’s pure, unfiltered excitement. The dedication to staying as authentic as possible can be a bit of a hindrance (one that I share with some other Stateside Latinx cooks), but accepting the fact that it’s not going to be exactly like it is back home makes it even better. It makes it mine.

When I was growing up, I faced the often-shared embarrassment that many immigrant kids deal with: having our lunches made fun of by the other kids who didn’t know what rice, beans, or plantains were. Whether I liked it or not, I carried these experiences with me into the kitchen. I carried the confusion of where to sit at the lunch table in a Southern elementary school. And in turn, that shame and embarrassment of not fitting in is what ended up fueling my immense pride and passion in what I share with others. We should all be proud of where we’re from and what we contribute to the industry. And the most ironic part about it? The majority of what we’ve been eating for years often gets transformed into viral, Instagrammable trends: I’m looking at you, avocado toast.

Five Afro-Latinx Cooks, Five Recipes from Community

The cooks and recipe developers showcased in this Latinx and Hispanic Heritage Month series live all over the country, and represent different communities throughout the diaspora: Honduras, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, and Puerto Rico. These cooks share their take on dishes that we all grew up eating. There’s batata casserole, a Caribbean twist on the Southern sweet potato holiday classic; slow-stewed oxtail, a savory and familiar braise that many islanders are familiar with; a veganized version of a Puerto Rican street-food favorite; a stuffed plantain that takes inspiration from Creole culture; my comforting arroz con bacalao; and a gorgeous dessert that highlights the joy of dining together and ending a meal with a strong coffee. Because let’s face it: There’s always room for café.

These dishes are all very different, but seeing the connections among the recipes is truly special. Noticing the nuances that the recipes share — the ingredients, how some of the food is prepared, the attachment we have to our families and identities — is what makes our food so beautiful. We all have something to bring to the table that can express our multi-layered identities without limiting ourselves in the process. Our cultural foods are often woven into and throughout our lives, helping us stay connected with our ancestors and our loved ones and show love towards others. All of this speaks to my goal for this project: to show that our food across the diaspora isn’t one-dimensional — and neither are we.

Credit: Photo: Amber Gress; Food Styling: Krystal Rack; Prop Styling: Vanessa Vazquez

This delicious combination of rice and salted cod fish is one of my favorite things.

Get my recipe: Easy, Comforting Arroz con Bacalao Immediately Transports Me to Puerto Rico

Credit: Photo: Amber Gress; Food Styling: Krystal Rack; Prop Styling: Vanessa Vazquez

Mildly sweet batata, coconut milk custard, and a crispy pecan-coconut topping are the stars of this fresh take on classic sweet potato casserole.

Get the recipe: Creamy, Coconutty Batata Casserole Is a Delicious Combination of My Cultures

Credit: Photo: Amber Gress; Food Styling: Krystal Rack; Prop Styling: Vanessa Vazquez

The key to tender oxtails is braising them low and slow for hours. When they’re done, you’re rewarded with tender meat drenched in a rich brown sauce. Serve over rice for the perfect dinner.

Get the recipe: My Grandma’s Recipe for Rich, Tender Stewed Oxtails Is the Most Comforting Dish I Know

Credit: Photo: Amber Gress; Food Styling: Krystal Rack; Prop Styling: Vanessa Vazquez

Rellenos de papas get a vegan makeover in this delicious recipe.

Get the recipe: These Crunchy, Creamy Mushroom-Stuffed Potato Balls Are My Take on a Puerto Rican Classic

Credit: Photo: Amber Gress; Food Styling: Krystal Rack; Prop Styling: Vanessa Vazquez

My Honduran and Louisiana roots come together in this fun dish.

Get the recipe: These Cajun Stuffed Plantains Are a Delicious Ode to My Heritage

Credit: Photo: Amber Gress; Food Styling: Krystal Rack; Prop Styling: Vanessa Vazquez

Crispy cookies drizzled with coffee syrup, fluffy dulce de leche filling, and crunchy sesame candies come together in this towering treat.

Get the recipe: This Espresso-Infused Icebox Cake Was Inspired by Puerto Rican Coffee Culture