September 15, 2012

Musings on the Eve of Mexican Independence Day | Binational Family Conversations on Race and Identity

Tonight is the eve of Mexican Independence Day.
According to Wikipedia, "Mexico, in the second article of its Constitution, is defined as a "pluricultural" nation in recognition of the diverse ethnic groups that constitute it, and in which the indigenous peoples are the original foundation." 
So, like its sister country to the north, Mexico is a free state that shook off its European colonial monarchy, that also shares a vast diversity of native North American as well as Old World cultural heritage. But in my opinion, Mexico appear to differ from the U.S. in that a smaller percentage of its people seem to make a point of embracing their racial roots.
My observations are probably skewed by where I've lived previously in the U.S.—mostly in liberal urban areas, and now Mexico—in a region characterized by heavy colonial influence compared to states like Oaxaca or Chiapas where indigenous influence is stronger.
But either way, I’ve always noticed how differently people choose to identify themselves culturally or racially. I know that whole college courses and even degrees are dedicated to this type of topic, and I've had very little formal study of it. But as a dual citizen with two feet planted in both my birth country of the U.S. and my home country of Mexico, with a binational and bilingual daughter and a Mexican husband, these type of questions will never cease to pique my interest. 
A few days ago, my little family and I were listening to music while having lunch. My 2 year old daughter, sitting in her highchair, began bobbing her head to the rhythms of Jay-Z & Alicia Keys' Empire State of Mind.
My husband Margo asked her if she was from New York, and then answered for her "no, you're from Queretaro."
I said, "yeah, well, she's from NY through me—her mama's from NY!" We both laughed. 
As I went over to stir the nopales I was cooking, I thought about how there are millions of people who call themselves African American, even though they themselves aren't from Africa nor do they even have recent relatives from there, although their distant ancestors came from there many generations ago.
"Can you imagine if someone's great-great-great-great-grandparent was from Mexico, do you think they'd call themselves Mexican American?" I asked my husband.
To use myself as an example, my great-grandparents on my father's side are from Mexico, and I even became a naturalized Mexican citizen last year through marriage with my husband. But I haven't yet referred to myself as Mexican American.
Margo is a born and bred Queretano. "Yeah right...they'd probably call themselves something else," he said. 
"Probably white," I replied, "Or Hispanic," I ventured. 
I was thinking of my own "whiteness." After growing up of German and Mexican ancestry in a heavily Italian and Polish neighborhood in Upstate New York, most people assumed Salgado was Italian. On college applications, I checked off "other" and wrote in 3 different races—white/Caucasian, Hispanic, and Native American, to reflect my mixed European ancestry and the mixed mestizo ancestry. Mestizo refers to the indigenous Mexican Indian/Spanish blend that characterizes the great majority of Mexican people, but many people call Mexicans or other Latin Americans "Spanish." In fact, that's the definition of the regularly used term Hispanic. 
Why is that? Why do people choose to identify themselves with one ancestry over another? The answers should be fairly obvious, but there seem to be a lot of exceptions to the rule, depending on where you're from or where you grow up.
"Does that mean that most Mexican Americans have less pride in their heritage than most African Americans?" I asked my husband. I wasn't thinking of the Chicano pride movement back in the 70's, but modern Mexican Americans by definition (such as myself)—I'm not sure if the pride in cultural heritage extends as uniformly to 3rd or 4th generation individuals these days as it does with other minority groups.
"I think so," he said. "I think it's because we have a lot of discrimination in this culture. A lot of Mexicans are embarrassed to say they're indios (Indians or native peoples) because they've been prejudiced against them for so long. So people say they've got a Spanish grandfather, grandmother, etc."
Margo's family didn't exactly raise him to take pride in his Otomi roots, in fact they whipped him to get him to go to Catholic church every Sunday and kiss his godparents' hands. But somehow he saw past the religious zealotry to become more of a free-thinker as a teenager.
"I wonder if because of the civil rights movement in the U.S., people feel safer to show off their heritage," I mused. "If you have an indigenous grandfather or grandmother, you're likely to tell everyone about it, be proud of it."
And yet, in the next song, Lakota singer/songwriter John Trudell laments the isolation of native people of the United States. "Industrial reservations, tyranny stakes its claims. Blue Indians, emotional siege in civilized state....glory and gold lead a desperate chase. Blue Indian, melting pot, ruling classes, haves and have nots." It's from his album Blue Indians, and it's got a lot of good food for thought.
Today for our Independence Eve dinner, my husband made vegetable noodle soup and bean tacos while I worked on finishing a translation for a botanical garden in Sinaloa state. The document I was working on described historical figures in Mexican botany—from Mexican explorers to the Jesuits to Mexican female scientists and even a researcher from Arizona.
When I told my husband about what I was working on, he wondered aloud ¨You mean like conquistadores? The enslavers?"
"No..." I admonished him. "The people were just interested in plants." Safe assumption, right? Being a plant person myself...
Instead of heading out to the festivities downtown, we avoided the crowds and drunk drivers and went for a walk out in his father's cornfield. Back home, I made Mexican chocolate.
I can't claim to truly understand the reasons behind why we choose to embrace some parts of ourselves or why we wish to cast aside the others. But I am glad that I can ask these questions and explore them freely with my partner so we can at least come close to modeling honesty, respect, and pride for our ancestry with our daughter wherever possible—no matter how tangled or frayed our roots end up throughout our lives.

September 13, 2012

A Closer Look at My Nutrition | My First Few Weeks with "The Diet Cure" by Julia Ross)

It's been an interesting "food month." Last month I read a compelling book called "The Diet Cure" by Julia Ross, MA. director of Recovery Systems in Northern California. It was so compelling that I decided to test if I had a gluten insensitivity and went off gluten for a week. Today I'm reintroducing it to "see what happens." It just happens to coincide with a visit we're getting from our very own private chef—yes, you read right: I won a raffle at a local supermarket and a private chef is coming to our home tonight to prepare food using their special cooking equipment (which they'll of course try to sell us and I'll politely decline...but it'll be fun in any case :-)

About the wheat-free week, as I said on my Facebook page when I first decided to put this book into practice, "I'm not really a "diet" person—I buck the fads in favor of common sense & nutrition. That being said, I do have some "issues" I'd love to improve: extra pounds, joint pain, and occasional depression. The book I'm currently reading has me convinced that there's more than meets the eye to 'everything in moderation.' As a result, yours truly is now investigating her body's relationship with refined sugar & wheat (among a number of other substances)."

And it's true: I'm not really a diet person. But I have struggled with being anywhere from slightly to moderately overweight for a good part of my life. And many of my relatives have suffered from obesity and obesity-related illnesses such as diabetes or low thyroid on both sides of my family. So although I'm not attracted to fad diets, or crash dieting, I am very aware of what I put into my body and am a big health advocate. Most of my friends know that I'm an amateur herbalist and swear by my Nutritional Healing book for being able to get rid of ailments, like nixing colds with Vitamin C and garlic.

So it wasn't too much of a stretch for me to be convinced by Ross that there are eight basic nutritional imbalances that individuals can have which can affect their health—both physical and mental.  She asserts that by answering a series of questionnaires you can start to detemine which imbalances might be affecting you.

What were most interesting to me were arguments that sugar and refined grain products like white flour can be addictive. Ross discusses the brain's chemical reactions to certain food substances and why we can become "addicted" to foods that are actually adverse to our health—in a very similar way as we do to substances like drugs or alcohol. The chapter about re-regulating naturally mood enhancing brain chemicals through healthy eating (NOT undereating the right foods or overeating the wrong foods) was most fascinating to me. She also went on to talk about other imbalances that often go undetected, such as thyroid imbalances or systemic yeast overgrowth, which are harder to diagnose but that plague people all the same until they undergo comprehensive testing.

In my case, I decided to first cut out extra sugar—it seemed the easiest, fastest, and most important thing to try. It wasn't as hard as I thought it would be, and I think it'll still be okay to consume it in moderation, just with more awareness. Toward the end of the first week, I cut out refined grains products—white flour and white rice—also, not as hard as I expected. The reason why it wasn't so hard was because I was making sure to consume a lot of protein, vegetables, fruit, and healthy fats. Ross believes that undereating/malnutrition is more common than we think and leads to a depressed metabolism. This is a tactic I never quite understood, or at least couldn't get to work for me, but I think it's because I wasn't eating enough nutrient rich foods.

I wasn't doing this for the weight loss effect, just for the health-enhancing effect—Ross believes that gastrointestinal upset and joint pain, two things I often complain of, can be caused by certain foods. But I didn't mind when, two weeks later, I checked the scale and saw that I'd lost 5 pounds.

This next week, I go off dairy, again, "to see what happens." I've gotten a skin allergy test before for hayfever allergens, and it came up negative for most major food groups, except a slight allergy to soy. But Ross explains that some internal adverse reactions to foods go undetected by the skin tests, which is why they promote the elimination diet approach. I like this approach in that it's learning a little more about my body, and I'm only doing one food at a time, not all at once. I especially like the unexpected effect it's had on my cooking—having to go a week without bread, pasta, or crackers meant I had to obtain a few more interesting grains for my kitchen like amaranth flour and make garbanzo flour patties. I made my own mayonnaise with a fresh egg from our chickens and olive oil, great because regular mayo is made out of soybean oil (and even better for how delicious homemade mayo is!). I also made Thai food for the first time in years to go over brown rice. Any excuse to spice up the action in my kitchen is welcome around here, and if it has the pleasant side effect of losing a few kilos in the process, all the better!

I'm a little nervous about the upcoming week without cow's milk because I am quite beholden to my dairy products—yogurt, cheese, kefir, etc—I love probiotics. But I got some goat cheeses to hold me over, and if the wheat-free week was any indication that depriving yourself of one food can lead to embracing several others, then I should be excited about what the week ahead has in store.